A new report casts doubt on the credibility of the RSPO’s network of auditors, a vital component of the organization’s certification process.
Some auditors crop up repeatedly in problematic cases.
The study was conducted by London-based NGO the Environmental Investigation Agency and Malaysian NGO Grassroots.
[This article has been updated to reflect a statement released by the RSPO on November 18.]
The world’s biggest sustainable palm oil organization has been accused of ignoring serious flaws within its certification process that have allowed some of the largest oil palm companies to hide significant violations of the body’s own sustainability standards behind its seal of approval.
The allegations detailed in a new report by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) and Malaysia-based NGO Grassroots cast doubt on the credibility of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil’s (RSPO) network of auditors — a vital component of the organization’s certification process and its primary contact with oil palm growers on the ground. The report, titled, “Who watches the watchmen? Auditors and the breakdown of oversight in the RSPO,” uncovered evidence of RSPO-approved auditors conducting “substandard assessments” on repeated occasions and, at times, apparently colluding with oil palm companies to cover up serious violations of the organization’s standards.
“The RSPO stands or falls on the credibility of its auditing process, but in far too many instances auditors are greenwashing unsustainable practices and even environmental crimes,” EIA forest campaigner Tomasz Johnson said in a statement. “Many major consumer goods firms now delegate responsibility for their sourcing policies to the RSPO and, by extension, to these auditors.
“If the auditors are engaging in box-ticking and even colluding to cover up unsustainable practices, then products will get to the supermarket shelves that are tainted with human trafficking, rights abuses and the destruction of biodiversity.”
The RSPO, an industry-led coalition of companies that produce and use palm oil, with some NGO members, relies on a network of accredited auditors to conduct on-the-ground assessments of plantation companies to ensure that their operations conform with the organization’s standards. These standards include protections on workers rights, rules regarding land acquisition and community consent, and bans on the clearing of virgin “primary” forests or those determined to have “high conservation value” (HCV).
The roundtable’s basic standards, while lacking measures to curb all deforestation or the conversion of carbon-rich peatlands, are still seen by many as an important pathway for oil palm producing countries hoping to adopt less environmentally destructive practices.
The effectiveness of the RSPO’s mission to drive sustainable practices in the oil palm sector depends heavily on the work of its auditors. But these same auditors have repeatedly failed to uphold the roundtable’s standards in their assessments, the EIA investigation shows. The report found flaws in assessments conducted by “about a quarter” of the accredited auditing bodies working with the RSPO. These findings amount to evidence of “structural and systemic problems” with the RSPO’s certification system and threaten to undermine the very purpose of the roundtable’s existence.
In many instances, the oil palm company behind the violations is taken to task by green groups, but the auditors who are at the root of the problem routinely escape scrutiny and continue to work for the RSPO.
“These failings have arisen due to structural, systemic flaws within the RSPO,” said Andrew Ng, of the NGO Grassroots. “There is simply not enough monitoring of the way these auditors operate, or consequences for them or companies when they produce substandard assessments which clear the way for the destruction of precious habitats.”
The report’s first case study examines one of Indonesia’s highest-profile land conflicts, that involving Singapore-listed First Resources Ltd and indigenous Dayak residents of Muara Tae, a village in Indonesian Borneo. The consultants hired by the company to audit its concession, a group of researchers from Bogor Agricultural University (IPB), made a number of misleading claims in their assessment documents, and these were verified as compliant by an RSPO-approved certification body, TUV NORD Indonesia.
The study also delves into the work of auditor PT Mutuagung Lestari for palm oil giant Golden Agri-Resources on 18 concessions in West Kalimantan; TUV Rheinland and BSI Group Singapore Pte Ltd for Noble Group in Indonesian New Guinea; PT Sonokeling Akreditas Nusantara and TUV Rheinland for PT Sawit Sumbermas Sarana in Central Kalimantan; and more.
RSPO officials did not respond to a request for comment by deadline. [Update: The RSPO responded to the report in a statement on November 18: “RSPO believes that the 9 case studies presented by EIA, however serious, cannot lead to a general dismissal of the RSPO certification system.” The RSPO also said it “takes very seriously the claims contained in the EIA report, and welcomes it as an opportunity for intensifying this dialogue, and further improve its certification system.”]
The report urges the roundtable to address issues within its accreditation process at this week’s 13th annual conference in Kuala Lumpur. Some NGO members of the RSPO, including the Forest Peoples Programme, have prepared a resolution about deficiencies in the audit system they hope will be adopted by the general assembly on Thursday afternoon. The EIA is not an RSPO member but has dealt extensively with the roundtable’s complaints system, itself the subject of criticism.
“Dodgy auditors have emerged from the wreckage of every major corporate scandal of the past two decades,” Johnson said. “The lesson from those scandals, including the global financial crisis, is that auditors themselves need to be rigorously policed. It is incumbent on the RSPO to heed the lesson of history, as well as the evidence in our report, and crack down on this.”