December 2, 2008 The Jakarta Post
NGO activists are not unlike employees in other professions
Greenpeace strongly criticized the recent annual meeting of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) in Bali for being too soft on its "green-washing" members (growers and buyers). Abetnego Tarigan, the newly elected director of palm oil business watchdog Sawit Watch, shared with The Jakarta Post's Kornelius Purba his views about the RSPO, Indonesia's palm oil situation, and his experience as an NGO activist.
Question: Greenpeace strongly criticized the RSPO for being too weak on its green-washing members. As an NGO, why did your organization co-found the RSPO along with other palm oil stakeholders?
Answer: At the beginning we were preoccupied with ideological issues. Perhaps we were na*ve. For instance, we kept shouting that (measures against) the robbery of people's rights should be prioritized, we demanded total land reform. But after a few years, we got better ideas.
We then fully involved farmers and the people in our campaigns. We asked them to testify about their suffering to spark public anger. We were na*ve. For instance, we shouted loudly about the theft of people's lands. But we were too demanding on people's rights. The other side (plantation owners and buyers) can also talk about their legal rights. They have official permits, they pay taxes. Now we must find a way to package it.
How was the RSPO established?
We met directly with industry players and put them in the RSPO. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), Unilever and Sawit Watch initiated its establishment in 2003. There was a rather bad experience with the World Forest Council. It has conducted certification for 20 years, but they could only certify 12 percent of the total wood, and there is still much illegal wood. It is possible that the RSPO could make the same mistake.
At that time, there was very strong resistance and suspicion against us. We faced problems, (including with) China, which only cares about pricing.
Why is it important to have the RSPO?
When we see the pros and cons of the RSPO, this organization grows through a very long process. When state policy is not able to respond to civil society demands, for instance about the rampant land conversion. In 1998, then forestry minister Muslimin Nasution estimated (forests) covered 20 million hectares of land. Slash-and-burn practices continue despite the government ban.
NGOs have also launched intensive campaigns to pressure banks such as ABN-Amro (now RBS), HSBC and Rabbo Bank. They accommodate our pressure through their internal policies, the code of conduct. ABN-Amro, for instance, has a code of conduct on forestry investment and the plantation sector. But it is also not very effective.
When NGOS tried to pressure financial institutions or palm oil buyers, there were hundreds of institutions, buyers and plantations. It is impossible to face them one by one. NGOs do not have that capability.
Is there any other organization like the RSPO here?
We have the Indonesian Eco Labeling Agency (LEI). But there are still many problems with it. There is also much disappointment. Certificates have been issued but conflicts at the grass roots still continue, which delegitimize the LEI certificates. There are also problems with budgeting. And they mainly work on wood.
The Forestry Ministry is the most frequently protested ministry in this country. That is why they are the most relaxed ministry when facing demonstrations.
But forest fires still continue?
This is true, but it has declined much over the last two years because NGOs now have access to remote sensing analysis technology. It is very easy to campaign. We have maps of forestry concessions, we just announce the areas where we find hot spots. We do not talk about the law. Legally, they are untouchable, but their international image is severely damaged.
What is the danger of the RSPO?
When facing pressure, the criticized companies say they are RSPO members, as though they have complied with RSPO rules in their activities. This is the worry of many people.
NGOs are often criticized for using foreign funding. How about you?
Ideally it is not right to use foreign funding. Ideally we must get local public funding. The government actually allocates funds for civil society empowerment, but the money goes to youth organizations, the affiliations of certain political parties.
But aren't there many NGOs which face good governance problems?
This is our challenge. In the early stage, the will was there and the results were very good. But when an organization becomes bigger and receives bigger supports, we need to make internal improvements, but not change the culture of the NGOs. For instance, we conduct institutional audits, and not project audits. NGOs also need to issue financial reports and activities to the public.