The palm oil industry’s bad reputation has survived the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), which commits member companies to social and environmental sustainability. The RSPO logo certification is visible on many everyday groceries containing palm oil. However whilst RSPO boasts many of the biggest palm oil producers and buyers among its members, displacement of indigenous peoples from their lands, farms and forests is rife.
The RSPO standard is good on paper. RSPO rules prevent the acquisition of land from communities without their free, prior and informed consent (FPIC), and require concessions to avoid areas important to communities and to biodiversity. Unfortunately industry non-compliance with the RSPO standard is ubiquitous, bringing its credibility to the brink. The RSPO seems to be reluctant to ensure good rules are matched by good implementation as its Complaints Panel frequently appears unable or unwilling to make decisions that stand up to major companies.
Forest Peoples Programme’s new report documents the numerous human rights failures in the palm oil concession of Golden Veroleum Liberia. The report is based on research conducted since 2012, including work by researchers based full-time in Liberia. Golden Agri-Resources (GAR) – the world’s second largest producer of palm oil – is a lead investor in Golden Veroleum. Both companies are RSPO members and both companies have been involved in piloting GAR’s Forest Conservation Policy. However, as FPP’s report shows, their Liberia project is failing to meet the requirements of both RSPO and Forest Conservation Policy, while the pilot in Borneo also remains mired in controversy.
Communities still lack the information and technical and legal advice they badly need. Golden Veroleum’s standard operating procedures give it a licence to short-cut the need for a communities’ free, prior and informed consent. According to a so called ‘provisional’ agreement procedure, the company is acquiring community land (potentially permanently) in return for a handful of often casual jobs, and other vague and unenforceable benefits. The practical outcome is the loss of valuable productive land in return for what on occasions amounts to little more than a few school benches and some zinc roofing.
Community complaints to the RSPO’s Complaints Panel in 2012 provoked an initially encouraging reaction from the RSPO. It decided there was a case to answer and requested a freeze in operations. Since then the Panel has shown itself increasingly unable or unwilling to stay the course. A June 2014 fact-finding mission to Liberia exposed critical weaknesses in the RSPO’s enforcement capacity. Astonishingly, Golden Veroleum itself was given a central role in determining how its performance was to be investigated, and hosted and provided logistics for the RSPO staff conducting the mission.
So what is the solution?
First, a recognition by all parties that communities have a right to own the lands they have customarily used and possessed and to determine their own development visions and trajectory, in line with international human rights law. This needs embedding in domestic laws, policies and practices.
Secondly, increasing evidence shows that when community ownership over their traditional forests and lands is legally recognised and respected, forest communities have the capacity to be the best custodians of those forests.* This enables communities to think long-term, which means that their choices are most likely to be sustainable ones.
RSPO and other parties involved in extracting strong commitments from companies can and must play a key role in ensuring community rights are respected. At a basic level, they must ensure that the rights of communities take centre-stage in the commitments companies make. Crucially however, they must urgently begin building effective and credible accountability and enforcement mechanisms, to enable strong commitments to be matched by strong implementation.
Everyone is keen to see good news in the palm oil industry, but it would be an unconscionable green-wash for companies to be allowed to get away with simply pledging compliance to high standards without adhering to them. Duped by false promises, communities could face permanent dispossession of their lands, and the destruction of their forests, wetlands and cultures.
* See for example research by: Chhatre, A. and Agrawal, A. (2009), Trade-offs and synergies between carbon storage and livelihood benefits from forest commons, PNAS vol. 106 no. 42, pp.17667-17670; Nelson A, Chomitz KM (2011) Effectiveness of Strict vs. Multiple Use Protected Areas in Reducing Tropical Forest Fires: A Global Analysis Using Matching Methods PLoS ONE 6(8): e22722. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0022722; Porter-Bolland et al (2011) Community managed forests and forest protected areas: An assessment of their conservation effectiveness across the tropics, Forest Ecology and Management, Forest Ecol. Manage., doi:10.1016/j.foreco.2011.05.034; and the collection of evidence in the following annotated bibliography: Seymour F, La Vina T, & Hite K. (2014) Evidence linking community-level tenure and forest condition: An annotated bibliography (Climate and Land Use Alliance-CLUA).