Beyond the ‘bubble tower paradox’: How a jurisdictional approach can make commodities more sustainable

Lessons from key food sectors to harmonize and scale greener production
Rengas River landscape in Tenggulun, Tamiang, Nanggroe Aceh Darusalam, Indonesia. Photo by Ricky Martin/CIFOR-ICRAF

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As countries around the world work out how to meet international climate and biodiversity targets, the lens is shifting from traditional project- or programme-based conservation strategies – which can end up simply displacing unsustainable practices to different locations – towards more holistic approaches that employ and make space for a range of sustainable land uses within a given jurisdiction. 

Into this milieu, the jurisdictional approach (JA) – which entails integrated landscape management that’s based on policy-relevant boundaries and is designed to advance high-level government involvement – has emerged as an increasingly popular strategy towards fulfilling climate pledges.

On 12 October 2023, at the GLF Nairobi 2023 Hybrid Conference: A New Vision for Earth, speakers from the Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF) shared findings from various JA projects in the oil palm and agriculture sectors in Indonesia and beyond, as well as learnings that could help strengthen and scale out existing JA initiatives.

Sonya Dewi, CIFOR-ICRAF’s director for Asia, began the session by setting the context on scaling JAs for sustainable palm oil and agriculture. She categorized JAs into three types: those driven by external value propositions, internally motivated multistakeholder cooperation, and a combination of both. She explained that CIFOR-ICRAF’s work in this arena focuses largely on the second type, and on providing technical analysis and data to promote sustainability.

Dewi also shared several case studies, including a green growth plan in South Sumatra that involved multiple stakeholders, performance indicators linked to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and the application of Lumens software for intervention mapping. 

“The main constraints of a JA can be addressed through data, technical capacity, and multistakeholder forums,” she said. “And while some of the impacts are yet to be seen, I think we are getting there through the process.”

CIFOR-ICRAF scientist Beria Leimona expanded on the issues of motivation and leadership, as well as the importance of combining external incentives with internally motivated stakeholders. She shared lessons from the Sustainable Farming in Tropical Asian Landscapes (SFITAL) programme, which is piloting JA for sustainable cacao farming in South Sulawesi.

CIFOR-ICRAF senior scientist Herry Purnomo emphasized the ways in which a JA can help a range of stakeholders to work together, express their perspectives, and find common ground – including by distributing the short-term costs of sustainable transformation among stakeholders, making sustainability more feasible. 

“Sustainability is not an easy job – it is complex and costly, and we can’t expect stakeholders to do it alone,” he said, adding that such an approach requires flexibility and careful listening. “Even though we have a global understanding of sustainability, we also need to adapt it to meet local needs.”

Leony Aurora is the landscapes and partnerships lead at the Tropical Forest Alliance (TFA) – a decade-old multistakeholder platform that aims to facilitate public-private collaboration and dialogue to address deforestation challenges linked to commodity production. She shared findings from a study conducted with global nonprofit organization CDP to understand why and how downstream industrial companies are eager to translate their commitments into action in areas distant from their operations.

In the palm oil sector, 62 downstream industrial companies have taken landscape-scale action and supported 37 initiatives – and the numbers are growing, according to Aurora. 

To scale it further, “the outcomes need to be clear at the landscape and jurisdictional scale,” she said. “We would like to see how companies can play a bigger role in supporting actions and goals that are determined by stakeholders, particularly local ones.”

Melissa Thomas, senior director on sustainable palm oil at Conservation International, shared some of the organization’s work, including a project in the Tapanuli Selatan regency of North Sumatra. It aims to support independent smallholders through training to enhance farm management and productivity; certification through Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil (ISPO) and Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) standards; as well as conservation and restoration activities. The project also works with the regency-level forum platform to foster collaboration across various stakeholders in the palm oil sector.

“The palm oil supply chain is dynamic, in terms of the producers feeding it to the mills, and the mills feeding to traders, and downstream companies are recognizing that there is an important need to address these things at scale and in a more coordinated manner, rather than trying to tackle supplier-by-supplier engagements,” Thomas said. “This dynamism can help build a case for company investment in jurisdictional approaches.”

CIFOR-ICRAF scientist Emily Gallagher then shifted the discussion to sustainable palm oil in Ghana, where the commodity is a traditional crop. While the country is still in the early stages of developing a national framework for oil palm, Ghana has made significant progress in organizing multistakeholder governance frameworks for zero-deforestation commodities at the landscape and jurisdictional levels, she said.

Gallagher noted that while the formal sector is leading the way on sustainability, there is also a substantial informal sector that needs to be acknowledged and included. 

“There are women who have been processing oil palm for generations, and that forms the backbone of the artisanal oil palm sector – although many of the mills themselves are owned by men,” she said. “There are various approaches that can maintain women’s role in the oil palm economy, which are appreciated by the districts and play into how much they are willing to support the presence of the companies and the multiplier effects that they have across the economy.”

Marcello De Maria, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Reading, shared insights from work on sustainable soy production in Brazil – the largest soy producer in the world. Over the past two decades, the sector experienced a rapid multiplication of approaches and standards that sorely needed to be harmonized, he said.

“We found ourselves in what I call a ‘bubble tower paradox’: If everyone is developing their own standard, then there is no need for a standard anymore because everyone is following their own rules – and that’s a problem,” De Maria said. “So we need fewer standards than that, and in the meantime we also need to cover more of production than that which is currently devoted to sustainability.” 

JAs offer clear pathways to make this happen, according to De Maria.

Hendrik Segah, associate professor at the University of Palangka Raya in Indonesia, wrapped up the discussion by emphasizing the potential of JAs to promote sustainability in the palm oil and agricultural sectors while aligning with the Sustainable Development Goals and green growth principles. He also highlighted that elements like “secure land tenure, robust decision-making mechanisms, inclusiveness, and enforced obligations have key roles in the ongoing success of JAs in multiple sectors around the world.”


This article and event are part of CIFOR-ICRAF research on scaling jurisdictional approaches in the Indonesian palm oil sector. The research is funded by the Walmart Foundation. Its findings, conclusions, and recommendations do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Walmart Foundation.

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