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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.”