in Indonesia, Nigeria

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil fails to uphold workers’ rights and indigenous peoples’ rights

Earlier this month, two meetings took place, both focussing on oil palm plantations. The first was a meeting of communities and civil society and took place in Calabar, Cross River State, Nigeria. The second was the 11th meeting of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) in Medan, Sumatra, Indonesia.

The meeting in Calabar produced a declaration opposing “land and forest grabbing for monocultures and other projects including REDD”. The declaration is posted in full below.

Before the RSPO meeting in Medan, Forest Peoples Programme, Sawit Watch and TUK Indonesia put out a report titled “Conflict or Consent? The oil palm sector at a crossroads”. The report includes 16 case studies from seven countries in Asia and Africa carried out by a consortium of NGOs. On its website, Forest Peoples Programme explains that,

“In line with international law, the RSPO’s Principles and Criteria require member companies to respect the collective right of indigenous peoples and other local communities to give or withhold their consent prior to the development of oil palm on the lands they own, inhabit and use.”

The report asks the question, are companies meeting their promises? Forest Peoples Programme comments that,

The studies reveal that the RSPO process has in some cases led to improved understanding, by communities and companies, of how to achieve ‘sustainable development’. In addition, procedural improvements can be pointed to that may provide a basis for resolving some land conflicts. Overall, however, many oil palm companies are not respecting customary land rights, are acquiring lands without consent, are violating or avoiding compliance with national laws or court rulings and are in obvious violation of the RSPO standard.

Another report produced before the RSPO meeting looked at labour rights in three RSPO certified oil palm plantations in Indonesia. “Empty Assurances”, was written by the International Labor Rights Forum and Sawit Watch. In a statement about the report, the International Labor Rights Forum writes,

Palm Oil is harvested on plantations mostly in Indonesia and Malaysia by workers who remain hidden from the public eye. Many of them are children who work in unsafe conditions for far below the minimum wage. Others have been deceived by labor brokers into being caught in debt-bondage like situations, and are trapped in remote areas with no ability to pay for a passage home.
[ . . . ]
Unfortunately, we found flagrant disregard for human rights at some of the very plantations the RSPO certifies as “sustainable.” … Not only does serious exploitation exist in palm oil supply chains: the industry’s ethical certification has proven to be no guarantee against abuse.

During the RSPO meeting in Medan, thousands of workers marched and surrounded the RSPO meeting. Community representatives also joined the protests. Rainforest Action Network explains some of the issues that workers were protesting about:

[P]alm oil laborers are forced to pay for their own basic tools and safety equipment (e.g. shoes, boots, masks, gloves) or to simply go without. Women, who are often positioned as pesticide sprayers, have only pieces of cloth to cover their face to protect them from toxic chemicals. Fresh water for workers to drink and bathe is also often unavailable, leaving them to rely on contaminated water. Hours are harsh, with workers required to be in their positions before dawn or face sanctions or punishments.

Here are RAN’s photographs from the protests:


We, members of communities affected by industrial monoculture oil palm plantations, including peasant movements, as well as other civil society organizations from Africa, Europe, the Americas and Asia, and signatories to this declaration, met from 2–5 November 2013 in Calabar, Cross River State, Nigeria,

  • Shared testimonies and analyses related to the living conditions of rural communities affected by industrial oil palm monocultures;

  • Shared experiences on monoculture oil palm and other types of monocultures implemented in all countries present at the meeting;

  • Analyzed the consequences of the rapid and brutal expansion of monocultures promoted by multinational companies in different communities and countries;

    Analyzed the strategies and mechanisms for land grabbing and the invasion of multinational companies into different communities;

Having found that:

  • Where multinational companies have engaged in implementing large-scale monocultures, they have left misery and poverty;

  • Governments, on all continents, provide support to these companies, and many among them profit from the misery of their compatriots;

  • Thousands of hectares of forest are destroyed every day to the benefit of monocultures, including oil palm;

  • Communities are dispossessed of their land to the benefit of multinational corporations or speculative investors who manipulate governments, the police, or the entire judicial system of the countries they enter;

  • Hundreds of people are imprisoned or killed every year for demanding their right to land, livelihoods and survival; and their lands, once transformed into monocultures, are militarized;

  • Peasants are forced to work in slave conditions on their own land and buy food that once they produced;

  • Voluntary initiatives and certification schemes such as RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) and REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) are inadequate to provide lasting solutions for the problems they claim to resolve;

  • Conventions and legislation guaranteeing community rights are often violated by the different states in the slashing and grabbing of communities’ land;

Considering that:

  • Monoculture tree plantations are not forests;
  • Communities are not objects that can be moved or manipulated at will;

  • Communities have the right to dignity and to raise their voice;

  • The RSPO is not a mechanism to halt the massive expansion of monoculture oil palm plantations and the ever-increasing demand for palm oil to meet excessive consumption, including for agrofuels. Also REDD is not a mechanism to solve the impacts of climate change.


  • Our support for all communities repressed by the policies of the powerful and to those who defend their land rights as indigenous peoples and peasant communities;

  • Our commitment to demand that the governments of our countries ratify and respect the declarations and relevant international laws that protect the rights of communities and indigenous peoples;

  • Our opposition to land and forest grabbing for monocultures and other projects including REDD;

  • Our appeal to our governments to halt and control the expansion of large-scale monocultures, and to support community-based, including traditional, economic activities;

  • Our determination to fight for food sovereignty and food security of communities;

  • Our commitment to build alternative and appropriate solutions that go beyond mechanisms like RSPO and REDD;

  • Our commitment to save the environment instead of having it transformed into hell on earth;

  • Our commitment to be the voice of the voiceless wherever their voice needs to be heard;

  • Our commitment to use all non-violent means necessary so that community rights are respected.

Adopted in Calabar, 5 November 2013
African Dignitiy Foundation- Nigeria
Boki Rainforest Conservation & Human Development Concern – Nigeria
Climate Cool Nigeria
Community Forest Watch Nigeria
ERA/Friends of the Earth Nigeria
JVE – Ivory Coast
Green Scenery-Sierra Leone
FCI -Liberia
GRABE- Benin
COPACO – DRC and La Via Campesina Africa
Green Development Advocates – Cameroon
Struggle to Economize Future Environment-SEFE – Cameroon


PHOTO Credit: “An Amazing Thing Happened at the RSPO”, Rainforest Action Network, 19 November 2013.

Leave a Reply

  1. You will no doubt recall that GAPKI left RSPO

    The Malaysian equivalent may yet do so

    as promoted by MPOC

    If RSPO is disbanded due to the above pressures, coupled with (for very different reasons) the pressures from NGOs who love to hit the easy targets, then we will rely entirely on governments to shape and enforce all elements of social and environmental policies and standards. If we think that is better, let’s go ahead and keep hitting RSPO while avoiding the roles of the hundreds of specific companies that are never targetted, and go back to letting governments tell us what is best for us and the economy.

  2. @John Payne (#1) – When three thousand workers on RSPO-certified plantations turn up at an RSPO meeting to protest, do you think NGOs should just keep quiet?

    You might want to read the reports linked from this post. The first, “Conflict or Consent?” includes case studies from 16 oil palm plantations. The second, “Empty Assurances”, includes three case studies. There are lots of specific companies mentioned in the reports, none of which look like “easy targets” to me.

    Meanwhile, Rainforest Action Network has done lots of work targeting specific companies, as you can see here.

    And World Rainforest Movement has also done lots of work on specific palm oil companies.

  3. No you should not keep quiet but you could do something more creative and risky, than re-distributing the same things to the same circle of people. (BTW, I have read both reports, and am familiar with RAN, and witnessed the “3,000” workers in Medan on 12 November).
    1. Do you think RSPO is a worthwhile venture that merits support, or a threat to decent behaviour, that some governments, many palm oil producers and many NGOS believe? If you are not sure, spend a few days reading the contents of the RSPO website and about RSPO in general. In other words, is the system a good idea that needs help, or is it s bad system?
    2. If you do think the latter, carry on with casting occasional grenades (only digitally, of course).
    3. If the former, do not keep on with doing the same thing and expecting a different result. Look at (for example, there are other approaches)at : , and I just looked through and found (for example) which P&C assessor companies carried out the assessments for the PT Kerry Sawit and PT Socfin units, and which assessor is used by Lonsum. One might guess that there was a problem with the P&C assessments, or the particular assessors who did those assessments, so lodging a complaint to RSPO about those assessors might be a way to start : .
    4. Another way could be to not have your next holiday (if you take holidays) not where you originally intended, but at one of the sites described in the reports. More costly, risky and uncomfortable, but would give the best possible insights and leads on how you might personally make a difference to a specific cause.
    5. Most importantly, shouldn’t it be governments that are fundamentally responsible for workers’ rights and welfare? I thought that is what governments are supposed to be for. Do also target governmental failures (e.g. local government bureaucrats) as well as people who are trying their best, under constant fire,through voluntary associations (e.g. staff of the RSPO Secretariat).
    6. And finally, and the point I was trying (obviously without any success) to make : The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil fails to uphold workers’ rights and indigenous peoples’ rights. This is your title. It tells people very clearly that RSPO is a failure. It says nothing about specific governmental agencies or about specific plantation company management units or particular individuals in those entities that are the real failures. If you do not get what I am saying, then I also am a failure, so what to do?

  4. @John Payne (#3) – Thanks for all the advice, including your suggestions on where I should spend my holidays. That’s very kind of you, and not at all patronising.

    Whether you like it or not, the RSPO does not uphold workers’ rights or indigenous workers’ rights. I think that’s a serious problem. I agree, that governments are not guilt-free, but this is an article about the RSPO.