Editorial Note: The following development is good news for the last forests, but it doesn’t appear to address the issue of endangered species and biodiversity. That is one of the weak links in the current RSPO scheme of smoke and mirrors. Presently, palm growers and buyers can kill endangered species and still conform. They have gone to great lengths to dodge this bullet. One reason is that deforestation isn’t the only threat to these animals. Once removed from their homes, those that survive can never return for a snack or a drink of water. They are shot and killed. In some cases, bounties have been paid for dead orangutans. Sumatra is ground zero in this war over biodiversity, but this reckless and destructive industry is making similar impacts elsewhere around the tropics today.

Sustainable Palm Oil Fraud

Institutional investors worth trillions of dollars, along with some of the world’s largest consumer goods companies, have called on the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) to quickly plug loopholes in its palm oil certification standards.

In an open letter addressed to RSPO Secretary General Darrel Webber on June 1, investors and 16 other consumer goods giants such as Procter and Gamble (P&G) and Starbucks called on RSPO to ensure that by 2016, its principles and criteria certification were changed to include measures to conserve forests.

Suggestions by the letter’s authors included requirements on the conservation of areas considered as ‘High Carbon Stock,’ peatland protection, reporting in greenhouse gas emission, and ensuring that palm oil came from known sources.

RSPO, the trade association for the $44 billion a year palm oil industry, should raise its standards for company assessments on human rights standards and the conservation value of land.

RSPO administers a global sustainability certification for palm oil growers who comply with their standards on socially and environmentally responsible practices. A set of eight principles – including a commitment to transparency, conservation of natural resources, and legal compliance – and numerous other requirements constitute the ‘RSPO Standard’ for certification.

To date, RSPO has certified 12.65 million tons of palm oil – about 20 percent of the total global supply. More than 90 percent of certified palm oil originates from Malaysia and Indonesia, with Papua New Guinea, Brazil, and Colombia accounting for the remainder.

The certification guidelines were first introduced in 2007. They have been reviewed once from 2012 to 2013, and are due for another review in 2018. The task force carrying out these reviews comprises growers, environmental and social NGOs, and consumer goods companies such as Unilever.

deforestation and climate change

The letter’s authors noted that RSPO’s certification scheme is “uniquely positioned to support, promote, and enforce the widespread uptake of responsible and sustainable production practices across the palm oil industry.”

In its current state, the certification “does not include protections for some of the most critical externalities of palm oil production” such as the conversion of forest and peatlands, the letter added. (In fact, the RSPO scheme allows its members to trash ecosystems and biodiversity, while washing its hands with the purchase of green certificates. It’s like confession for environmental crimes. Say a few hail Mary’s and plants a few trees in Costa Rica. Call it even.)

Peatlands are wetlands that must be drained before cultivation. This process not only results in significant carbon emissions as peat dries and decomposes, it also increases the risk of forest fires and results in the land sinking, and eventually flooding, as it dries out.

Waiting till 2018 to plug these gaps “would be inconsistent with the imperatives of addressing deforestation, peatland conversion, and human rights violations swiftly and efficiently,” said the letter’s authors. They urged RSPO to bring the timeline forward to 2016.

Lucia von Reusner, shareholder advocate at Green Century Capital Management – one of the firms that organized the letter, along with the New York State Common Retirement Fund, said that companies and investors increasingly recognize that environmental degradation and conflict with local communities pose real risks to shareholder value. (Killing endangered species, including orangutans and tigers isn’t acceptable, either. Wildlife are not welcome on palm plantations. They are killed for returning to their former homes.)

“We are calling on RSPO to provide the assurance that strong protections are being upheld throughout palm oil supply chains,” she said. “Companies and investors increasingly recognize that widespread forest clearance degrades the environment and drives conflicts with local communities in ways that pose real risks to shareholder value.”

orangutan conservation

RSPO acknowledged the letter as an encouraging sign of a proactive push from the business community on making sustainable palm oil the norm. Stefano Savi, acting communication director, RSPO, said that the multi-stakeholder nature of RSPO meant that “at times, compromises are necessary to move forward and ensure buy-in of all stakeholder groups represented within the RSPO.”

Savi promised that RSPO was “taking all constructive comments on board,” and expressed confidence that a market transformation towards sustainable palm oil would be possible.

Environmental groups welcomed the investors’ letter too, saying it reinforced a message they had been trying to send to RSPO for a long time. Marcus Colchester, senior policy advisor of UK environmental group Forest People’s Programme told Eco-Business that as one of the members of the task force “profoundly disappointed by the way Indonesian and Malaysian growers blocked RSPO from adopting higher standards during the 2012-2013 revision process. None of these standards and declarations of intent mean anything if we continue to see forests despoiled, people shunted aside and lands taken without communities’ consent by aggressive planters,” he said.

RSPO Background & Update:

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is an industry body formed in 2004 with a mission to reassure consumers that palm oil bearing its certificate of approval is free from links with primary forest destruction, damage to endangered species’ habitats or abuses of the rights of indigenous peoples and communities. As you can see, just from the following links, the RSPO is severely lacking after 16 years of blowing smoke.

Certified ‘sustainable’ palm oil fields endanger mammal habitats and biodiverse tropical forests over 30 years. https://phys.org/news/2020-07-certified-sustainable-palm-oil-fields.html

2020 Bribery Case https://www.forestpeoples.org/en/palm-oil-rspo/press-release/2020/large-scale-bribery-and-illegal-land-use-violations-alleged-large

Earth.org supports sustainable palm oil in concept. Not there, yet. https://earth.org/how-palm-oil-contributes-to-environmental-destruction/

Environmental Investigation Agency: Who’s watching the Watchmen (2019) https://eia-international.org/news/palm-oil-watchdogs-sustainability-guarantee-is-still-a-destructive-con/

Environmental Investigation Agency: Who’s watching the Watchmen (2015): https://eia-international.org/report/who-watches-the-watchmen/

Mongabay Perspective (2020) https://news.mongabay.com/2020/08/palm-oil-certification-sustainable-rspo-deforestation-habitat-study/

Palm Oil and Biodiversity (2018) https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/jun/26/palm-oil-disastrous-for-wildlife-but-here-to-stay-experts-warn

Forbes http://www.forbes.com/sites/jwebb/2016/11/30/amnesty-international-slams-colgate-nestle-and-unilever-for-palm-oil-supply-chain-abuses/2/#456cd1564161

There is a better path forward than wholesale destruction and fraud.

climate change and deforestation

Sacred Seedlings is a global initiative to support forest conservation, reforestation, urban forestry, carbon capture, sustainable agriculture and wildlife conservation. Sustainable land management is critical to the survival of entire ecosystems.