Palm Oil controversies go global

Palm Oil controversies go global

In April, the European Parliament by a substantial cross-party majority adopted a report highlighting the human rights violations, labour abuses, land grabbing and environmental destruction associated with the production of palm oil. 

The report was especially critical of the way palm oil, used in biodiesel and electricity generation, is accepted as a ‘biofuel’ when in fact far from mitigating climate change, most palm oil production leads to high emissions of greenhouse gases from forest clearance, the drying out of peatswamps, and land fires. According to the report, 46% of European palm oil imports are for use as biofuels. 

Presenting the report German MEP Stefan Eck summarised the real costs of cheap palm oil:

“Palm oil production is extremely damaging to biodiversity and has destroyed large swathes of rainforest. Many species have lost their habitat and are on the road to extinction. Palm oil is also harmful to humans as land grabbing by large corporations is driving indigenous communities to ruin. The price for cheap palm oil is paid by people, animals and nature.” 

While recognising the efforts being made to certify sustainable palm oil by bodies such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) and the commitments of some large brands to ‘no deforestation, no peat and no exploitation’, the Parliament called for stronger standards, more effective enforcement and less confusion through the proliferation of labels. The report drew the ire of the Indonesian and Malaysian governments, who have announced plans to send trade missions to Europe to justify their product. More than 80% of globally traded palm oil comes from the two countries.

Similar concerns about the impacts of palm oil production on biodiversity and social equity has also led the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to set up a Task Force on Palm Oil, which starts work in June.

Meanwhile efforts to reform production through the complaints mechanism of the RSPO continue to face years, sometimes decades, of delays. In Sarawak, Malaysia, the IOI corporation is still stuck in a long-running land dispute with local Dayak communities, whose lands were taken without consent and have been denied by the government. The world’s largest palm oil trader, Wilmar International, has still not sorted out a land conflict in West Sumatra, although the RSPO Complaints Panel has now ruled the company must give back the land it took without the Kapa community’s consent.  

Land and smallholder disputes with local Dayak communities remain unresolved in Kuala Lumpur-based Sime Darby’s subsidiary PT MAS in Sanggau District in West Kalimantan, Indonesia. Six years on, land disputes continue in the operations of Golden Veroleum Limited in Liberia. In Peru, the Shipibo people’s efforts to get RSPO to stop land grabbing by Plantaciones de Pucallpa led the company to walk out of RSPO. In Colombia, allegations of land grabbing, violence and intimidation by RSPO-member Poligrow continue.

Meanwhile, Singapore-based Golden Agri Resources, whose plans for expansion in 18 concessions in Indonesia were frozen by the RSPO complaints process in 2014 until land grabbing and smallholder disputes were settled, is still dragging its feet. The very slow progress - in providing redress for lands taken without due process and in allocating smallholdings to those who have surrendered lands - is leading to rising tensions in the affected villages. 

In April, FPP and partner Pusaka along with Greenpeace and EIA, filed a further complaint with RSPO about the misleading ‘New Planting’ notification by Goodhope Asia Holdings’ operations in Papua. The officially audited notice disguised an unresolved land dispute with the local people and falsely claimed that no primary forests were being cleared. However, satellite images unambiguously show such forests have already been cleared without RSPO being informed and prior to an environmental impact assessment. 

Most of these companies are prominent members of RSPO and are represented on RSPO’s Board of Governors and its committees. The cases continue despite determined efforts by NGOs to get RSPO to strengthen the transparency, authority and effectiveness of its Complaints Panel. The long delays by the RSPO Secretariat to act on a strong resolution passed by the RSPO General Assembly in 2015 to adopt rigorous procedures to ensure independent auditing, robust assessments and to oversee ‘New Plantings’ procedures has generated growing scepticism among observers. 

By Marcus Colchester

Useful Links: