RSPO fails to deliver on environmental and social sustainability, study finds


  • The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is widely considered the strongest certification scheme for the commodity, which is grown largely on plantations hacked out of tropical forests that are home to critically endangered species such as orangutans.
  • A new study has found that RSPO-certified plantations perform no better than non-RSPO estates on a series of sustainability metrics, including species and habitat conservation, as well as social benefits to local communities.
  • The researchers attributed the scheme’s shortcomings to a lack of clarity on its central objectives, as well as weak environmental safeguards.
  • For its part, the RSPO has disputed the study’s findings, citing other reports that it says highlight a net positive impact to the environment and communities from certification.

JAKARTA — Oil palm plantations that adhere to the world’s leading certification scheme for the crop show no difference in environmental, social and economic sustainability than non-certified estates, a new study has found.

The study — carried out by researchers from the University of Queensland and the ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions (CEED), both in Australia, and Borneo Futures — is the first of its kind to assess how effective the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is in achieving its sustainability goals by comparing certified and non-certified concessions.

To do that, they created the most comprehensive map and dataset yet of RSPO-certified sites in Kalimantan, the Indonesian portion of the island of Borneo. They then used the map and dataset to assess how effectively these plantations delivered on six of the eight central pillars of the RSPO’s principles and criteria: conservation of biodiversity, responsible development of new plantings, responsible consideration of communities, consideration of social impacts, economic viability, and commitment to best practice.

Not very well, as it turned out. “No significant difference was found between certified and non-certified plantations for any of the sustainability metrics investigated,” the researchers wrote. In fact, the only area where RSPO certification made a positive impact was in higher yields and share prices for certified companies.

“[O]ur results suggest that low confidence in the [RSPO’s] mechanisms for improving overall industry sustainability appears warranted in all but very narrow and economically-oriented interpretations of sustainability,” the researchers concluded.

Global demand for products like palm oil is responsible for depleting tropical forest cover, with often grave health consequences for local communities. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Benchmarking the benchmark

The study’s findings are notable, given that the RSPO is widely regarded as having the strongest set of requirements among existing certification schemes for edible oils and biofuels.

The standard was established in 2004 in response to a growing recognition that the expansion of oil palm plantations was fueling rainforest destruction and land grabs in countries like Indonesia, where legal protections for the environment and indigenous communities were seen as weak, and enforcement of the law even weaker.

Since then, the RSPO has grown to become the leading certification scheme for palm oil, with 26,500 square kilometers (10,200 square miles) of plantations and 11.65 million tons of palm oil — representing a fifth of the global production of the commodity — falling under its scope.

Before this recent study, however, few investigations had been undertaken to evaluate the RSPO’s effectiveness in achieving sustainability aims, leaving decision-makers without the evidence-based answers to whether investment in RSPO is an effective means of obtaining outcomes better than business as usual.

A baby orangutan in North Sumatra, Indonesia. Along with habitat loss due to mining, orangutans in both Sumatra and Borneo are threatened by fires and deforestation for oil palm and pulp plantations. Photo by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

‘No evidence’ of orangutan protection

One of the key sustainability measures where the study found the RSPO lacking was in helping conserve biodiversity, for which the researchers looked at the fate of the critically endangered Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus).

The survival of the species depends on whether it has enough viable habitat to survive. In Indonesian Borneo, where palm plantations are taking over the rainforests that constitute the orangutans’ habitat, their prospects look dim. Coupled with this loss of habitat is the routine killing of the great apes, which are viewed by plantation workers as vermin.

The study found there was no evidence that RSPO-certified plantations provided better protection for orangutans. Their populations declined in both certified and non-certified concessions between 2009 and 2014, according to CEED researcher Courtney Morgans, the lead author of the study.

“Despite aims to manage plantations in a way that ‘maintains and/or enhances’ high conservation value species, our study found little evidence that RSPO plantations are improving protection of the critically endangered orangutan,” Morgans, who is also affiliated with the University of Queensland, told Mongabay in an email.

The study also found that RSPO plantations usually feature extensively deforested areas, leaving little viable habitat for the orangutan. Under RSPO regulations, new plantations cannot be developed from primary forest as of November 2005. Companies gunning for certification prior to that deadline would therefore have razed much of the forested parts of their concessions in order to maximize their available land.

By contrast, many non-certified plantations still contain forest patches and viable orangutan habitat, since no clearing deadlines exist for them.

In all, the researchers wrote, “No evidence was found to suggest that RSPO certified plantations were able to retain populations of orangutan better than non-certified concessions.”

An oil palm plantation in Indonesia burns. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

‘Only small benefits’

Another environmental indicator that the researchers looked at was fire incidence. Again, the findings showed little benefit from RSPO certification.

“The number of fire hotspots detected within palm oil concessions increased equally in both RSPO and non-RSPO concessions between 1999-2004 and 2011-2015 with no significant difference in the number of fire hotspots in certified and non-certified concessions,” the researchers wrote.

The study also found that the RSPO failed to deliver on social impacts. “There also isn’t a clear signal that RSPO is improving levels of wealth or improving access to health infrastructure for villagers neighbouring the plantations,” Morgans said. “The only small benefits we could detect were marginally higher yields and share values for certified companies.”

The study suggests that RSPO certification has failed to prevent deforestation and biodiversity loss because participants have differing interpretations of its primary objective, which is to “promote sustainable palm oil.” As a result, different RSPO stakeholder groups prioritize certain criteria over others.

The RSPO’s own principles and criteria — the eight central pillars — also leave much of the scheme open to interpretation through vague wording such as “maintain populations” and “promote positive impacts,” Morgans said.

She suggested that these terms be replaced with something more definitive that can be quantified.

“The immediate adoption of specific and measurable targets will improve RSPO’s effectiveness,” she said.

Another factor is that the RSPO’s environmental safeguards may simply not be strong enough, according to a recent report by the Changing Market Foundation. The report notes that the certification scheme still allows the conversion of secondary forests and the draining of peatlands, and does not require reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases.

“As this report exposes, RSPO has been at best a distraction and at worst a hindrance to efforts to improve the sustainability of palm oil,” Deborah Lapidus, campaign director for the environmental advocacy group Mighty Earth, wrote on the group’s Facebook page.

Morgans said the RSPO’s failings could also be blamed on its focus on improving the sustainability of the palm oil industry at the plantation level, rather than addressing sustainability issues at a larger level. This, she said, limits its ability to deliver broad benefits.

For example, the requirement to “maintain and enhance” high conservation value species ignores the biology and behavior of many species the scheme is trying to protect, such as the orangutan.

“The Bornean Orangutan requires a large home range due to seasonal food availability,” Morgans said. “Effective conservation of the species, therefore, requires the conservation of large and connected forest patches, which can only be achieved with landscape level coordination.”

Similarly, the aims of contributing to local sustainable development and improving the social impacts of plantation and mill operations require coordination between multiple stakeholders. As such, the study argues, the delivery of social benefits and infrastructure should be developed and implemented at a higher level rather than simply a per-concession basis.

To address this weakness, the study’s authors called on the RSPO to adopt jurisdictional approaches aimed at certifying entire administration units rather than individual plantations.

An oil-palm plantation with a few remaining rainforest trees in Sarawak, Malaysia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
An oil-palm plantation with a few remaining rainforest trees in Sarawak, Malaysia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

RSPO responds

The RSPO, for its part, has called into question the validity of the new findings.

Stefano Savi, the RSPO’s global outreach and engagement manager, said there was ample evidence in recently published independent studies showing that RSPO-certified concessions had both reduced deforestation rates as well as the number of hotspots.

One study he cited, coordinated by Borneo Futures in 2017, measured deforestation and orangutan population in 2,717 oil palm estates and concessions throughout Borneo. That study showed that RSPO-certified concessions lost 9 percent of intact and logged forest per total concession area, against 17.2 percent for non-RSPO concessions between 2000 and 2015. The authors of that study also reported that annual forest loss rates in certified concessions declined consistently after 2005, while those on non-RSPO concessions stayed consistently higher.

The 2017 study also found that the rate of orangutan population decline was lower, in absolute terms, for RSPO-certified concessions as compared to non-RSPO concessions.

“Overall, the data obtained from the study suggested that RSPO-certified concessions are better at working towards the protection of orangutans, as compared to non-certified concessions,” Savi told Mongabay in an email.

Savi also questioned the accuracy of the modeling used by Morgans to determine the orangutan population, saying that by relying on nest counts, it might have failed to account for transient orangutans.

Morgans, who was also involved in the 2017 study, noted that while RSPO-certified concessions had lost fewer orangutans than non-RSPO estates overall, the relative rate of loss was almost the same — 2.2 percent to 2.1 percent, respectively.

“I am not sure if that paper is the best source to support the statement that RSPO has helped to protect orangutan habitats,” she added.

Savi also cited another study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which found that RSPO certification reduced deforestation in Indonesian oil palm plantations by 33 percent from the business-as-usual scenario between 2001 and 2015.

But that reduced deforestation mostly happened in older plantations, where much of the forest had already been cleared prior to, leaving little to deforest. As a result, the actual area of avoided deforestation was small: just 21 square kilometers (8.1 square miles).

Savi said it was also not clear whether Morgans’s study had taken into account non-certified concessions that had been gazetted for oil palm plantation but were currently inactive.

“Should there be such cases, it should be clearly indicated as it would not be accurate to compare active RSPO-certified areas to inactive non-certified areas,” he said.

Oil palm nursery and processing facility in Sumatra, Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Improving the scheme

Savi said the RSPO management recognized there were still many areas for improvements. He said it had already commissioned studies to determine the actual performance of the certification scheme against its stated standards. Those studies indicated either a net positive impact or little negative impact for RSPO-certified sites, he said.

“As part of our effort to address this issue, we have been working to strengthen our standards through a revision of the RSPO Principles & Criteria, which began last year and is currently underway,” Savi said. The RSPO’s principles and criteria are revised every five years.

Savi said the RSPO would also be looking to conduct more research on the performance and impact of its strategies and interventions to identify potential gaps and help improve its standards.

“Towards this end, we have published a Research Agenda, which details our priority research questions, on our website and have put aside budget to commission our own impact evaluation studies,” he said.

Morgans welcomed the move. She said that despite its shortcomings, the RSPO was still an important mechanism for improving the sustainability of the palm oil industry.

“Dismissing the scheme altogether does risk the advances made so far,” she said. “Instead, effort should be placed on evaluating the scheme, offering constructive criticism, and supporting stakeholders with the development, implementation and adaptive improvement of sustainable practices.”

Banner image: Orangutans in Borneo have been seriously threatened by the oil palm industry. Photo by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

This story first appeared on Mongabay

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