By Chris Lang
The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil operates under the slogan, “Transforming markets to make sustainable palm oil the norm”. Created in 2004, the RSPO is supposed to reassure consumers and manufacturers that products with the RSPO label are not linked to rainforest destruction, human rights abuses, or habitat destruction of endangered species such as orangutans.
But a new report by the Environmental Investigation Agency and the Malaysian organisation Grassroots reveals that the RSPO is “effectively giving false environmental credibility to its products”. The report uncovers fraudulent auditing of oil palm plantations, primary forests cleared to make way for plantations, and community rights being violated.
RSPO is greenwashing destructive palm oil
EIA and Grassroots’ report, “Who Watches the Watchmen? 2: The continuing incompetence of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil’s assurance systems”, can be downloaded here. The report is released to coincide with the RSPO’s annual meeting in Bangkok.
EIA has produced a short film to accompany the report:
The new report is a follow up to a 2015 EIA and Grassroots report that found that auditing firms were colluding with palm oil companies to hide violations. EIA’s new report reveals that the RSPO has failed to make meaningful progress since 2015.
In a press statement, Siobhan Pearce, Forests Campaigner at EIA says,
“If the RSPO is not upholding any of its own rules and if its palm oil isn’t what it says it is on the tin, then that’s a major problem for the industry.
“Consumers should also be worried because they’re buying this certified palm oil on the understanding that it does not cause harm to the environment, that it’s not destroying wildlife or forests and that it’s not exploiting local people.
“You have to wonder whether the RSPO has any credibility at all – to a certain extent, we’re all being conned because the RSPO is not keeping to its own rules and procedures and it’s a form of greenwashing.“
A series of failures
EIA and Grassroots’ report highlights a series of RSPO failures, including the following:
- a complaint case concerning community land rights which has been ongoing for nine-and-a-half years;
- cases where the RSPO is aware companies have cut down primary forest but has failed to stop them, compensate communities or eject the offending companies from its membership;
- fraudulent auditing carried out on plantations;
- land conflicts not being identified;
- primary forest and important habitats being degraded;
- auditors not properly trained or not having the necessary knowledge;
- RSPO collusion with companies to hide flagrant violations of its own standards;
- the RSPO not following its own rules;
- mismanagement of the entire process;
- a system which is slow and unresponsive to active violations of its standards.
“This is a scandalous state of affairs because we raised all these issues with the RSPO four years ago and it set up a special task force which was meant to develop a comprehensive work programme to deal with them, but it hasn’t delivered.”
Assurance Task Force was disorganised, unprofessionally managed, and missed deadlines
In 2016, the RSPO formed the Assurance Task Force to act on the concerns raised in the 2015 report. But EIA and Grassroots’ new report describes the Assurance Task Force as “one of the worst-run working groups of the RSPO”. The report adds, “It has been disorganised, unprofessionally managed, and has chronically missed deadlines.”
The stated goal of the Assurance Task Force was to finish its work by October 2016, with a “final comprehensive report with full recommendations for systemic changes by 1st November 2016”. In fact, the first meeting of Assurance Task Force only took place in November 2016. The “comprehensive report” still does not exist.
The most recent report from the Assurance Task Force in dated August 2018. The report states that the Task Force has completed only 43% of its total activities.
The Assurance Task Force has now been replaced by an Assurance Standing Committee. But the RSPO did not notify Assurance Task Force members of this. The first meeting of the Assurance Standing Committee took place in September 2019. RSPO has disclosed no information about this meeting.
“Systemic and widespread” non-adherence to RSPO standards
In 2018, the RSPO adopted new Principles and Criteria. These are supposed to ensure no deforestation, no new planting on peat, the protection of human rights defenders, improved workers’ rights, and better smallholder inclusion. From November 2019, all audits will be assessed for compliance with the new Principles and Criteria.
EIA and Grassroots point out though that little has improved since their 2015 report: “Nearly all of the concerns raised originally in Who Watches the Watchmen? could easily reoccur again and have done so.”
Their new report concludes that, “Non-adherence to the RSPO’s standards is systemic and widespread, and has led to ongoing land conflicts, labour abuses and destruction of forests.”