The palm oil industry has become notorious for its negative impacts on tropical rainforests, indigenous peoples, local communities, workers, and the global climate. For over a decade, global brands and palm oil companies, as well as banks and civil society, have invested their time, money, and reputations to develop the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) — currently the largest global certification system for palm oil. Despite these efforts, the RSPO is still certifying deforestation, human and labor rights violations, and excessive emissions from development on peatlands — and marketing it as “sustainable.”
Consumers and the industry alike are demanding better. With the RSPO failing to live up to its sustainability claims, key players are attempting to find ways to ensure truly responsible palm oil reaches the market. Over the past five years, progressive palm oil companies and NGOs have worked collectively as part of the Palm Oil Innovation Group (POIG) to build on the RSPO and find new ways to achieve responsible palm oil production. Many of the biggest global brands and palm oil companies have adopted commitments to achieve “No Deforestation, No Peatland and No Exploitation” palm oil.
More recently, banks such as BNP Paribas and HSBC have adopted stronger benchmarks to address deforestation risks by using the most robust methodology for putting such commitments into practice — the high carbon stock approach. A number of companies have committed to improve worker conditions by implementing the Free and Fair Labor in Palm Oil: Principles and Implementation Guidance, which translates the global requirements outlined in the ILO fundamental conventions and U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights into best practices for palm oil producers. In 2015 the RSPO responded to shifts in the market with an add-on scheme called RSPO Next, but it failed to silence critics due to a number of fundamental flaws, including its voluntary opt-in nature, which would fail to rein in rogue members.
The question remains: Will the RSPO make the changes required to become a credible palm oil certification system?
On September 1, the RSPO launched a public consultation of a revised standard and is asking its members to decide if it should strengthen its standard to align with “No Deforestation, No Peatland and No Exploitation” best practices. The final decisions will be made by all members casting votes at its general assembly in November 2018.
International, national, and local civil society groups have documented RSPO-certified palm oil companies exploiting workers, violating human rights — including land rights — and intimidating communities across Indonesia, including Papua and West Kalimantan, Malaysia, Colombia, Guatemala, Peru, Liberia and Cameroon, since the RSPO’s inception. Many social conflicts between communities and RSPO members remain unresolved, in large part because of the inadequacies of the RSPO’s complaints mechanism.
In many cases, RSPO members have yet to address past issues when the free, prior and informed consent of communities was not obtained through informed, non-coercive negotiations and in accordance with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples before any development took place on the communities’ lands. It is critical that the RSPO resolves past conflicts and reforms its complaints mechanism and dispute settlement facility to align with the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
It is, perhaps above all, necessary that the RSPO Complaints Panel sanction RSPO members who are found violating the certification criteria. The RSPO’s unwillingness to do so is demonstrated by a yearold complaint against Indonesian palm oil giant Indofood’s plantations for ongoing labor violations. The RSPO has issued no sanctions against Indofood, despite confirmation of labor violations by the RSPO’s own accreditation body.
The decisions made by the RSPO reflect the convictions of its members. Progressive POIG growers have already put innovations into practice. Major brands have made voluntary responsible sourcing policies or collective commitments alongside others in the Consumer Goods Forum to address deforestation and forced labor. Some banks have strengthened their policies and due diligence procedures while NGOs are committed to upholding human rights, representing the needs of nature and their constituencies in consumer markets. If the RSPO fails to strengthen its standards and systems during this review, despite the multitude of commitments made by many of its members, it will be a major missed opportunity.
As we all begin to suffer the global impacts of climate change, forests continue to fall and the rights of communities and workers continue to be trampled. There is no time for the RSPO to get this wrong and stay relevant.
Join the Devex community and access more in-depth analysis, breaking news and business advice — and a host of other services — on international development, humanitarian aid and global health.