RSPO conference rocked by multiple NGO reports of illegalities in member concessions


Allegations including widespread illegal fires, human rights abuses, fraudulent certifications and permitting irregularities ignored by global palm oil certification body

Forest fires started to enable oil palm cultivation. Photo: Adobe Stock

As the world’s largest palm oil certification scheme was holding its general assembly in Bangkok earlier this month, a series of damning NGO reports were released exposing ongoing and unpunished crimes and legal irregularities by its member firms across Indonesia.

The allegations – many of which cover issues and legacy cases that have plagued RSPO for years – contradict the RSPO’s own positive portrayal of the implementation of its standards.

In the run up to the organisation’s 16th general assembly on 3-6 November, the RSPO, shorthand for the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil, announced a 165 per cent increase in independent certified smallholders. In Bangkok, RSPO members agreed a new standard for independent smallholders.

Nonetheless, during the event NGO reports painted a very different picture, forcing RSPO to issue at least two public responses.

On 3 November the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) and Grassroots published Who Watches the Watchmen 2  an update to a damning 2015 report of the same name that exposed major weaknesses in the environmental, legal and social assessments and audits underpinning RSPO certifications.

EIA’s latest report found that an Assurance Task Force established by RSPO in response to its 2015 report was “one of the worst run and poorest performing parts of the RSPO” and has “failed to deliver and complete its objectives.”

EIA argues that all the problems initially raised “could easily reoccur again and have done so”, and the new report provides a range of case studies to evidence this.

Examples include cases where fraudulent or deficient environmental and social assessments continue to underpin destructive forest clearances that have engendered conflict, and others  where illegal or legally irregular plantation development has occurred.

One notable case is that of PT Nabire Baru, a concession operated by RSPO member Goodhope Asia Holdings in Papua, Indonesia. 

The firm is alleged to have illegally cleared thousands of hectares of forests – including primary forests – prohibited under RSPO rules, without conducting the legally required environmental impact assessment.

EIA alleges the RSPO has refused to publish a legal review conducted as part of one of two RSPO complaints affecting the concession – a complaint in which the RSPO Secretariat itself is the complainant.

EIA also cites the case of PT Kartika Prima Cipta, one of 18 Golden Agri Resources (GAR) concessions in Indonesia’s West Kalimantan province against which the NGO Forest People’s Programme (FPP) filed RSPO complaints in 2014.

The complaints detailed multiple breaches of RSPO rules and argued GAR had not evidenced in its RSPO filings that it had secured the legal rights to the 270,000 hectares (ha) embodied across the 18 concessions. FPP is itself a member of the RSPO.

The Watchmen 2 report claims that the “legal status of the land in PT KPC remains unclear”, and that the complaints remain unresolved due to the “RSPO Secretariat not responding to critical legal review studies required to support the case resolution and not conducting its own legal review despite volunteering itself to the task in 2016.”

The RSPO issued a response to EIA’s report the same day, prompting a further response from EIA on 4 November that restated its original message.

Two further reports of note were published on 4 November as its general assembly was in full swing.

The certification body’s failure to resolve violations underpinning RSPO cases relating to Wilmar International concessions in West Sumatra, Indonesia were laid bare in a press release from FPP.

FPP, which has helped local communities file RSPO complaints against Wilmar subsidiaries, states that in the 2014 case against PT Permata Hijau Pasaman, the RSPO ruled in 2017 that “community lands were taken without consent in a licensing process that was not legal.”

An interim report, produced by FPP’s in-country partners the Nagari Institute and Yayasan Masyarakat Kehutanan Lestari (YMKL) and published alongside FPP’s release, exposed the ongoing human rights abuses at Wilmar concessions in West Sumatra.

It alleges a litany of legal, environmental, social, and human rights violations committed by a range of firms owned by or supplying Wilmar, and argues that the “companies cooperated with corrupt bureaucrats to obtain permits related to compliance with legal operational standards.”

Nagari Institute and YMKL also argue that the failure of Wilmar to seek or acquire the Free and Prior Informed Consent of communities had resulted in “widespread and structural conflicts” being found in 90 per cent of palm concessions developed by Wilmar and its suppliers on lands of the indigenous Minangkabau communities. 

Rather than seeking to respect their rights, the NGOs allege the “companies use violence, intimidation and criminalization” to quash community opposition – behaviours that violate RSPO rules as well as Indonesian and International laws.

An annex detailing alleged violations by Wilmar-linked companies in West Sumatra includes at least six Wilmar subsidiaries where the NGOs perceive “the process of land transfers is not conducted in line with the national laws.” A further 12 suppliers to Wilmar in Sumatra are alleged to have been involved in land transfers violating national and customary laws.

Satellite image showing deforestation in RSPO member Goodhope Asia Holdings' Papua concession, PT Babire Baru. Photo: Global Forest Watch

Greenpeace International’s Burning Down the House report, also released on 4 November, added to the damning allegations against RSPO.

It exposed how major consumer goods firms including Unilever, Mondelēz, Nestlé and Procter & Gamble (P&G) and traders Cargill, GAR, Musim Mas and Wilmar are buying from producers linked to thousands of illegal fires in Indonesia this year.

The report focusses on fires detected in lands controlled by the top 30 palm oil producers most closely linked to the fires, the worst recorded in Indonesia for four years, and since 2015.

Greenpeace reports that three quarters of the fires from January to September 2019 in the 30 firms studied occurred “in operations controlled by producer groups that are members of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.”

Between 2015 and 2019 fires burned on 204,514ha of land controlled by the 30 groups studied, with 149,663ha of that (73 per cent) occurring on land controlled by RSPO members, according to the report. 

Greenpeace also found that 180,000 ha of land controlled by Unilever suppliers and 140,000ha of land controlled by Wilmar suppliers had burned during the four-year period. Both are landmark RSPO members, with Unilever using about 8 per cent of global palm oil production, and Wilmar trading or processing a massive 45 per cent of global production.

Releasing the report, Greenpeace UK attacked the RSPO by saying certified sustainable palm oil is a con and that it is a phrase “bandied about” by brands in attempts “to distance themselves from deforestation.”

In response, RSPO said: “Greenpeace misunderstood the methods and tools that the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil uses for hotspot monitoring and fire detection.”

Finally on 6 November as the general assembly drew to a close in Bangkok both Greenpeace and EIA were among fifteen groups to issue a joint NGO statement on RSPO failures.

“To remain relevant in today’s world, the RSPO must urgently strengthen its assurance systems and make the entire process—certification, monitoring, audits, complaints, and enforcement—credible and robust,” the statement read. “We call on all RSPO members to take up this call to action with the necessary urgency.”

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