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Environmentalists unhappy with new palm oil standard

Environmentalists are unhappy with Thursday’s approval of new criteria for the world’s leading palm oil certification standard.

After members of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) in a special assembly approved the body’s new “principles and criteria” (P&Cs) for palm oil certification, several groups voiced concern that the rules won’t protect against conversion of carbon-dense rainforests and peatlands for oil palm plantations.

“RSPO certification will still have no mechanism to address the palm oil industry’s globally significant contribution to greenhouse gas emissions and the RSPO will continue to allow palm oil producers who destroy natural rainforests and peatlands for palm oil plantations to be certified as ‘sustainable’,” said the Rainforest Action Network — which isn’t an RSPO member — in a statement.

Forest clearing for palm oil production in Borneo. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

“Rather than clearly banning peatland development and rainforest clearance, the proposed revision of the RSPO P&C ‘encourages’ growers ‘to establish new plantings on mineral soils [and] in low carbon stock areas’,” added Greenpeace, which is also not a member of the RSPO. “The only measure introduced to curb emissions from plantation development is a requirement to report on GHG emissions from forest conversion by as late as December 2016 and a vague injunction to develop and implement plans to reduce emissions where ‘feasible [and] practical’.”

Greenhouse gas accounting has been a contentious issue within the RSPO. Green groups have pushed for inclusion as a mechanism for preventing conversion of high carbon stock lands — peatlands and rainforests — to plantations, but many palm oil producers oppose the rules as a potential limitation to expansion. Since certification standards at the RSPO are based on voting among members, which include many stakeholders, rules generally force compromises between constituencies.

“As a multi-stakeholder organization the RSPO represents the fundamental intent of distinct players within the sector, all of whom have come together with a mutually shared vision,” said the RSPO in a statement posted on its web site. “Difference of opinion is not only expected from such a composition – it is imperative to establishing a solid middle ground, usually as a result of intense deliberations and harmonizing of various interests. This emphasis on compromise means each outcome is one that every representative takes ownership of, thus increasing commitment and successful on the ground implementation. ”

Oil palm plantation along the Kinabatangan River in Malaysian Borneo. Many plantations along the Kinabatangan violate RSPO principles by discharging waste and failing to leave a sufficient vegetation buffer along the river.

Nonetheless, the outcome means some environmentalists are now pushing for companies to adopt policies that go beyond basic RSPO certification.

“Because the review failed to accept strong, tough and clear performance standards within the P&Cs on issues like GHGs and pesticides, it is, unfortunately, no longer possible for producers or users of palm oil to ensure that they are acting responsibly simply by producing or using Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO),” said WWF, a founding member of the RSPO and the initiative’s strongest environmental supporter, in a press release. “Therefore WWF is now asking progressive companies to set and report on particular performance standards within the framework set by the new RSPO P&Cs.”

The RSPO nonetheless remains the most widely supported standard for palm oil production. Certification criteria include protocols for waste management, reducing fertilizer and pesticide use, preserving high conservation value forest, abiding by local laws, respecting community rights, and ensuring minimum labor standards. RSPO-certified palm oil currently accounts for about 15 percent of palm oil produced world wide.

Palm oil, which is produced from the fruit of the oil palm, is used as a cooking oil across large swathes of Asia and goes into a wide range of processed foods and cosmetics produced globally. It is one of the world’s highest-yielding sources of vegetable oil, making oil palm cultivation a lucrative form of land use. But oil palm expansion in recent decades has driven large-scale deforestation across Southeast Asia, while prompting conflict between traditional communities and plantation developers, spurring complaints from environmental activists, conservationists, and rights groups.

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