Contrary to a number of sensationalist media reports leading up to this year’s Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil, the RSPO is not breaking up.
At the core of the controversy has been the effort to include a commitment by all members of the RSPO to reduce their Green House Gas (GHG) emissions. After two years of meetings, the Malaysian and Indonesian producers managed to block any such commitment. It was a disappointing moment for the RSPO, and a lost opportunity to address one of the most serious issues of oil palm production.
Supporters of the new criteria made lots of concessions, Tim Killeen of Conservation International and a member of the GHG working group told me. His main focus was to include a criteria that would effectively protect peat lands, the most carbon rich habitat in the world, from oil palm expansion. But even this was too much for the producers to stomach. It is clear that anything that would change ‘business as usual’ – which is the massive destruction of peat lands, burning forests, and significant contributions to climate chaos - is unacceptable for producers.
Had GHG emissions standards been included, there might have been a chance that some of the dirtiest producers of oil palm would have pulled out, but the core of the RSPO was never in jeopardy. It is clear, the RSPO would rather be a diluted certification standard that includes everyone that wants to join rather than a true step towards palm oil that does not harm people, forests, and the climate.
So then, what relevance does the term “sustainable” have for the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil? In my opinion, which is shared by many of the social and environmental groups here, the short answer is none.
There is nothing sustainable about the social conflict, forest destruction, and climate change caused by RSPO members. In a visit to one of the worst of the worst palm oil producers, Duta Palma, this past summer, I witnessed the massive burning of primary forests and the use of force to evict a traditional community from their ancestral lands, all to produce a tasteless vegetable oil. The actions of Duta Palma, which violates just about every criteria of the RSPO but who is still a RSPO member, have been subject to a complaint filed to the RSPO by a broad range of Indonesian NGOs. After four months, the RSPO has still not responded to this complaint.
This is a critical moment for the RSPO. With no action on GHG emissions and multiple complaints filed to the RSPO regarding criteria violations, it is time for the RSPO to live up to their use of the word sustainable or risk becoming an irrelevant group of stakeholders that can not seem to agree on anything.
David Gilbert is a Research Fellow at RAN. He has worked in the tropical forests of the Amazon and Indonesia, with a special focus on forest conservation and indigenous rights.
He can be reached at email@example.com