Barbara Bramble: Working for positive change that lasts

The Roundtable for Sustainable Biofuels (RSB) services roll-out programme for Asia-Pacific brought Barbara Bramble, chair of the RSB steering board and international sustainability advocate, to Kuala Lumpur in early July. Amidst a packed schedule, she met with Siaw Mei Li and talked about why the RSB is possibly one of her most concrete achievements to date.


How has the RSB roll-out been going so far?

We’ve had two formal ones: one in Europe at the World Biofuels Market Conference in March and then the second here for the Asian market. In Europe, we had immediate interest. The EU passed two important regulations independently of the RSB, [under the EU Renewable Energy Directive, a 20% target was set for the use of energy from renewable sources by 2020 and a regulation was passed offering incentives for biofuels that meet a set of sustainability criteria] but we’re going to benefit from that because many producers who want to sell into the European market need to prove that they meet the EU criteria, and RSB certification will provide that proof.


What we were more interested in certifying were expansion plans for biofuels in many parts of the world, so we see a potential in the US, Canada, Brazil, and many parts of Latin America where there isn’t a particular biofuel sustainability requirement. The NGOs in those countries want there to be one. They don’t see a prospective law, so this voluntary system would be a way to fill that gap. 


Here in Malaysia several companies have been talking to us but most are waiting to see if there’s going to be a defined market for RSB-certified material. We’re just a few weeks behind in preparing a case on an actual certified operator – that’s what many producers are waiting to see and of course, they’re right to do that.



You mentioned that you fielded some good questions at the RSB roll-out here in Kuala Lumpur. Tell us about some of them.

The main question is always “Why should we do this?” from producers. Always. It’s fair. And our answer is, “Your markets are going to want this kind of certification at some point, either earlier or later, and we’re going to provide a good way to answer criticism.” 


Biofuels everywhere are subject to criticism. People think there’s a conflict between growing food and fuel products. So what we offer is a way out of the criticism, to prove that it’s not a problem.


What are the major ways in which biofuel production could adversely affect the environment in Asia?

The standards are the same all over the world and for all biofuel crops, so they all need to meet standards of not causing deforestation, air pollution or water shortages. We require third-party independent auditors to check on labour conditions, the treatment of women, treatment of land and air pollution problems and how much water they use. Plantations must prove through water quality and quantity analyses that they’re not messing [the area’s water/water supply] up.


People in other parts of the world worry about deforestation but Malaysia is probably not in that situation anymore because the plantations are long established and have no association with new deforestation. We have a strict cut-off date of January 2009 – no deforestation after that period.


If it’s an expanded or new operation, then they’ll have to prove that they didn’t cause loss of biological diversity and a large emission of greenhouse gases. The land rights of native peoples principle requires that any active dispute over land be resolved with free, prior and informed consent of the local people. 


What led you to your current work with the RSB?

My work with the RSB really began way before it existed. I was studying the question of biofuel expansion, the expectation of countries that were passing mandates requiring more biofuels, and what could be the consequences for land if all those mandates were met. I also organised some local consultations with civil society groups in Brazil and South Africa, who told us what they were worried about and I realised that there are ways to avoid [the potential problems] if the new expansion is directed to areas that need agricultural improvement.


At the end of 2006, the UN Foundation and the German NGO forum for environment and development had a conference on sustainability and biofuels; so I brought the results of consultations from Johannesburg and Sao Paulo and we had a very good discussion. At the end of it, the whole conference said, “We need to have standards for this.” Soon after that, we invited a group to be the kick-off board, and that’s how it all started. Recently-retired director- general of WWF Claude Martin was the chair for the first two years, then he wanted to really retire and so I was elected the chair of the board.


Tell us about some of the challenges you face in this role.

Negotiation is hard. On purpose we have seven chambers: the feedstock producers; the fuel producers; the end-users and financial institutions; labour unions; human rights groups; environmental groups; and experts, university professors, and UN and some government agencies – the last chamber doesn’t have a vote but they are advisory. So we have three against three: we don’t want to have a fight to vote because that means lack of consensus. We try to get all of our decisions by consensus… which is why it’s taken three to four years to get the standard and now to agree on the mechanism for the certification. 


We still have two issues left to decide: how a voluntary certification system can properly account for indirect land use change, and how we will allocate greenhouse gases for products that come as co-products, waste/residue products, and end-of-life products that are not the original reason for the crop. 


You’ve been involved in work for sustainable development in many developing countries. Give us an example of how this impacts gender equality and the ability of women to control key decisions affecting their lives and those of their families.

One of the most shocking statistics I ever came across was that when the Grameen Bank studied the results of microloans in Bangladesh, they found you could tell the difference between the kids of Grameen Bank borrowers and those who were not, and not because they could read or something – it’s because they were bigger. They were getting more food because the women who have resources are putting it into feeding their kids. The families that don’t have women controlling the resources have smaller children. 


You don’t wait around for the government to grant legal rights [to women] because even a tiny loan can make a difference so that she’s seen as being equal to a man.


What’s your favourite success story, or what keeps you going?

It’s funny, I just began to think about that recently. I’ve spent many years working for policy change, legal change, financial role change… There’s been ebbs and flows [in terms of the lasting tangible impact of work with various NGOs and the World Bank across the years]. I feel like you get two steps forward, one step back, and I found that the one thing in all these years that I’ve helped to create that’s a “real-life” thing… is the RSB. It’s got real roles, it’s got a certification system… as soon as we get a real-life certificate, which I think will be very soon, I will feel like that’s maybe the most concrete thing that I’ve ever been able to do. 


Where’s home for you? 

I’m based in DC but I spent many years away because my parents were in the foreign service, so I’ve travelled since I was very young and had some language opportunities most Americans don’t have. I was blessed by this wonderful childhood and came back to Washington after I’d finished university. I’ve been there ever since. 


What do you read when you don’t have to read reports?

Nothing anymore! I used to read novels. I’m actually reading a book about the political history of Nepal because I was just there but that is the first non-work book I have read in a year – it’s really embarrassing. I do read a lot of newspapers and journals and reports and, boy, that’s enough.