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Who watches the watchmen? RSPO’s greenwashing and fraudulent reports exposed

A new report by the Environmental Investigation Agency and Grassroots exposes serious problems in the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil’s certification system. Auditing firms that are supposed to monitor palm oil companies’ operations are colluding with the companies to hide violations.

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was set up in 2004 following a series of meetings between WWF and palm oil companies. According to WWF, “One of the huge successes of the Rountable is the development of a certification system for sustainable palm oil.”

On its website about the RSPO, WWF has a promotional video for the RSPO. It doesn’t show any of the destruction caused by oil palm, or the abuses of indigenous and community rights. There’s no mention of the fires that engulf Indonesia every dry season. There are no interviews with workers forced to work in conditions of modern-day slavery.

Instead, we watch a series of graphics, with WWF’s voice-over telling us that RSPO’s certification system helps to protect nature and people. It guarantees fair working conditions. It upholds indigenous peoples’ rights to their land. Clearing rainforest is forbidden. Areas rich in biodiversity and endangered species are protected.

WWF explains that “qualified independent certifiers inspect each plantation to ensure that they meet these standards.” Anyone who feels there has been a violation of RSPO’s standards can file a complaint.

If WWF’s version of events sounds too good to be true, that’s because it is.

Who watches the watchmen?

The new report by EIA and Grassroots finds that,

Auditing firms are fundamentally failing to identify and mitigate unsustainable practices by oil palm firms. Not only are they conducting woefully substandard assessments but the evidence indicates that in some cases they are colluding with plantation companies to disguise violations of the RSPO Standard. The systems put in place to monitor these auditors have utterly failed.

The report is titled, “Who watches the watchmen? Auditors and the breakdown of oversight in the RSPO,” and includes a series of case studies that highlight the failures in the RSPO system.

The case studies identify the following problems:

  • auditors providing fraudulent assessments that cover up violations
    of the RSPO Standard and Procedures;
  • auditors failing to identify indigenous land right claims;
  • auditors failing to identify social conflicts arising due to abuse of
    community rights;
  • auditors failing to identify serious labour abuses;
  • auditors failing to identify risks of trafficked labour being used in
  • ambiguity over legal compliance;
  • auditors providing methodologically and substantively flawed HCV (High Conservation Value) assessments that will enable destruction of HCVs;
  • Certification Bodies displaying weak understanding of the Standard;
  • Certification Bodies providing suspect assessments in response to legitimate complaints from NGOs which fail to address the substance of the complaints;
  • conflicts of interest due to links between Certification Bodies and plantation companies.

These bear more than a passing resemblance to the problems that have plagued the Forest Stewardship Council – particularly the conflicts of interest between palm oil companies and their auditors.

Oversight of RSPO is provided by NGOs and communities

EIA and Grassroots found that oversight of the RSPO system is not carried out by auditors or the RSPO, but by NGOs and communities. There are currently 52 complaints in the RSPO system, but as the report points out this is likely to be the tip of the iceberg. The palm oil sectors covers millions of hectares of land across three continents, and NGOs work on limited budgets.

The way RSPO deals with complaints is not reassuring:

There is a wealth of evidence to show the complaints process has failed to provide acceptable outcomes to complainants or has held errant members to account. There are concerns with conflicts of interest, with companies that have been subject to complaints joining the Complaints Panel even while the problems raised remain unresolved. Some complaints have dragged on for five or more years without resolution.

The report notes that auditors have made matters worse through further substandard assessments and conflicts of interest.

In October 2012, EIA made a formal complaint against a subsidiary of RSPO member First Resources Ltd. The subsidiary, PT Borneo Surya Mining Jaya, was clearing land belonging to the community of Muara Tae in East Kalimantan. The conflict between the palm oil company and the villagers has still not been resolved.

RSPO’s Complaints Panel commissioned a field review that confirmed EIA’s allegations. But until the Complaints Panel had upheld EIA’s complaint, PT BSMJ continued clearing forests and encroaching on community territories. Meanwhile, the head of sustainability at First Resources has been allowed to become a member of the RSPO Complaints Panel.

EIA Forest Campaigner Tomasz Johnson says:

“The RSPO stands or falls on the credibility of its auditing process but in far too many instances auditors are greenwashing unsustainable practices and even environmental crimes.
“Many major consumer goods firms now delegate responsibility for their sourcing policies to the RSPO and, by extension, to these auditors. If the auditors are engaging in box-ticking and even colluding to cover up unsustainable practices, then products will get to the supermarket shelves that are tainted with human trafficking, rights abuses and the destruction of biodiversity.”


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  1. I am one of the many ordinary enlightened folk who despair when it comes to reading emails or the press, to find further destruction of the world’s forests and indigenous peoples. I try to avoid anything with palm oil in it, and phone companies to complain if their products have it in the list of ingredients. The answer is invariably,that their palm oil is from a sustainable source. I am also shocked with how deeply involved the WWF has become with multinational companies, and seems to be part of the lubricant of making what looks bad, not so bad, using their status in the conservation world.
    Survival International fights for tribal rights, and it has doubts about WWF’s part in the despoliation of the world environment. Scotland makes lots of oat cakes, but only one firm does not use palm oil, but olive or some other “innocent” oil. That firm is Paterson’s, as its owner saw at first hand, the dreadful destruction when he was in Borneo. The whole world’s marine and terrestrial environments are being destroyed by criminals whose greed will neve be satiated, until the last fish is caught and the last bit of rainforest cut down. Complicit with such vandals, are the banks, politicians, certain environmental organisations, police and military forces, all bound together by the bonds of corruption. REDD-Monitor and the Environmental Investigagion Agency have shown their searchlights and found was is skulking there in the darkness of unethical practice and greed.

  2. FYI
    From: Anasti Putri []
    Sent: 17 November 2015 18:06
    To: Anasti Putri
    Subject: Save Your Date : Indonesia Palm Oil Pledge (IPOP) Sessions and Exhibition At The Global Landscape Forum 2015, Palais des Congres in Paris , 5-6 December 2015

    Dear Sir / Madam,

    Palm oil is an Indonesia’s strategic commodity that gives significant contribution for Indonesia from revenue to employment and welfare. In line with the climate change and increasing people’s awareness to consume sustainable products, Indonesia’s palm oil industry is embarking on a transformation towards sustainability. Indonesia Palm Oil Pledge (IPOP) is an initiative initiated by private-sector palm oil companies operating in Indonesia committed to deforestation-free, peat-free and social conflict-free supply chain in order to ensure social benefits and increase competitiveness of the Indonesia’s palm oil sector. Currently its membership includes Golden Agri Resources, Wilmar International, Cargill, Asian Agri and Musim Mas with Indonesia Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KADIN).

    Recognizing the importance of COP21 in Paris this year to shape global climate agenda including sustainable commodity supply-chain, IPOP is hosting several key activities during the Global Landscape Forum 2015 revolving on key issues on palm oil industry transformation in Indonesia. The Global Landscape Forum will bring together 2,500 stakeholders from across sectors, including forestry, agriculture, water, energy, law and finance with over 100 organizations from across the globe.

    Herewith we would like to cordially invite you to our discussion session and exhibition with the following details:

    1. Experts Discussion: Deforestation free Production of Forest Risk Commodities: Ensuring Benefits for Smallholders
    Sunday, 6 December 2015, 14:50 –5:35 | Trade & Finance Pavilion

    A great deal of progress has been made in formulating and describing country-level multi-stakeholder arrangements that protect forests while enabling sustainable economic development through improved agricultural productivity. These collaborative multi-stakeholder partnerships would combine a number of crucial elements including national and sub-national policies and enforcement mechanisms, no-deforestation, no-peat and no-social conflict purchasing & production commitments, and results-based payments. However, one of the key concerns related to initiatives supporting sustainable palm oil in Indonesia is how smallholders and local community could be included and benefit from supply chains that are deforestation and exploitation free while improving their access to finance. The discussion will highlight existing programs where smallholders work with companies to move towards sustainable palm oil production such as Nestle and Musim Mas.

    Speakers: Rabobank, IPOP Member, SPKS, Nestle, IDH Sustainable Trade
    Moderator: TNC

    2. Panel Session | Long Term Solutions to Forest Fire in Indonesia: Private Sector’s Role in Multi-Stakeholders Effort
    Sunday, 6 December 2015, 16:30 – 18:00

    Indonesia’s fires and haze have implications across multiple scales, including regional investment and political relations, as well as international trade and global commodity supply chains. However, it is a challenge that will have to be met at home and with the participation of the public sector, the private sector, and the people. This discussion forum will explore the potential for the private sector to work with government and the local people to prevent and combat forest fires in Indonesia, and the challenges they will face. It will also address the three most important actions for companies to boost efforts to resolve forest fires in Indonesia?

    Speakers: Ministry of Environment & Forestry, CIFOR, SPKS, IPOP Management, GAR
    Moderator: WRI

    Session details:

    3. IPOP & IBCSD Exhibition Booth: Sustainable Palm Oil Transformation
    Sunday, 6 December 2015, All Day | Trade & Finance Pavilion

    Register online to secure your place in our sessions & exhibition at the world’s biggest sustainable land use platform:

    For further information on the session, please visit or contact :
    · Forum Coordinator Ann-Kathrin Neureuther (
    · Anasti Putri and Kestri Ariyanti (

    We look forward to meeting you in Paris.

    Best regards,

    Nurdiana Darus
    Executive Director
    Indonesia Palm Oil Pledge

  3. Press release from EIA:




    KUALA LUMPUR: Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) members today responded to a report exposing critical flaws in the industry body’s certification of ‘sustainable’ palm oil by supporting a resolution to improve the quality, oversight and credibility of assessments by third-party auditors.

    EIA Forest Campaigner and report author Tomasz Johnson said: “It is reassuring that most RSPO members have accepted the evidence presented in our report and have voted for this resolution. But the extent to which this resolves the problems we have identified will only be clear when the recommendations are implemented.

    “The damage done by the absence of oversight in this system is extensive and serious. We expect to see an immediate reaction by the RSPO that reflects this. EIA will be closely monitoring progress in delivering the Resolution.”

    Released on Monday, the report Who Watches the Watchmen? by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) with Malaysian NGO Grassroots revealed major flaws in the system of scrutiny which underpins the RSPO’s guarantee of sustainable production.

    Critical problems identified include:
    • auditors producing fraudulent reports that disguise violations of the RSPO’s rules and greenwashing the violation of indigenous rights;
    • auditors failing to identify indigenous land rights claims;
    • auditors failing to identify the risk of trafficked labourers being used in plantations;
    • auditors producing substandard assessments that fail to identify the habitat of critically endangered species;
    • clear conflicts of interest between palm oil producers and the companies they are hiring to audit their operations.

    As RSPO members met for in Kuala Lumpur this week for their 12th Annual General Assembly, the report strongly urged them to work to restore credibility to the certification process by supporting a resolution seeking quality audits and improved scrutiny; ‘Resolution 6h’ was adopted on Thursday by 158 votes to 209.

    • Interviews are available on request; please contact Forest Campaigner Tomasz Johnson via or telephone +44 20 7354 7960.


    1. The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) is a UK- and Washington DC-based Non-Governmental Organisation that investigates and campaigns against a wide range of environmental crimes, including illegal wildlife trade, illegal logging, hazardous waste, and trade in climate and ozone-altering chemicals.

    2. Grassroots’ mission is to promote protection of forests and communities who call them home through participating in projects that have the same aim and initiating worthwhile efforts to further forest conservation. It engages in projects that contribute to its mission, partnering with civil society groups and engaging corporate and government sectors.

    3. Who Watches the Watchmen? is available to read and download at

  4. RSPO Statement 20 November 2015:


    On 16 November 2015, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), a not-for-profit organisation based in the UK, published a report titled “Who watches the watchmen? Auditors and the breakdown of oversight in the RSPO”.

    The report questions the ability of RSPO’s auditors of certifying the correct application of RSPO’s principles and criteria by palm oil growers, to protect primary forests and other High-Conservation Value areas, and prevent land-grabbing and other abuses against local communities and palm oil workers. The conclusions of the report are based on nine case studies.

    RSPO reaffirms its commitment to transparency and open dialogue with all stakeholders willing to address the sustainability challenges of palm oil production. It takes very seriously the claims contained in the EIA report, and welcomes it as an opportunity for intensifying this dialogue, and further improve its certification system.

    RSPO is working with its third-party oversight body, Accreditation Service International (ASI), to review the case studies analysed by EIA. As explained in a recent ASI statement, of the nine case studies, two relate to a certification body whose accreditation for the RSPO program has been terminated (since 2014), one has already been investigated by ASI and one is currently under assessment by ASI. All other cases have already been logged and will be accounted for in ASI’s 2016 assessment planning.

    Currently, the RSPO has 57 grower members, accounting for a total certified production area of 2,656,894 ha. There are 22 approved certification bodies working with the RSPO worldwide. RSPO believes that the 9 case studies presented by EIA, however serious, cannot lead to a general dismissal of the RSPO certification system.

    All RSPO Certification Bodies are accredited by ASI (you can find more information here). ASI provides independent third-party accreditation to the RSPO’s certification program and it conducts regular assessments of Certification Bodies, including both office and field witness verifications.

    ASI will conduct a series of compliance assessments in 2016 and will work with RSPO and the Certification Bodies to improve the current system.

    The RSPO will also be implementing an auditor registry in partnership with ASI to ensure better oversight of RSPO auditors, to be introduced in 2016.

    The RSPO is also a full member of ISEAL, the global membership association for sustainability standards. This requires the RSPO to comply with ISEAL Codes which, among other requirements, include continuous improvement of auditing systems and constant training of CBs.

    About RSPO

    In response to the urgent and pressing global call for sustainably-produced palm oil, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was formed in 2004 with the objective of promoting the growth and use of sustainable oil palm products through credible global standards and engagement of stakeholders. The seat of the association is in Zurich, Switzerland, while the secretariat is currently based in Kuala Lumpur with satellite offices in Jakarta and London.

    RSPO is a not-for-profit association that unites stakeholders from seven sectors of the palm oil industry – oil palm producers, palm oil processors or traders, consumer goods manufacturers, retailers, banks and investors, environmental or nature conservation NGOs and social or developmental NGOs – to develop and implement global standards for sustainable palm oil.

    Such multi-stakeholder representation is mirrored in the governance structure of RSPO such that seats in the Executive Board and project-level Working Groups are fairly allocated to each sector. In this way, RSPO lives out the philosophy of the “roundtable” by giving equal rights to each stakeholder group to bring group-specific agendas to the roundtable, facilitating traditionally adversarial stakeholders and business competitors to work together towards a common objective and make decisions by consensus.

    Contacts for RSPO Secretariat:
    Stefano Savi
    Global Outreach and Engagement Director
    T: +60323021500