Results of the pilot with Olam on a risk-based approach for advancing sustainability in rubber production in Ivory Coast


During November 2018, Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN) with the help of Centre d' Etudes, Formation, Conseils et Audits (CEFCA), a SAN member and local technical partner, conducted a pilot using a risk-based approach to assess key sustainability issues in smallholder rubber sourcing in Ivory Coast. The objective of this study was to assess a proposed risk framework on ground for identifying and further characterizing key sustainability issues among natural rubber supply chains. The results will be used to further develop Rubber Sustainability Standard criteria for segregating any identified unsustainable rubber from Olam sourcing supply chain.

The risk-based, jurisdictional approach has evolved as an alternative to the conventional mechanisms of farm-based interventions, like audits. These audits face scaling-up challenges in sectors that are characterized by large numbers of small producers, mainly due to audits' complexity, pass/fail approach, and costs. A risk-based approach is a cost-effective solution to identify the main sustainability challenges in rubber production and allow for more effort to be put into addressing or mitigating the issues as compared to a compliance focused approach.

The pilot focused on the most critical issues for sustainable rubber production in Ivory Coast:

  1. Deforestation and encroachment on conservation areas

  2. Land conflicts

  3. Child labor

  4. Legal compliance

  5. Farmer income

  6. Living conditions

  7. Pesticides


Ivory Coast currently produces around 600k tons of rubber per year and the forecast is that this will double within the next six years. The total area planted with rubber in the country is estimated to be around 550k hectares, with 52% of this area composed of immature rubber plantations.

More than 90% of rubber producers in the country are smallholders, with an average area of four hectares, who usually commercialize their product through processors or cooperatives. Medium and large producers tend to sell their production directly to rubber companies.


Our work

The project approach was to commence with broader research on selected issues, then narrow the focus through interviews with high-level stakeholders until reaching local stakeholders and carrying out farm-level assessments.

 Analysis of publicly available information concentrated on issues in Ivory Coast specifically related to rubber production. Part of this included the evaluation of deforestation rates and trends over the past years, rubber production and plantation establishment trends, and analysis of land use data. Examples of high-level stakeholders include government agencies such as SODEFOR (Société de développement des forêts), national not-for-profit organizations, and commercial entity representatives.

At the local level, more than 50 rubber farmers were interviewed from a range of plantation sizes in the two main rubber producing regions in the country. Interviews were carried out with the directors of eight different cooperatives, some of which were focused solely on rubber and some which also had operated with significant volumes of cocoa and coffee. SAN also carried out field assessments of five rubber farms ranging from two to 100 hectares in size, four of which were large operations. SAN also interviewed workers from rubber plantations to explore the issue of child labor and working conditions. The interviews with farmers, cooperatives and workers had the objective of understanding their perspectives of the different risks identified in rubber production, and constituted the single largest effort of the pilot.

The results

Based on the information collected, SAN defined a risk level of each key issue assessed and developed specific recommendations to address them or, at least minimize their impact.

For example, on issue of deforestation and encroachment into protected area, SAN adopts comprehensive methodology including stakeholders interview and land use change analysis to determine risk level linked to rubber cultivation. Considering the limited area of primary forests in the country, current low prices for rubber, processing capacity and export quotas, the current overall risk of deforestation for establishing rubber plantations can be considered low.

 Given that most tree cover loss since 2001 has been due to shifting agriculture and that low rubber prices from 2013 onwards did not provide much of an incentive to establish new plantings, the risk of natural forests being converted to rubber plantations in the recent past can also be considered low. Understanding the extent and quality of forests in private properties remains a challenge, and there may be some risk in larger holdings, especially if rubber prices increase in the future. In terms of past deforestation, it will be important to establish a reference date for the conversion of natural forests, to be able to better understand and deal with the risk of past deforestation. Based on the interviews with SODEFOR, farmers and cooperatives, the risk of rubber production within protected areas is also considered low. Ivory Coast passed a new Forest Code in 2014 and is revising the decrees which will enable its implementation.

 Ivory Coast’s ratification of ILO Convention 138 on Child Labor means that the reference age for child workers in the country is 14 years old. In terms of child labour, producers, cooperative representatives, and the vast majority of workers interviewed consistently stated that there is no child labor in rubber production. However, a small number of workers indicated that they have seen cases of children involved in rubber production in the past, working with their older brothers.

 SAN followed these leads until it was satisfied that the likelihood of child labour in rubber production in the study areas was low, although there are risk factors that should be monitored. Current low prices for rubber may encourage increased use of family labor and the risk of child labor. Although child labor is present in other agricultural commodities in the country and current commodity prices may put increased negative pressure on the issue, the level of skill required for tapping seems to be an effective deterrent for its occurrence in rubber production. However, given the record of child labor in other agricultural sectors, input by some of the interviewed workers and the severity of the issue, the overall risk of child labor should be considered low to medium.

 SAN repeated this drill-down approach from researching broad risks to assessing their occurrence at a local level for the seven risk indicators mentioned above. The two main products of the pilot are an assessment of how such a risk-based approach can contribute to tackle sustainability challenges in rubber production and specific recommendations to Olam’s operations in Ivory Coast.

Based on the results of the pilot, SAN believes that a risk-based approach is a cost-effective solution to identify the main sustainability challenges, for Ivory Coast rubber production and helps define actions to tackle them to advance sustainability at scale. As a responsible buyer, Olam will further expand its implementation of Olam’s Farmer Information System (OFIS), an in house mobile application that trace and track production information of rubber farmers, additional data is designed based on risks identified through the pilot.

Designing interventions according to the different risk levels in an entire supply base, rather than a pass/fail farm compliance approach, is expected to be a more efficient way of improving sustainability issues in rubber production.

Nancy De Lemos