Upgrade of Indonesian palm oil certification falls short, observers say

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  • The Indonesian government’s planned update to its palm oil sustainability certification program doesn’t do enough to protect Indigenous communities from land grabs or prevent the destruction of forests, groups say.
  • The Indonesia Sustainable Palm Oil (ISPO) scheme prohibits the conversion of Indigenous lands to oil palm plantations, but relies on the official framework for recognizing Indigenous land claims that covers only a tiny fraction of such areas.
  • It also fails to explicitly call for the protection of secondary forests, allowing an area greater than the size of California to potentially be cleared for more plantations.
  • There is also no provision for independent monitoring of the ISPO certification scheme itself that would provide credibility and oversight to the system.

JAKARTA — An Indonesian government scheme to certify sustainable palm oil doesn’t do enough to protect human rights or the environment, and needs to accommodate input from Indigenous and forest communities, activists say.

The government is currently drafting the implementing regulations for the Indonesia Sustainable Palm Oil (ISPO) scheme, which should have been issued in mid-April but have been delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But even that delay hasn’t been sufficient to address the various shortcomings of the ISPO and the values at its core — the principles and criteria, or P&C — according to an analysis of the drafts by the U.K.-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) and its Indonesian partner, Kaoem Telapak.

Among their key findings: that social safeguards, especially for Indigenous peoples’ rights, have been omitted; and that secondary forest continues to be overlooked as a type of natural landscape that warrants protection.

“The P&C still do not accommodate human rights aspects, including the right of indigenous peoples and local communities to Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC),” the report says.

It adds, “If the standards are already bad, how will implementation fare?”

A woman collects oil palm fruit on an oil palm estate in southern Papua. Image by Albertus Vembrianto for Mongabay and The Gecko Project.

Conflicts between companies and Indigenous communities

Observers have been making similar critiques of the ISPO since it was rolled out in 2011 in an attempt by the government and industry to decouple the reputation of palm oil from the issues of deforestationland disputes, and labor rights abuses.

A 2017 report by the Forest Peoples Programme (FPP) ranking various certification schemes for biofuels and edible oils put the ISPO at the very bottom of the list. It said the ISPO had the weakest set of requirements of the schemes evaluated. A year earlier the Indonesian government started a process to strengthen the ISPO, and in March this year President Joko Widodo signed a regulation updating the ISPO standard.

But the updated P&C still doesn’t do enough to protect Indigenous communities from land grabs by palm oil companies, says Agung Ady Setyawan, a campaigner with the NGO Forest Watch Indonesia.

“Based on our data, there are still many conflicts related to overlapping [land claims],” Agung said during a recent online discussion. “Our analysis in the provinces of East Kalimantan, Papua and West Papua shows that there are 544,000 hectares [1.34 million acres] of oil palm concessions with business permits that overlap with ancestral lands.”

While the draft of the P&C forbids customary lands from being converted into plantations, it fails to recognize that the vast majority of Indigenous land in Indonesia isn’t formally or legally acknowledged by the government, according to Agung.

Only about 72,000 hectares (178,000 acres) of customary forests have been recognized by the Ministry of Environment and Forestry to date, with recognition for another 915,000 hectares (2.26 million acres) still pending. Agung said even that figure is still a far cry from the total area of customary forests where Indigenous groups live.

The Ancestral Domain Registration Agency (BRWA), established by NGOs to help communities map their own areas, has demarcated about 10.6 million hectares (26.2 million acres) of Indigenous territory to date — an area 11 times bigger than what the environment ministry’s map identifies.

But even after a community has had its land mapped by the ministry as Indigenous territory, its claims to it must still be legislated by local councils. The process can be tedious and costly, taking up to 15 years in some cases.

With most customary areas still lacking legal status, companies can continue taking over these lands regardless of what the ISPO says, according to Agung.

This lack of protection for the rights of Indigenous and local communities makes the ISPO a poor alternative to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), widely considered the strongest certification scheme for the commodity, according to Dahniar Andriani, executive director of the community rights NGO HuMa.

“The RSPO has a clearer guideline,” she said. “For FPIC, they have process of documentation, participatory mapping, yearly evaluation on affected communities and histories of land ownership.”

The ISPO is also more rigid in its definition of Indigenous peoples and their lands, relying on the long and arduous process of local legislation, Dahniar added.

“If the guidelines of the new ISPO are still the same as the old ones, focusing on legality, then it won’t be enough to make sure there are no more conflicts between companies and Indigenous peoples,” she said.

Irfan Bakhtiar, director of the sustainable palm oil program at the Indonesia Biodiversity Foundation (Kehati), said the new P&C should be flexible enough to acknowledge Indigenous land claims other than those officially sanctioned by the government.

Abetnego Tarigan, an environmental adviser in the office of the president’s chief of staff, acknowledged the shortcomings in the process for legal recognition of Indigenous land rights, but said it was beyond the scope of the ISPO alone to fix this.

“In regards to Indigenous peoples, we know that there are more fundamental [regulations], such as our forestry law and our land law,” he said.

Fire burning through forest and oil palm on peatlands in Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Secondary forests left unprotected

Another persistent flaw that critics point to in the new draft of the P&C is its stated call to protect only primary and peat forests rather than all natural forests.

In Indonesia, natural forests are categorized as either primary or secondary. Tropical rainforests are generally considered primary if there is no evidence of human disturbance, usually characterized by a full ceiling canopy and several layers of understory. Secondary forest is rainforest that has been disturbed in some way, naturally or unnaturally, characterized by minimal canopy structure, less diversity and smaller trees.

By excluding secondary forests from the types of areas protected under the ISPO, large swaths of natural forests categorized as secondary forests are at risk of being replaced by oil palm plantations, according to Agung.

Yet despite being degraded to some degree, secondary forests are still valuable as they can help maintain the biodiversity of a region and provide protection against soil erosion. If left standing, secondary forests can also be restored into prime biodiversity habitat over time.

“According to FWI, the definition of natural forests should include secondary forests,” Agung said. “Both primary and secondary forests are important to be protected. If only primary forests are protected, then we stand to lose 43 million hectares [106 million acres] of secondary forests” — an area greater than the size of California.

An analysis of official data by the Bogor Institute of Agriculture (IPB) shows that there are 1.44 million hectares (3.55 million acres) of natural forests already parceled out to plantation firms that can be cleared at any time.

Teguh Surya, director of the environmental NGO Madani, said the ISPO’s new P&C should state clearly that no oil palm plantations may be developed from clearing natural forests, and that all standing natural forests inside existing concessions must be conserved. In exchange, concession holders can be given degraded or unforested land to cultivate.

Teguh said ensuring such a prohibition would also be in the government’s interest, since it has touted the ISPO as part of its toolkit to tackle greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation.

“If the government says it wants to lower greenhouse gas emissions [with the new ISPO], then it’s relevant” to protect natural forests, he said. “There needs to be a regulation in the new ISPO’s principles that says palm oil can’t be produced from the conversion of natural forests and that natural forests have to be protected and excluded from concessions.”

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

Lack of clarity

While the draft P&C now explicitly includes the need to identify and maintain high conservation value (HCV) areas, it’s based on national laws and regulations that don’t make it mandatory to conduct HCV assessments before clearing a forested area.

But it does offer other improvements, according to an analysis by Madani. These range from the inclusion of independent monitoring in the ISPO committee, to the addition of transparency as a new principle, to the mention of public participation in ISPO certification.

The new P&C will also allow certification bodies to issue ISPO certificates directly without the approval of the ISPO committee, making the certification process more independent in theory.

Besides the implementing regulations that were to have been issued in April by the Ministry of Agriculture, further improvements will be rolled out in another regulation to be issued by the Ministry of Industry. Musdhalifah Machmud, the deputy for agriculture to Indonesia’s chief economics minister, said the latter regulation will manage the downstream chain of the palm oil industry, ensuring the sustainability of the entire supply chain.

Joko Supriyono, the chairman of Indonesia’s oil palm business association, GAPKI, said certifying the country’s palm oil throughout the whole supply chain would enable the ISPO to compete with Malaysia’s certification scheme, called the MSPO. Indonesia and Malaysia are the top two producers of palm oil, accounting for 85% of global supply.

“If we compare [the ISPO] with the MSPO, they already have supply chain certification, and thus Malaysia can guarantee their product to be MSPO certified,” he said. “We don’t have that yet. We have to add supply chain certification system [in the ISPO] so that we can claim our product is ISPO certified. This will open up the way for our palm oil to be accepted in the European market.”

But nebulous definitions and lack of clear guidelines on various aspects of the scheme, including on conducting audits, monitoring, information disclosure, complaints and dispute resolution, continue to dog the new-look ISPO.

Independent monitoring of the ISPO committee is one of the improvements mentioned in the new draft; the previous standard didn’t have such a feature. But the technical guidelines don’t state if this entails the independent monitoring of ISPO certification itself or not.

“It is therefore unclear if there will be independent monitoring of ISPO certification itself,” the EIA report says. “This has been a key ask and would be similar to the system under Indonesia’s timber legality certification system, SVLK, which provides credibility and oversight to the system.”

Also lacking clear definitions and guidelines is the ISPO committee, tasked with the continued development of the ISPO’s P&C, policies, and evaluation, among others. However, the government hasn’t shared any details on the ISPO committee.

“This is crucial because the ISPO Committee is very important in the coordination of the management and implementation of ISPO certification,” the EIA says.

The details are expected to be in a separate regulation from the office of the chief economics minister, but a draft of the regulation still hasn’t been shared with NGOs.

Additionally, the complaints mechanism and procedures are unclear, as is the way in which complaints will be made public, the EIA report says.

“There is no requirement for audit results to be publicly published either,” it says. “This will result in low transparency and therefore reduce trust in the system. The process on the drafting of the ISPO regulations and standards, and how stakeholder input will be incorporated, is also still far from transparent and open.”

 

Banner image: Oil palm plantation in West Kalimantan. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

 

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This story first appeared on Mongabay

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