RSPO adopts total ban on deforestation under sweeping new standards

  • The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) has adopted new standards that will prohibit its member companies from clearing any type of forest for palm plantations.
  • RSPO-certified companies were previously permitted to clear secondary forests and peat forests with a peat layer no deeper than 3 meters (10 feet).
  • The move comes amid a growing consumer backlash that has prompted companies to make zero-deforestation commitments.
  • Environmental activists have welcomed the RSPO’s deforestation ban with cautious optimism, noting that enforcement of the certification body’s standards has historically been lax.

JAKARTA — The world’s leading certification body for ethically sourced palm oil has ordered a total ban on deforestation by its members, amid growing pressure from both companies and consumers.

Members of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) voted overwhelmingly in favor of the ban at the group’s annual general assembly in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia, on Nov. 15. The ban is now part of the RSPO’s new core standards, the Principles and Criteria (P&C), which member companies must comply with for their product to be certified “sustainable.”

While the RSPO’s previous standards prohibited the clearing of primary, or virgin, forest to make way for palm plantations, they did allow for the cutting of secondary forests and peat forests with a peat layer less than 3 meters (10 feet) deep.

While not as thick and lush as primary forests, secondary forests are still vital for wildlife, carbon storage, and the livelihoods of local and indigenous communities.

Peatlands, meanwhile, are rich in carbon, and their destruction by palm oil companies in Indonesia, the world’s top producer of the commodity, releases significant quantities of greenhouse gases. Annual greenhouse gas emissions from converting a single hectare (2.5 acres) of peatland to oil palm plantation equal those from driving six times around the world in the average passenger vehicle.

The RSPO’s new standards mean palm oil growers must ensure future land clearing doesn’t cause deforestation or damage areas especially rich in carbon, including peatlands and high carbon stock (HCS) forests. This means no more planting of oil palms in peat of any depth.

The new standards also purport to strengthen labor rights protections.

The RSPO’s chief executive, Datuk Darrel Webber, welcomed the newly adopted set of standards, calling it “the most inclusive review of its kind, to date, and for that we are proud.”

A Bornean orangutan in Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo. The critically endangered species is threatened by the unbridled expansion of oil palm plantations into its forest home. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Growing consumer awareness about the conversion of tropical rainforest for palm plantations has prompted many companies that use palm oil in their products — which range from cosmetics and snack foods, to detergents and biofuels — to make “no deforestation” pledges. For many of these companies, these pledges have taken the form of so-called NDPE commitments: no deforestation, no peat, and no exploitation of indigenous communities.

Other companies, like the U.K. supermarket chain Iceland Foods, have banned palm oil from their supply chains altogether over deforestation concerns.

More than 90 institutional investors, managing more than $6.7 trillion in assets, have also called on the RSPO to improve its standards by banning deforestation outright.

Call for immediate action

Environmental activists have reacted with cautious optimism to the RSPO’s new standards, saying they won’t amount to much if they’re not implemented — as is the case with many of the companies that have already pledged to not commit any deforestation.

A new report by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) shows that many palm oil companies with zero-deforestation policies are falling short of properly enforcing their commitments. The report, which assessed 70 of the world’s most significant palm oil producers and traders, found that many of the companies’ zero-deforestation targets lacked scope and on-the-ground verification.

This has limited their effectiveness in addressing deforestation and left significant areas of tropical forests at risk of destruction to produce palm oil, the report says.

Of the companies studied, only 26 expected all their suppliers to also match their commitments, and just 24 gave any evidence of how they monitored forest cover across their supply chains to ensure no deforestation was taking place.

This lack of supplier oversight and on-the-ground monitoring means companies can claim to meet their zero-deforestation commitments while still contributing to forest loss. And the forests that continue to be razed for new plantations include some of the last habitats of vanishingly rare species such as Sumatran tigers (Panthera tigris sumatrae) and orangutans (Pongo abelii).

“Without companies monitoring deforestation on the ground and extending their commitments to their entire operations, company pledges to be deforestation-free carry little weight,” said Michael Guindon, the ZSL’s palm oil technical adviser.

The zero-deforestation pledges also vary in strength among the companies.

Only 34 of those studied have already committed to no planting of oil palm on peat of any depth, while a further 16 have weak or unclear commitments that fail to specify all depths of peat. Twenty companies have no commitment prohibiting development on peat at all.

In terms of HCS assessment, only 34 companies have committed to the HCS Approach methodology expected under the new RSPO criteria, while 25 have no HCS commitments currently in place.

If these companies want to meet the updated RSPO requirements, they have to improve their own policies and implementation, according to the ZSL.

And while the 2018 standards take effect immediately, existing RSPO grower members get a one-year transition period to implement the new standards.

Kiki Taufik, head of the global forest campaign at Greenpeace Indonesia, said the new standards should be enforced immediately, without a grace period.

“Adopting no-deforestation into the RSPO’s standards is an important step toward breaking the links between certified palm oil and forest destruction,” he said. “However, the new rules will take at least two years to come into effect, and right now numerous RSPO members are destroying rainforests with impunity. The RSPO must address this immediately if it is to make a real difference on the ground.”

An oil palm worker harvesting palm fruit at a PT London Sumatra Indonesia (Lonsum) plantation in North Sumatra province. Image by Nanang Sujana for RAN/Oppuk.

Lack of enforcement

The effectiveness of the new RSPO standards has also been called into question by the U.S.-based advocacy group Rainforest Action Network (RAN), which says the RSPO had for years failed to enforce its old standards.

“It’s important to remember that a strong certification standard is meaningless without enforcement,” said Robin Averbeck, RAN’s agribusiness campaign director.

The group cited the case of Indofood, one of the biggest companies in Indonesia and a subsidiary of the Salim Group, owned by one of the country’s richest individuals. A 2016 exposé by RAN, Indonesian workers’ rights watchdog OPPUK and the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) found Indofood in violation of more than 20 of the RSPO’s existing standards, as well as 10 Indonesian labor statutes.

The report documented serious labor rights abuses on Indofood-owned plantations, including cases of child labor, workers going unpaid, precarious employment, and hazardous working conditions.

An RSPO audit of Indofood’s RSPO-certified unit, which includes one palm oil mill and three palm oil estates, confirmed the NGOs’ allegations. The RSPO subsequently sanctioned PT London Sumatra Indonesia (Lonsom), the Indofood subsidiary in charge of the audited mill and plantations, by revoking its sustainability certificate for selling palm oil and calling for audits at the company’s sites.

Yet units of Lonsom not subject to the original complaint remain free to sell RSPO-certified palm oil; they will only be audited within the next three months. Indofood’s RSPO membership also remains intact — proof that the RSPO’s standards aren’t being properly implemented, according to RAN.

“The RSPO’s recent decision to not suspend Indofood — a RSPO ‘sustainably’ certified company proven to be systematically and illegally violating workers’ rights for over two years — is evidence of the failures of the RSPO system,” Averbeck said.

She called on the RSPO to reform its auditing, compliance and grievance systems to better enforce its new standards.

“If the RSPO wants to build its reputation in the marketplace, and show strong enforcement of its newly revised standard, it must suspend Indofood’s RSPO membership and certification until independently verified corrective actions are undertaken to remedy the systemic labor violations across Indofood’s plantations,” Averbeck said.

Banner image: Fires engulf an oil palm plantation in Rokan Hilir district, Riau province, Indonesia. Image by Zamzami/Mongabay Indonesia. 

This story first appeared on Mongabay

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