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RSPO pledges reform after NGO exposes shoddy palm oil audits

Oil palm fruit in Indonesia's Aceh province. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

  • A resolution passed by the RSPOs general assresolution constitutes an unprecedented acknowledgement of problems with the RSPO’s audit processes.
  • The resolution follows an NGO exposé of frequent “dodgy assessments” of member companies’ operations by RSPO-approved auditors.
  • The RSPO will form a dedicated task force to develop a more detailed response.

The general assembly of the world’s biggest sustainable palm oil organization passed a resolution on Thursday acknowledging serious problems with its certification processes and the need to reform them.

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil’s corporate and NGO members voted overwhelmingly in favor of adopting the resolution, titled “Ensuring Quality, Oversight and Credibility of RSPO Assessments,” at the RSPO’s annual summit in Kuala Lumpur.

The resolution was submitted by London-based nonprofit the Forest Peoples Programme (FPP) and co-signed by environmental consultancy Aidenvironment and nonprofit the Sumatran Orangutan Society, all of which are RSPO members.

Its adoption follows the publication on Monday of a report by London-based NGO the Environmental Investigation Agency which found “dodgy assessments” of palm oil companies’ operations by RSPO-approved auditors to be the norm.

The report attributes the deficiency to “systemic weaknesses and loopholes” in the RSPO’s infrastructure and presents nine case studies to drive home that “mistakes and fraud” by auditors are widespread.

On Wednesday, the RSPO secretariat responded to the EIA report, saying that it “takes very seriously” the allegations therein and “welcomes it as an opportunity for intensifying this dialogue” to “further improve [the] certification system”; and also that “RSPO believes … the 9 case studies presented by EIA, however serious, cannot lead to a general dismissal of the RSPO certification system.”

On Thursday, about three quarters of the RSPO’s general assembly voted to adopt the resolution, according to Marcus Colchester, senior policy adviser with the FPP.

“RSPO members were shocked by the EIA report and agreed to set up a task force to be led by Paul Wolvekamp of BothEnds on behalf of the Board of Governors to develop a response,” Colchester told Mongabay. “This will be the first part of the response to the resolution.”

An oil palm plantation in Malaysia's Sabah state. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
An oil palm plantation in Malaysia’s Sabah state. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Growers in the RSPO cannot expand their plantations without first acquiring the free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) of local communities and identifying high conservation value (HCV) areas in their concession, each of which are tenets of the RSPO standard. But the RSPO lacks clear guidelines for auditors to determine whether these criteria have been adequately met.

The resolution therefore calls for such guidelines to be developed. It also calls for the monitoring of auditors’ “quality and performance” and the pursual of “suspensions or sanctions against underperforming or persistent offenders.”

According to the EIA report, some auditors crop up repeatedly in cases where companies are found to have flouted the RSPO standard.

“It is reassuring that most RSPO members have accepted the evidence presented in our report and have voted for this resolution,” EIA forest campaigner Tomasz Johnson said in a statement. “But the extent to which this resolves the problems we have identified will only be clear when the recommendations are implemented.

“The damage done by the absence of oversight in this system is extensive and serious. We expect to see an immediate reaction by the RSPO that reflects this. EIA will be closely monitoring progress in delivering the Resolution.”

The RSPO has already terminated one certification body implicated in the report, TUV NORD, according to RSPO outreach director Stefano Savi. That happened last year.

Also at the RSPO summit, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), an NGO that helped found the RSPO in 2004, commended the establishment this year of RSPO Next, a voluntary add-on to which some member companies can choose to commit in order to go above and beyond the basic RSPO standard, which does not completely ban deforestation or peatland conversion.

“Continuous improvement was a core design feature of the RSPO, and RSPO Next is a tangible demonstration of this principle being followed,” Adam Harrison, WWF’s lead on palm oil, said in a statement.

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