New guidelines for the palm oil industry have disappointed environmentalists and raised fresh concerns about the protection of rainforests

Responding to a long-standing demand from environmental activists, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) has finally announced that it will introduce guidelines on deforestation, peat-land development and indigenous people’s rights.

The new guidelines will be an addendum to the existing RSPO certification standards. The draft voluntary guidelines, to be called RSPO+, will be submitted to the board of governors in June and are expected to come into effect in the second half of 2015.

The catch is that the addendum guidelines will be voluntary. They will apply only to those companies that choose to adopt them. In practice, growers will still be able to get their palm oil RSPO-certified as sustainable without having to adhere to the new guidelines.

Slow progress

RSPO says the voluntary guidelines reflect “a further positive shift for a global palm oil industry that is moving towards making RSPO certified sustainable palm oil the norm”. However, the question is whether the shift is too little, too late and is inadequate to save the rainforests.

A statement from the Rainforest Action Network says the RSPO’s new guidelines “fall short of the improvements and reforms that are required to ensure that all RSPO members’ operations are not associated with deforestation, peat lands clearance, and human and labour rights violations”.

RSPO, the multi-stakeholder association set up in 2004 to promote sustainable palm oil, has often faced accusations that its certification standards and its auditing, accountability and enforcement mechanisms have failed to stop deforestation and human rights violations. Critics say the existing RSPO standards have allowed deforestation and clearance of peat lands even within certified operations.

RSPO’s often lengthy deliberations and slow decision making have meant its certification system has not kept pace with environmentalists’ demands for effective curbs on deforestation. So much so that an increasing number of global companies have voluntarily adopted more stringent deforestation guidelines over and above the RSPO standards to meet demands from the pressure groups. These include Unilever, Wilmar, Golden Agri Resources, Asia Paper & Pulp, Neste Oil, Ferrero, Mars and Nestlé. In view of these, RSPO’s inability to implement binding guidelines on deforestation is likely to further dent its credibility.

New reports of deforestation

Some recent reports of forest destruction involving RSPO members have not helped. For example, an investigative report by Greenomics Indonesia, a policy development institute, recently said it found that a supplier of palm oil giants Wilmar and Musim Mas was clearing high carbon stock forests in Indonesia’s Leuser area even as these companies have announced zero-deforestation policies. Leuser is one of the remaining habitats for the wild Sumatran tigers, rhinos, elephants and orang-utans. Both Wilmar and Musim Mas have said they are discussing the report with the supplier. Last year, the Rainforest Action Network had alleged in a report that Musim Mas was sourcing palm oil from an illegal plantation in Leuser.

Leuser is home to the Sumatran tiger


Meanwhile, RSPO ordered Golden Agri Resources to stop new palm oil development till it could prove that its operations in Kalimantan, Indonesia, complied with the RSPO standards. The order also prohibits the company from acquiring new land. The RSPO order is the result of a probe started after the British non-profit Forest Peoples Programme filed a complaint accusing Golden Agri of violating RSPO standards. The rights group has accused the company of taking lands from indigenous communities for expansion without their free and informed consent. Golden Agri has maintained that it has not violated any law.

Government moratorium extended

In another development, Indonesia extended a moratorium on new concessions over forest areas ahead of the 13 May 2015 expiry, without accepting activists’ demands for including more stringent safeguards in the moratorium. The current moratorium excludes secondary forests. Greenpeace claims that 48.5m hectares of primary forest, peat lands and natural forests are classified as secondary forests, leaving them threatened under the current moratorium.

All these developments indicate that the rainforests of Indonesia remain under threat and the country risks continuing to be one of the top contributors to global greenhouse gas emissions through deforestation. Progress at best is patchy and slow. 

Palm Oil  Asia column  deforestation  rainforest 

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