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Leon Kaye headshot

RSPO Touts Progress on Sustainable Palm Oil, But Critics Aren't Buying It

By Leon Kaye

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) has been around for 13 years and claims that it is moving forward on boosting the world’s supply of sustainable palm oil.

Critics, however, say the organization and its guidelines have done little to stall deforestation across the world, especially within the two largest growers and suppliers of palm oil, Indonesia and Malaysia. As the Economist reported last year, no country on the planet has lost forests at a faster rate than Indonesia over the past century – and much of that can be attributed to palm oil plantations.

This week the RSPO issued its most recent impact report, which claims the industry has made “tremendous progress” on various fronts such as monitoring and grievances. Accomplishments the RSPO highlights for 2016 include:

  • A 29 percent increase in membership over the previous year.

  • 83 million hectares (10,900 square miles) of certified palm oil producing lands across 14 nations.

  • 40 RSPO growers have phased out the toxic herbicide paraquat, with another 33 firms saying they are on target to ban this chemical’s use.

  • Doubling of the number of certified independent smallholders.

  • The closing of two-thirds of the labor grievances filed since 2009.

On that last point, those complaints that are now “closed” total 41 out of 63, or an average of nine per year. And that is only the start of why many NGOs say the RSPO is long on rhetoric but short on delivering results to make this industry far more responsible and sustainable.

For example, the RSPO boasts that its efforts led to a 10 percent increase in high conservation value area over 2015 figures. That sounds impressive, as that is the equivalent of 200,000 soccer fields spared from peatlands drainage, clear cutting, slash-and-burn, and other land-clearing methods. The problem, however, is that since the early 1990s, as many as 70,000 square miles (about 18 million hectares) of lands have been converted into palm oil plantations. Taking data from the Union of Concerned Scientists, that is almost 34 million soccer or football fields.

And that sobering statistic is just the start. 2016 continued to witness the ugly effects of the global palm oil industry.

It is plausible that fewer people died from forest fires and air pollution last year. And that's an improvement after estimates linked 100,000 deaths to the endemic forest fires across Indonesia in 2015. But critics say the lower incidence of forest fires can be attributed more to the fall rains that blanketed Indonesia than any decisive action.

And deforestation is continuing in even more remote areas of Indonesia, such as on the island of Papua. One of the more notorious companies, Korean-owned Korindo, says it has halted the development of lands on its concessions; the problem is that environmental and human rights NGOs have little cause to trust this and other companies because of their lack of transparency.

The RSPO is also making little headway when it comes to ethics traceability in the world’s palm oil supply chain. In this most recent report, the RSPO said the problem of child labor in palm oil fields makes it "clearer that much work needs to be done.”

The organization claims it is aligned with all and any goals to eradicate child labor, but many within the industry are not getting the memo: Last year Amnesty International accused RSPO member Wilmar (which controls at least 40 percent of the world’s palm oil trade) of numerous child labor and human rights violations (RSPO has since pointed out that Wilmar has taken steps to address those problems). Indofood, which has launched a joint venture with another RSPO member, PepsiCo, was also charged with turning a blind eye to child labor. The RSPO even admitted that it has done little to reach out to workers within the industry, including women, who often suffer the most from low-paid and even unpaid labor.

Add the fact that the RSPO has such little influence amongst its membership -- to the point that one of its founding members sued the organization after it was suspended over several allegations of abuse -- we have an industry that is heavy on words but has failed to prove that it is anywhere near to becoming a responsible industry.

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.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye