The Quest for Green Palm Oil

By Diana Parker on 10:11 am Nov 15, 2013
Category Environment

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An Indonesian farmer who plants oil palm intercropping with rice, cleans her field at Indragiri Hulu River in Kuala Cenaku, Riau province, on May 7, 2013. (EPA Photo)

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil’s 11th annual meeting in Medan kicked off this week amid harsh criticism from environmental, human rights and labor groups claiming the organization has failed in its mandate to make sustainable and rights-respecting palm oil the norm.

Thousands of protesters representing 10 labor unions gathered outside the meetings on Tuesday to deliver a set of demands to RSPO secretary general Darrel Webber regarding widespread labor abuses they claim are occurring on plantations owned by RSPO members.

Decent wages, working conditions, and the freedom to establish or join a union are all guaranteed by the RSPO’s Principles & Criteria — a set of standards member companies are expected to meet. But on the ground, serious abuses such as child labor, violence against women and arbitrary firings continue to occur, the Indonesian Trade Unions Alliance (Serbundo) said in a statement.

And, according to the alliance, workers who try to establish unions “are faced with intimidation, displacement, wage cuts and are even fired.”

“As a certification body to palm oil plantation companies, RSPO have failed to resolve any violation done by RSPO member plantation companies,” Serbundo said, adding that the body has never reprimanded a member company for abuses against plantation workers.

“The RSPO certification has become a tool to [make] legitimate environmental and human rights violations in palm oil plantations.”

The RSPO was formed in 2004 as a coalition of NGOs and companies linked to the palm oil industry. This includes growers and producers as well as companies that trade in palm oil, finance palm oil companies, or buy palm oil to use it in their products.

Companies who join must meet standards including those laid out in the RSPO’s Principles & Criteria, which were designed to minimize harm to the environment and society. Members can then be certified as “sustainable” by undergoing an audit to guarantee that their operations meet RSPO standards.

Calls for stronger action

Unions were protesting in part because they feel labor is not adequately represented in the RSPO certification process. They demanded the body form a Labor Working Group and involve workers and local communities in the certification process. They also urged the RSPO to revoke certification for plantations found violating the rights of workers, farmers or local communities.

And unions are not the only ones frustrated by a perceived lack of action on the part of the RSPO to penalize companies found violating standards.

On Thursday last week, a coalition of NGOs, including UK-based Forest Peoples Program (FPP) and Sawit Watch in Bogor, released a 400-page report detailing numerous cases where RSPO member companies had failed to gain consent from local communities before planting oil palms on their land.

Amid the criticism, however, it appears that many NGOs are not yet ready to give up on the RSPO. According to Marcus Colchester, a senior policy advisor at FPP, the RSPO executive board and many palm oil growers are taking last week’s report seriously.

“Rather than rejecting it they seem to have accepted that they have a responsibility to address the problems that our study exposes,” Colchester told the Jakarta Globe on Wednesday.

He added that, while they “find serious deficiencies in the RSPO’s systems for addressing complaints and resolving disputes … the RSPO still provides much needed options for communities to get redress.”

Steps toward change?

Discussing ways to improve the RSPO’s complaints mechanism is on the agenda at the meetings this week. Today the organization’s general assembly will vote on a resolution to guarantee fairness, transparency and impartiality in the complaints resolution process.

Specifically, the resolution calls for a separation of executive powers to minimize conflict of interest in the complaints process. It also raises concerns about the large backlog of complaints that have been filed but not addressed, saying that poses a serious threat to the environment, local communities, and the RSPO’s integrity.

“In order to strengthen access to redress by affected communities, the RSPO has established a Dispute Settlement Facility (DSF) — the first of its kind for a standard system,” Danielle Morley, European director of outreach & engagement at the RSPO, told the Jakarta Globe on Wednesday.

Morley confirmed that improving the implementation of this dispute resolution would be discussed in Medan. She added that the RSPO had strengthened its commitment toward human rights earlier this year when it adopted its revised principles and criteria.

The revised criteria include requirements that member companies must have policies to counter corruption and prevent human rights abuses in their operations and a ban on the use of forced labor.

New ways to clean up the industry’s act

The palm oil industry has long been criticized not just for labor and human rights abuses but also for the environmental consequences of palm oil expansion into forests and peatlands.

According to a series of papers released by the RSPO ahead of the meetings this week, 3.5 million hectares of forest was converted to palm oil plantations in Indonesia, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea from 1990 to 2010.

Expansion of palm oil onto peatlands was relatively smaller, the papers showed, but as peatlands store large amounts of carbon this was still a big part of palm oil’s carbon footprint. Between 2006 and 2010, an average of 88 million tons of carbon dioxide per year was released due to conversion of peatlands for plantations. The creation of the RSPO was one response to concerns about the sustainability of the industry, but lately many environmental groups are saying that is not enough .

In September, US-based Rainforest Action Network launched a campaign against what it calls “conflict palm oil,” aimed at major snack food producers who use palm oil in their products. RAN is urging these companies to make sure none of the palm oil entering their supply chains was linked to deforestation, child labor, displacement of communities or peatland destruction.

Some of these companies have engaged with RAN and seem willing to look for ways to eliminate conflict palm oil from their supply chains, Laurel Sutherlin, the communications manager for RAN’s forest program, told the Jakarta Globe on Wednesday. Others, he said, simply claim “we’ve got it covered.”

According to Sutherlin, this generally means they are relying on the RSPO’s certification system, which RAN says is not enough. “Unfortunately, the RSPO so-called sustainable certification is not adequate to ensure that palm oil is not produced in ways that are contributing to deforestation and to human rights abuses,” Sutherlin said.

“There is no one that would like to see RSPO succeed more than us,” he added. “But, unfortunately, we are not at that point yet.”

On Wednesday, environmental organizations including RAN, Greenpeace and WWF launched the Palm Oil Innovation Group, together with several palm oil companies aiming to be leaders in sustainability.

“The palm oil industry has suffered from a bad reputation from its association with forest destruction and exploitation,” they said in a statement. “We are building a strong case that palm oil does not need to be linked to forest destruction and exploitation.”

The Jakarta Globe is a co-organizer of the B4E Indonesia Summit 2013