Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Thumbs down to certified palm oil

Friends of the Earth England, Wales and Northern Ireland

Friends of the Earth International


KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA November 3, 2009 -- Certifying palm oil is not a solution to the environmental damage and human rights violations caused by oil palm plantations, said Friends of the Earth International today during the meeting of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) in Malaysia.

“The certification of palm oil by the RSPO does not halt deforestation, it does not halt the expansion of damaging oil palm plantations and it does not benefit local communities. Basically it fails to deal with the causes of the palm oil problems,” said Friends of the Earth International Agrofuels Campaign Coordinator Torry Kuswardono from Indonesia.

Small but quickly growing quantities of palm oil are being certified by the RSPO. The certification of palm oil is seen by many as a way to make the palm oil industry look 'responsible' or 'sustainable'.

“Certifying palm oil as responsible or sustainable makes consumers feel good and encourages increased consumption, which is precisely the root cause of the problem” added Torry Kuswardono from Indonesia.

“Since palm oil has major carbon footprint, any talk of 'certified' palm oil must take this issue seriously, but the RSPO is not doing that. Instead of adopting voluntary schemes like the RSPO, national governments should pass and enforce laws to control the damaging expansion of palm oil. They should also critically assess if palm oil can still play a role in current or future poverty alleviation programmes. We believe it is part of the problem, not the solution,"
said Teguh Surya, Head of Campaign Department of WALHI/Friends of the
Earth Indonesia.

“Instead of using the certification smokescreen, stakeholders should address the real problem, which is the increasing and unsustainable demand for palm oil, especially as agrofuel,” he added.

Essentially, RSPO companies are subjected to technical principles and criteria, but social and environmental issues of oil palm cultivation are largely framed within flawed political processes, poor governance and unsustainable market demand.

Understood within this context, the RSPO is a voluntary certification process for a market premium and membership that may be able to add a much sought after and totally misleading 'green tag' to the industry. Moreover, it provides certification without having to actually address some of the most very basic, structural issues that gave rise to the adverse impacts of oil palm cultivation.

Friends of the Earth International therefore does not regard the RSPO as a credible certification process as it is only a limited tool of technicality which is not able to adequately address the horrendous impacts of oil palm cultivation on forests, land and communities.

Friends of the Earth International is the world's largest grassroots environmental federation with 77 national member groups in 77 countries and more than 2 million individual members and supporters.


*1. The problems of certification of palm oil*

Certification as a means to make the palm oil industry sustainable fails to deal with the root causes of the problem. The destruction caused by the expansion of palm oil is caused by the excessive and irrational use of vegetable oil, either as a foodstuff, industrial oil or agrofuel. Sustainable production can only be achieved by halting the increased demand and over-consumption in order to create sustainable levels of demand.

Some of the biggest environmental and social problems are caused by the
actual expansions of palm plantations. No certification scheme has so far come up with a solution to the deforestation, habitat loss and social conflicts caused by displacing agricultural activities elsewhere from these expansions. It is likely that this will never be solved by certification.

Wider societal problems created by the expansions fall outside of certification schemes and need to be addressed urgently. Rising land prices as a result of the expansions cause great harm, as does the rising price of food as a result of the displacement of local food production.

In many producer countries there are high levels of corruption, weak governance, little land use planning or formal land ownership and a disregard to the right of local and indigenous peoples. Within a context of little transparency and likely ineffective monitoring it is highly unlikely that certification schemes will be fully implemented and there is big potential for fraud.

Certification schemes are mainly developed to please consumer markets in the North. These schemes therefore run the danger of persuading the public that palm oil is sustainably produced, therefore giving support to their continued use and deflecting from the real causes of the problems. Likewise they can be used by industry to fend off criticism without them addressing the unsustainable nature of their business.

Voluntary market-based mechanisms are no replacement for strict legislation and will not be able to fully influence the behaviour of the global oil palm market. The lack of political will to strictly regulate the oil palm commodity market allows companies to “pick and mix” whether they participate and can manage certified estates at the same time as being involved in uncertified estates. They can also be minor shareholders in estates involved in malpractices.

*2. The RSPO is full of loopholes*

The full implementation of the RSPO will not guarantee sustainability. It is unlikely that a certification scheme can be comprehensive enough to deal with the issues at stake. For example, with the RSPO:

* There is no credible verification process and plantations have
already been certified despite serious breaches of RSPO Principles
and Criteria.

* Most palm oil is produced by large corporate groups that own
hundreds of thousands of hectares of oil palm plantations. RSPO
does not require all producers to get the entirety of their estate
certified at once. Companies need to have a 'realistic and
adequately' ambitious plan for certifying their other plantations,
if they have ownership of more than 51% of that plantation, but
since RSPO has not set a timeline for this, RSPO members can avoid
taking any steps towards the certification of their land.

* The already weak criteria adopted by the RSPO membership in
November 2005 have since been significantly watered down in the
national interpretation processes, such as on matters pertaining
Free, Prior and Informed Consent and Social Impact Assessments.
And all plantations established before 2007 can now become
certified, even though they have been grown on previous forest lands.

* RSPO has also failed to come up with appropriate standards for
greenhouse gas emissions associated with plantation development
and management. In addition, RSPO has failed to undertake a study
on alternatives for the toxic pesticide paraquat used all to
commonly in plantations.

* It will be possible for companies to expand with unsustainable
large-scale monocultures, as long as there are no High
Conservation Value Forest (HCVF) areas converted after 2007.

* The RSPO does not have any sanctions against violations of the
criteria at the plantation level.

* There is no permanent monitoring body. Only when there is a
written complaint a grievance panel is established to conduct
investigative research and provide recommendations for action by
the RSPO.

* The Grievance Panel is composed of Executive Board members who are
stakeholders rather than mediators or arbiters. The capacity of
NGOs and local communities to respond to failures of the RSPO
would be crucial when there are environmental or social problems
at a plantation. But their capacity is limited.

* RSPO will allow its certified palm oil to be traded through
different chains of custody schemes, from “identify preserved” to
“book and claim”. This means that RSPO certified palm oil will be
mixed with palm oil from other sources, making it virtually
impossible for a purchaser to be sure that the palm oil is not
linked to rainforest destruction or any other environmental
degradation and social conflict.

Ultimately, RSPO will be endorsing as sustainable the cultivation of
vast areas of oil palm monocultures from recently converted natural
forests, even where they encroach into local communities customary land
and forests, isolating them into small enclaves. In effect, any forest
is allowed to be converted into oil palm plantation under the process so
long it is not defined as a High Conservation Value Forest (HCVF),
despite the fact that such forests have regeneration potential or that
communities claim customary rights over them.

*3. Impacts of oil palm on people and the environment *

Oil palm expansion occurs throughout the tropics at unprecedented rates.
Asia is aiming for around 30 million hectares of palm monocultures
(compared to approximately 12 million at present). There are also plans
for large-scale expansions in Central and East Africa (for instance in
Congo: 3 million hectares) and in Latin America (for instance in
Columbia: 3.5 million hectares). The emergence of palm oil for the
production of agrofuels (for transport and power generation) further
promotes the expansion of the palm oil industry.

Expanding the area dedicated to palm oil plantations creates enormous
problems that threaten biodiversity, forests, climate, the environment
and communities.

Impacts on people

* Large areas of land are appropriated from communities by private
corporations backed up by a lack of transparency, corruption and
other unlawful activities in the licensing and development of oil
palm plantations;

* Land prices increase due to the expansions resulting in land being
unaffordable for most people;

* Large monocultures have adverse impacts on local natural water
cycles and can cause severe pollution of water sources, increasing
the likelihood of fires and floods and limiting the access to
clean water for local communities;

* In many cases, oil palm monocultures are converted from logged
over forests as a result of unsustainable logging practices that
have earlier caused the depletion in timber resources. Such
forests however still contain valuable resources to local
communities who claim customary rights over them and with a proper
conservation strategy is able to self-regenerate;

* A general failure to recognize and respect the right of indigenous
and local peoples.

* Food sovereignty is undermined by occupying land that has been
used to grow food for local consumption and diverting it to grow
crops for export.

* Poor working and living conditions for plantations workers as well
as small holders, and enormous vulnerability to price fluctuations.

* While the palm oil industry prides itself for providing employment
and producing an important world commodity, far more people are
likely to be adversely affected by its expansion, from indigenous
and rural communities, plantation workers, smallholder farmers to
other stakeholders who are confronted by environmental
degradation, increases in food prices and the decline in their
nation’s agricultural output, to name only a few.

Impacts on the environment

* Widespread deforestation is destroying biodiversity and pushing
some species to the brink of extinction.

* Huge levels of greenhouse gas emissions are released from
deforestation and draining of peatlands.

* Unsustainable monoculture farming leading to the destruction of
biodiversity and pollution of the environment through the use of
dangerous pesticides and other agrochemicals such as paraquat.

* Environmental undervaluation of forests and peat lands.

*4. Solutions advocated*

Friends of the Earth International (FOEI) is calling for wider policy
mechanisms that control demand and encourage a more sustainable use of
land that guarantees food sovereignty and the protection of natural
resources. FOEI does not support the use of palm oil as a fuel and
either transport or energy production. In addition FOEI calls for
Governments to adopt concrete and consistent policies and legal reforms
in order for them to address effectively the sustainability challenges
of the oil palm industry.

Wider policy mechanisms that go beyond certification are needed that
control demand, especially where it depends increasingly on resources
based in developing countries, and encourages a more sustainable use of
land that guarantees food sovereignty and the protection of natural

Real solutions to the energy and climate crisis need to be introduced
that reduce the demand for fuel such as a modal shift to public
transport, cleaner cars and energy efficient electricity production and
use. Palm oil as an energy or transport fuel must be banned.

Friends of the Earth International believes governments are key to
creating the solutions and should be made accountable to adopt concrete
and consistent policies and legal reforms in order for them to address
effectively the sustainability challenges of the oil palm industry.

To that effect, we call for policies and laws to:

Prevent expansions of oil palm plantations that involve forest
conversions, violations of local community rights, affect food
sovereignty and other forms of environmental degradations, human
rights abuse and economic and social injustices;

End poor governance through serious improvements in public
accountability, transparency in decision-making and eliminate
inconsistencies and contradictions in policy and law. Reform must
be initiated in favour of environmental and social sustainability,
including ensuring that rights of communities and labourers are

Ensure that full legal recognition is given to indigenous
communities through policy and land reform initiatives which must
be able to address concerns on reparative mechanisms;

Ratify and nationally implement all existing international
conventions, treaties, declarations and other international laws
on indigenous peoples, biodiversity, forests, climates, labour and
hazardous toxics ;

Introduce strict laws on the use of pesticides and waste management;

Reject incentives and targets that promote large scale agrofuel
production as a solution to the climate change problem. Such
incentives must instead be diverted to research and produce
genuinely renewable, efficient and sustainable energy sources;

Promote a sustainable agricultural policy that encourages
environmentally-friendly farming practices, increases agricultural
diversity and the consumption of local production instead for
export. Increase government support for practises such as
diversification of production and stimulation of local production
for local markets that contribute to food security and food
sovereignty in producer and consumer countries.