Conflict or Consent? The oil palm sector at a crossroads

Conflict or consent? The oil palm sector at a crossroads
Forest Peoples Programme, Sawit Watch and TUK Indonesia

Conflict or Consent? The oil palm sector at a crossroads

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Growing global demand for palm oil is fuelling the large-scale expansion of oil palm plantations across Southeast Asia and Africa. Concerns about the environmental and social impacts of the conversion of vast tracts of land to monocrop plantations led in 2004 to the establishment of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), which encourages oil palm expansion in ways that do not destroy high conservation values or cause social conflict. Numerous international agencies have also called for reforms of national frameworks to secure communities’ rights and to develop sound land governance.

In line with international law, the RSPO’s Principles and Criteria require member companies to respect the collective right of indigenous peoples and other local communities to give or withhold their consent prior to the development of oil palm on the lands they own, inhabit and use. Are companies keeping their promises? This edited volume of 16 detailed independent case studies including two updates, from seven countries in Asia and Africa carried out by a consortium of NGOs, addresses this question.

The studies reveal that the RSPO process has in some cases led to improved understanding, by communities and companies, of how to achieve ‘sustainable development’. In addition, procedural improvements can be pointed to that may provide a basis for resolving some land conflicts. Overall, however, many oil palm companies are not respecting customary land rights, are acquiring lands without consent, are violating or avoiding compliance with national laws or court rulings and are in obvious violation of the RSPO standard.

The gulf between national laws and the RSPO standard highlights the urgent need to reform governance and national laws to adequately protect communities’ lands from expropriation and provide just remedies for abuse of rights. Indigenous peoples and local farmers must be protected from ‘land grabs’, and their right to exercise Free, Prior and Informed Consent over the sale of any land must be respected. Full supply-chain traceability is needed to ensure that environmental protections are matched with comprehensive protections of human rights. Such accountability should also apply to investors.

The RSPO standard needs to be strengthened and enforced, but as long as national laws and policies allocate lands to companies without respect for community rights, company compliance will be hard to achieve and further conflict remains inevitable.

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