Certifying destruction at the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil

14.09.16 Feature
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Labour and environmental rights defenders have long criticized the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), the organization claiming to promote sustainable palm oil production, for its loose standards for certifying producers in an industry marked by widespread human rights violations and environmental destruction. Now a major palm oil producer linked to extensive deforestation, the Malaysia-based IOI Group, has sued the RSPO to regain its revoked accreditation - and apparently succeeded.

IOI was suspended from the RSPO in April 2016 in response to a formal complaint filed last year linking the company to environmental damage in Indonesia. Major transnational food companies stated they would cease sourcing palm oil from IOI. In May, IOI sued the RSPO for "unfairly" revoking its sustainability certification. In June, IOI dropped the lawsuit. On August 5 the RSPO revoked the suspension and restored to the company its RSPO certification on the grounds that it was now in compliance with the body's environmental standards, subject to an independent inspection.

The chronology of the dispute on the RSPO website makes no mention of the lawsuit.

According to a 2013 Greenpeace report "The RSPO wants its members to be industry leaders in sustainability, but its current standards leave them free to destroy forests." A report from Rain Forest Action Network later that year concluded that "RSPO standards are inadequate since they certify and endorse both deforestation and peatland expansion as sustainable."

RSPO certification similarly offers no assurance that basic human rights, including the right of workers to form and join a trade union, are actually being respected by the producer.

Over ten years ago, not long after the RSPO was launched, the IUF took up the defense of a group of workers on a plantation belonging to Indonesia's Musim Mas Group, an executive member of the RSPO. The company's response to the formation of a union was to sack at a stroke over 701 union members and officers, evict the workers and their families from their plantation housing and expel their children from school. The company orchestrated the arrest of the key union officers by local police after they were invited to enter the refinery office on the pretext of initiating negotiations. Union leaders were convicted of criminal offenses for attempting to exercise their right to form a union on the plantation and served prison terms of up to two years.

Confronted with these massive violations of basic human rights, the RSPO refused to take any action against Musim Mas. In 2012, Musim Mas achieved 100% RSPO certification.

The RSPO's new certification standards promise 100% traceability for non-segregated palm oil and trading certificates - but traceability stops at the mill. Companies relying on RSPO certification have no means of determining which plantations the palm kernel comes from, and therefore cannot claim with certainty that there are no human rights violations or environmental destruction in their supply chains. And the IOI case indicates that when abuses are documented, palm oil producers can regain their seat (and certificates) at the Roundtable by initiating legal action.

Buyer beware.