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Memo to WWF: Destroying rainforests and peatland for palm oil is not “sustainable”

WWF loves “sustainability”. With “sustainability”, there’s no need to address over-consumption, or the never-ending growth of capitalist expansion. Consumption can increase, as long as it’s “sustainable”.

Palm oil plantations destroying vast areas of rainforest? No problem. Here comes “sustainable” palm oil. In 2001, WWF started discussions with palm oil companies and industry bodies. Three years later the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil was formed.

Today there are more than 500 members of the RSPO, including palm oil producers, processors, traders, retailers, banks and a few NGOs. But buying palm oil from RSPO members does not mean that the palm oil complies to RSPO’s standards. For that you need to buy RSPO-certified palm oil – from companies that have been assessed by an RSPO-approved certification body. But RSPO certification does not mean that companies have stopped clearing forests. TFT’s Scott Poynton pointed this out recently to Jason Clay, Senior Vice President, Markets, World Wildlife Fund US:

Deforestation of secondary yet still important forests is perfectly acceptable and is happily done by companies celebrated under the RSPO standard which only obliges protection of primary and HCVF [high conservation value forest] areas. Likewise, the RSPO standard doesn’t preclude the clearance of peatlands.

In April 2013, at an RSPO Extraordinary General Meeting in Kuala Lumpur, the RSPO approved a new set of principles and criteria for RSPO certification. The new principles and criteria allow continued deforestation, destruction of peatland and use of poisonous chemicals, including paraquat. This was, “The death of ‘sustainability’,” announced Glenn Hurowitz, writing on Grist.

WWF put out a statement shortly before the meeting in Kuala Lumpur. The statement amounts to a colossal sell out. WWF acknowledged that if RSPO-certified palm oil allows continued deforestation, destruction of peatlands and use of dangerous chemicals, then it has become utterly meaningless:

Because the review failed to accept strong, tough and clear performance standards within the P&Cs [RSPO Principles & Criteria] on issues like GHGs and pesticides, it is, unfortunately, no longer possible for producers or users of palm oil to ensure that they are acting responsibly simply by producing or using Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO).

Nevertheless, WWF said it would be voting in favour of the new principles and criteria and was encouraging other members of the RSPO do so as well:

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standard. Therefore 
Assembly meeting. 


Adam Harrison is Palm Oil Lead at WWF-International. He’s been involved in the RSPO since 2006. He describes WWF’s failure to negotiate meaningful standards as “meeting in the middle”.

WWF is now working with “progressive companies”, encouraging them to “certify all of their palm oil production against the RSPO principles & criteria” and take a series of further actions including reporting on greenhouse gas emissions, avoiding peatlands, not using dangerous pesticides like paraquat, and not buying palm fruit bunches from land that is illegally occupied or that is within national parks. How will WWF differentiate between RSPO-light and WWFs RSPO-plus? Won’t this be confusing for consumers looking for “sustainable” palm oil? And why didn’t WWF encourage these “progressive companies” to vote against the new principles and criteria?

This week, WWF changed the name of one of its email newsletters. Previously called “Forest Conversion News”, it is now called “Responsible Palm Oil and Soy News”. That just says it all:


PHOTO Credit: Banksy.

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  1. Chris, please explain a few things that you want to see happen in the world. Make your goal(s) very specific. And then explain exactly how you would achieve them. Then we can tell all those incompetent and unprincipled idiots in organisations such as WWF and Harapan Rainforest, exactly where they are going wrong, and exactly what they should be doing instead. In order to achieve your perfect vision.

  2. @John Payne (#1) – This is a post about WWF and the RSPO. There is no mention of Harapan Rainforest anywhere in the post. Harapan Rainforest is not a member of the RSPO. And, incidentally, I have never accused anyone working at Harapan Rainforest (or WWF for that matter) of being “incompetent and unprincipled idiots”.

    On the specific point of WWF and the RSPO, there is something I’d like to see happen. All it would take is for WWF to behave like an environmental organisation that is concerned with stopping deforestation at the hands of the oil palm industry.

    I’d like to hear WWF say something along the lines of, “As an environmental organisation WWF cannot possibly vote in favour of a standard that continues to allow the conversion of forest and destruction of peatlands, and allows the use of dangerous chemicals. We believe that other RSPO members should also not vote for this standard.”

  3. Sharing of diverse viewpoints I believe is highly critical in order to overcome just about anything! So thanks for this Chris. I have a question though – and I ask of this in my personal capacity as a citizen of the world although I am from the RSPO Secretariat. If the suggestion is for everyone/anyone/most to vote against the revised RSPO Principles & Criteria (Standard) – then what continues to be effective is the original/inaugural standard launched in 2007. While the original standard has served its purpose in the past 5 years – it does not however contain the recently added requirements such as GHG and peat (even though some regard that these requirements may not be adequately covered in the revised version – it is nevertheless an enhancement than from the original version which does not cover this at all); including forced labor; human rights and corruption. The question then is: Is the intention then to go back to the original standard that has not incorporated these critical elements into it? Or is the intention to do away with the RSPO and its standard altogether? What then is the goal at the end? I wonder whether we sometimes fully comprehend the implications of our suggestions to external publics who rely on us for grounded propositions. But I sincerely look forward to a response – am open to changing my views. thank you very much. Anne Gabriel

  4. @Anne Gabriel (#3) – Thanks for explaining the process behind the RSPO vote on the new principles and criteria. My suggestion is for WWF to behave like an environmental organisation rather than a PR firm working on behalf of the palm oil industry.

    The RSPO stands for Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. As I’m sure you would agree, cutting down forests, destroying peatland and using dangerous chemicals is not sustainable.

    How the RSPO deals with this conundrum is up to the RSPO. Why don’t you just delete the “S”? Perhaps you could replace it with a “D”: The Roundtable on Destructive Palm Oil.

  5. Uncertain on what you mean about PR firm. I represent the Secretariat. And wrote this in my personal capacity as expressed. Cutting down primary forests and secondary forests with high conservation value, destroying peatland and use of chemicals are indeed highly imperative and contained within the RSPO standard as a result of the inclusive multi-stakeholder process. I think its interesting that while you have little faith in the RSPO – it seems like you are willing for them to shoulder the burden of solving the global ‘conundrum’ we all should be playing a role in. I didn’t realize how constructively you would have viewed my sincere response. All the best to you, Chris. Anne Gabriel

  6. I think Anne asks some relevant questions, Chris: Is [it your] intention then to go back to the original standard that has not incorporated these critical elements into it? Or is [it your] intention to do away with the RSPO and its standard altogether? What then is [your] goal at the end?

    Basically, the very large majority (I’d estimate some 80-90%) of degraded forests in the tropics should be classified as HCV. Even old/traditional plantations of exotics are classified as HCV (rubber, cocoa). If any decent natural tropical forest is NOT classified as HCV, the assessment of HCV is clearly flawed.

    TFT – a members of the HCV Network and (I believe) active in HCV Assessments – is part of this failure. Hence, TFT’s director blaming the RSPO are mere semantics to move the focus away from TFT’s own shortcomings regarding HCV.

    RSPO is indirectly/partially responsible for this failure, in that it created a perverse list of approved HCV “experts” (“experts” approving other “experts” based on peer reviews by these same “experts”). It adds more confusion by allowing auditors without any formal training in conservation (biology) to review/approve these “assessments”. Unfortunately, RSPO (ASI?) is still far too docile for decent independent verification/audits of these HCV “experts” and auditors.

    To me, it seems like you’re barking up the wrong tree here.

  7. Thanks for raising these valid points Bart. Indeed – it seems like a process that is being continuously improved.

    With regards to the way which HCV assessments are being carried out – I believe the RSPO was the first to have a list of independent third party assessors that must be approved through a formal application process & review of credentials – for exactly the reasons you have stated on the quality of practitioners. Prior to this, assessors were free to run their own assessments without any approval process to ensure quality. There is also a feedback loop/process to handle complaints on both the quality of the assessors and assessments carried out.

    The next level to this is similar to the process we have with growers’ certification whereby the Certifying Bodies are now monitored by another layer of independence by ASI – an accreditation agency . The RSPO will soon advance its HCV assessment process whereby an independent body (HCVRN – High Conservation Value Resource Network) will accredit, evaluate & monitor the HCV assessors prior to conducting their assignments.

    It is reasonable indeed to keep constructively challenging the RSPO whose assessments and certification are all implemented by third party entities who are supervised on top of that by another layer. I also think however – it is just as fair to navigate some energy to constructively challenge other initiatives that carry out their own assessments and question the measures they plan to put in place to ensure impartiality, integrity and robustness.

    I agree that the RSPO has gone down the path whereby there are indeed many flaws as there are triumphs. There is no benchmark out there or samples to follow unfortunately. So we rely on passionate individuals to steer the way. And I have had the privilege to work with some extraordinary ones at the RSPO. And all committed to keep going and improving. Open to suggestions. Thank you again Bart. Anne Gabriel

  8. I’m not sure WWF deserve the criticism. They need to play the interface between the environmentalists and business. If all NGOs were dressed in costumes on the sidewalk with a “save every single tree” agenda, then environmentalism would wither quickly. Someone has to be dressed in a suit at the negotiating table – and that’s the role WWF plays best. They’re not letting the greens down – they’re ensuring the greens get something. That said, WWF do seem to be treading a confusing path at the moment. On one hand, they are being pragmatic (i.e. recognising business-development needs ought to be considered alongside environmental ones, e.g. endorsing RSPO standards, and praising the moratorium), but, on the other hand, recently they seem to have developed a self-interest strand, e.g. praising International Paper (GFTN member) for its latest sustainability announcements (which amount to promises as opposed to action) and trying undermine GP/TFT’s work with APP by getting involved at a level of detail that’s below them. WWF knows you can’t turn an oil tanker around on a dime, but they’re still intent on surreptitiously stabbing GP in the back for working with APP. If WWF wants to operate at that level, they ought to put their suits away, get their costumes out and go and throw eggs at APP’s offices in Jakatra…or GP’s in Washington.

  9. I’m not sure WWF deserve the criticism. They need to play the interface between the environmentalists and business. Without that interface, the environmentalists would just be talking to themselves, and that serves no purpose.

  10. dear chris
    your uncomplicated truth and ability to see through deception brings relief to my deep but weary planetary heart.
    thank you so very much