The destruction of forests caused by the massive expansion of industrial oil palm plantations is well known, as is the impact on local communities, biodiversity and orangutans.
But according to WWF, we can carry on our over-consumption of palm oil. “The good news is that it can be produced in an environmentally responsible manner so you don’t have to give up these products,” WWF tells us on its website.
Sustainable palm oil?
WWF explains that we can help by buying products containing palm oil certified under the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) scheme:
But an article published last week in the Wall Street Journal exposes human trafficking, withholding of wages, and forced labour on oil palm plantations in Malaysia. The plantations belong to a company called Felda Global Ventures, a semi-autonomous company set up by Malaysia’s government. Felda Global Ventures has been a member of the RSPO since 2004.
In the company’s 2013 Sustainability Report, Felda Global Ventures’ CEO, Mohd Emir Mavani Abdullah notes the importance of the RSPO to the company. The company is on target to meet its goal of certifying all its oil palm plantations by 2017.
Slavery on Felda Global Ventures’ plantations
WSJ Journalist Syed Zain Al-Mahmood spoke to Mohammad Rubel, a 22-year-old, who was transported from Bangladesh by human smugglers in December 2014. Since then he has been working seven days a week without receiving any pay:
To get here, Mr. Rubel said, he endured three weeks in a crowded boat with inadequate food and water, followed by more weeks confined in a jungle camp while guards extorted a ransom from his parents back home. He said he saw dozens of fellow illegal migrants die from exhaustion, disease or beatings.
“If I had known what was waiting, I would never have left home,” Mr. Rubel said.
One of Rubel’s jobs is spraying pesticides, including paraquat, which is banned in the EU, because of its toxicity. Rubel was given protective clothing, but no training in using pesticides. He told the Wall Street Journal that spraying paraquat makes his head spin.
Felda Global Ventures runs more than 700,000 hectares of oil palm plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia. Of these, more than 300,000 hectares are certified under the RSPO. Almost 85% of the workers on Felda Global Ventures’ plantations are foreigners.
It isn’t clear whether Rubel works on a RSPO certified plantation. But under RSPO rules, certified companies cannot have major non-compliances with RSPO’s principles and criteria anywhere in their operations, including on non-certified plantations. It’s not controversial to note that slavery qualifies as a major non-compliance with RSPO rules.
A coalition of NGOs produced a statement calling on the RSPO, the Malaysian government, and international buyers to conduct an open investigation into the Wall Street Journal’s findings.
Sonja Vartiala, Executive Director of Finnwatch, said:
“We are calling on the RSPO to openly investigate The Wall Street Journal’s findings. If the open investigation confirms the findings of the WSJ, the RSPO must uphold its own Principles and Criteria and suspend Felda’s membership until these very serious violations are proven to be remedied.”
RSPO’s response: An assessment of Certification Bodies competence to recognise human rights abuses
The RSPO Complaints Panel met two days after the publication of the Wall Street Journal article and decided,
“to request the RSPO Secretariat to conduct an independent assessment of RSPO Certification Bodies competency in identifying non-compliances related to worker and human rights issues. This should not be confined to Felda but should consider and report comprehensively to the RSPO on the extent of these issues as they affect all RSPO certified members, initially within Malaysia. Depending on the outcome of this report, it may be desirable to commission further reports from other regions.”
Of course it’s wonderful news that RSPO is going to carry out an “independent assessment” into whether RSPO Certification Bodies are competent to identify modern day slavery on oil palm plantations in Malaysia.
RSPO impunity for Felda Global Ventures?
There’s a glaring problem with the RSPO’s course of action. The Wall Street Journal article accuses Felda Global Ventures of serious human and labour rights violations. Felda Global Ventures remains a member of RSPO, and more than 300,000 of its plantations are certified by the RSPO.
The coalition of NGOs is still demanding that the RSPO conduct an independent investigation into Felda Global Ventures’ operations. In a response to the RSPO Complaints Panel statement on the Wall Street Journal article, they wrote that,
“We are calling for a fully transparent investigation into labor abuses on Felda’s plantations with the findings fully disclosed, and we encourage the RSPO to include third-parties and/or independent observers with labor expertise. If an open investigation confirms the findings of the WSJ, the RSPO must uphold its own Principles and Criteria and suspend Felda’s membership until these very serious violations are proven to be remedied.”
To retain any shred of credibility, that’s the least that the RSPO should do.