The globalization of food systems has created new challenges for sustainability governance. Voluntary certification schemes, or eco-labels, have emerged as the primary mechanism to improve production practices in complex commodity supply chains. However promising, these programs are difficult to assess in practice, and evidence of their effectiveness is mixed. In the oil palm sector, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) has become the standard for sustainable production but there has been no evaluation of whether certification actually improves social and environmental practices on farms. To our knowledge, this study provides the first farm-level assessment of certification programs in the oil palm sector by focusing on RSPO and Organic (IFOAM) certified smallholders in Magdalena, Colombia. We conducted field surveys to evaluate management practices using a case-control pair-wise matching approach and non-parametric tests to assess outcome variables between certified and non-certified groups. We found evidence for better environmental practices among certified producers including the substitution of synthetic fertilizers with organics, less agrochemical use, and larger areas of farms being set-aside for conservation. Socio-economic outcomes were mixed, with certified producers paying higher wages, but employing fewer workers due to lower yields. Price premiums were an important motivation for smallholders to both join and remain in certification schemes. In the degraded oil palm landscapes of Colombia and elsewhere in Latin America, certification standards could be improved by including provisions for increased habitat restoration on plantations and smallholder plots. We find that certification is making progress but is not a panacea for transforming the industry. Going forward, new strategies should be sought in tandem with certification to overcome smallholder informality, enhance inclusion, and capture more value in sustainable supply chains.
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