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Leon Kaye headshot

NGOs: Key Palm Oil Players Are Still Linked to Deforestation and Human Rights Abuse

By Leon Kaye

We see less hydrogenated vegetable oils in our food products now, and that is a step forward for public health. The problem is that the resulting surge in palm oil -- the non-hydrogenated oil of choice for many food companies -- has festered plenty of headaches that together pose dangers for people and the planet’s health.

Organizations such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) are fighting the good fight, as have allies in environmental NGOs such as WWF and Rainforest Action Network (RAN). These organizations have done a remarkable job in convincing large and small companies alike to source more responsibly- and sustainably-grown palm oil.

But plenty of companies remain either indifferent to the impact palm oil has on human rights and the environment, or they continue to back away from promises to reform their business practices.

One such firm is palm oil and paper supplier Korindo, a Korean-owned company with vast landholdings on the remote island of Papua. Papua is the easternmost region and last frontier of Indonesia; its largest city, Jayapura, is closer to Sydney than Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta.

Last year the NGO Mighty called Korindo out for what the organization’s researchers insisted was the destruction of virgin rainforests across the company’s land concessions. Korindo eventually acquiesced to environmental groups and announced on Dec. 1 that it would halt the development of virgin rainforests into palm oil plantations. The company said it would adhere to the High Carbon Stock Approach (HCS), a methodology more land managers are using to distinguish forest areas for protection from degraded lands with low carbon and biodiversity values that, in turn, are more appropriate for economic development.

But Mighty says satellite photos taken later in December and last month reveal evidence that Korindo is violating its self-imposed moratorium. Mighty claims that plantation “blocks” across 1,400 hectares (36,000 acres) on one of Korindo’s land concessions show the company is priming the land in order to start clearing out forests.

Mighty, the representatives of which met with Korindo executives last month, asked the company for an explanation. In a terse response, Korindo said it conducted its own assessments after the one-month moratorium in December. The company further claimed that since the HCS “is a voluntary effort rather than an obligation of the Indonesian government, the moratorium was lifted after obtaining the results of the survey.”

Disappointed with the letter, Deborah Lapidus, a campaign director with Mighty, told TriplePundit in an email:

“This means Korindo basically deceived us in the meeting when they pretended not to know whether they could hold their moratorium until the quality review panels approved their assessments, all the while knowing the moratorium had already been lifted.

"Clearing forest prior to proper review of sustainability assessments is like a plane taking off in bad weather while awaiting the forecast. It’s a strong indication that these assessments were done for show to appease their customers rather than to truly provide guidance on responsible development.”

Mighty says it will continue to push back at Korindo by going after the company’s lifeblood: its largest customers.

“When we met with Korindo in Jakarta three weeks ago, they assured us that they were adhering to their moratorium and committed to the High Carbon Stock Approach, which doesn’t allow for deforestation,” Lapidus explained. “Yet, at the same time, Korindo’s bulldozers were getting ready to clear a huge area of forest.

We are very disappointed at Korindo’s duplicity, and urge them to immediately halt all further development. Because of its lies, Korindo is losing what little credibility it had and serious scrutiny is needed: Their sustainability assessments must be approved by the industry’s quality review panels.”

Mighty is sharing this information and photographs with Korindo’s customers to make the case that these palm oil purveyors should suspend business with the company, if they have not already. Korindo has already lost some of the world's largest palm oil suppliers, including Musim Mas, Wilmar and IOI Group, as customers. Recently, APRIL, a global paper company based in Singapore with operations in China and Indonesia, also informed Mighty it will sever ties with Korindo.

Meanwhile, Mighty is accusing another Korean multinational, Posco Daewoo, of causing deforestation in Papua. Greenpeace is one NGO tracking Posco Daewoo’s development of virgin rainforests, which it says led to 7,500 hectares of cleared forest during a 15-month period ending in December. Mighty released satellite images indicating that the company intends to clear another 4,000 hectares this coming year.

The outcry against these two Korean conglomerates flares up as RAN and labor rights advocacy groups continue to highlight remaining ties between PepsiCo and a company these NGOs link to more deforestation and human rights violations.

Indoagri, a subsidiary of Indofood, which has a business relationship to PepsiCo, is under fire yet again. RAN, the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) and the Indonesian workers’ advocacy group OPPUK say Indoagri’s palm oil policy (which is currently missing from the company’s website) is full of “loopholes.”

So what are the answers? The RSPO estimates that it certifies 20 percent of the world’s palm oil supply, which leaves plenty of opportunity to reform more of the industry. Member companies join the organization on a voluntary basis, meaning it behooves more of the world’s largest food and consumer products companies to leverage their market share in order to pressure wayward palm oil suppliers from aligning with the RSPO and environmental NGOs.

“It is crucial that we all work to bring this 80 percent into what should be the mainstream -- responsibly-sourced, certified, sustainable palm oil,” Dan Strechay, U.S. representative for the RSPO, told TriplePundit in an email. “Certification systems, non-governmental organizations and other independent third parties play a crucial role in the verification and oversight that are vital to solving these complex issues."

Image credit: CIFOR/Flickr

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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