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RSPO loses key backer in Australia: ‘We just can’t trust them anymore’

Scientists hope that orangutans will use the riparian corridors to move between forest patches surrounded by oil palm plantations. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

  • Palm Oil Investigations said it would cease to promote palm oil certified as sustainable by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.
  • The watchdog had pushed some of Australia’s biggest corporate users of palm oil to buy only that which the RSPO had certified as ethically produced.
  • The RSPO is the world’s largest association for sustainable palm oil production.

The cachet of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil has taken a hit with the withdrawal of support for the organization by an Australian watchdog that had pushed some of the country’s biggest firms into the RSPO’s fold.

The group, Palm Oil Investigations (POI), had played a key role in pressuring companies like Snack Brands Australia and Arnott’s to join the RSPO and to only buy oil the roundtable had certified as ethically produced. The RSPO is a global organization whose members include firms up and down the palm oil supply chain as well as NGOs and banks.

But in a statement posted to its website last month, POI announced it had lost faith in the roundtable’s ability to reign in an industry tainted by environmental destruction and human rights abuses.

POI’s announcement follows the resignation from the RSPO in May by the PanEco Foundation, which is known for protecting orangutans in Indonesia, the world’s top palm oil producer. While PanEco had been an RSPO member, POI had simply promoted RSPO-certified palm oil to consumers. The watchdog has a massive Facebook following of nearly 200,000 people.

“The whole RSPO system is broken,” POI founder Lorinda Jane told Mongabay. “We just can’t trust it anymore.”

A worker on an oil palm plantation on Indonesia's main western island of Sumatra. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
A worker on an oil palm plantation on Indonesia’s main western island of Sumatra. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

RSPO-certified palm oil, known as CSPO, is supposed to be free of any link to land grabbing, labor abuses and the destruction of virgin forests and deep peat swamps, not all of which are necessarily illegal in the countries where oil palm trees are grown.

By undergoing an audit process, palm oil producing companies can earn the right to market their oil as CSPO, increasing their market access in places like Europe and the U.S.

But the RSPO’s credibility has been called into question by a torrent of cases in which it has been seen as allowing violations to persist.

A recent controversy concerned IOI Group. In March, the RSPO suspended the Malaysian company’s right to sell CSPO over environmental abuses by the firm’s units in Indonesia. It was one of the most drastic steps the roundtable had ever taken. But in August, the RSPO lifted the suspension, a decision condemned as premature by watchdogs like POI.

POI wrote on its website, “This reinstatement demonstrates a lack of will by RSPO’s leadership to enforce rules and consequences, and comes despite a letter (to which POI was signatory) from an international coalition of 22 NGOs urging industry and brands to boycott IOI.”

A landscape of oil palm plantations in Malaysia's Sabah state. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
A landscape of oil palm plantations in Malaysia’s Sabah state. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

RSPO communications chief Stefano Savi told Mongabay the roundtable stands by the decision to reinstate IOI. That decision, he said, had followed an established process in accordance with the RSPO’s principles.

POI would have been better off joining the RSPO and trying to change it from the inside rather than choosing to work in opposition to it, he added.

“The best way to engage in the process is to be part of the solution,” Savi said.

“We’re saddened to lose the support of an organization that has the potential to move the market [toward adopting CSPO] in Australia, where the RSPO doesn’t have a direct presence,” he added.

Savi noted that while it was a shame to lose POI’s backing, the RSPO’s membership during the last three years had increased by five times to 3,080 members, although only a few dozen of those are NGOs.

Banner image: An orangutan in Indonesia. The rapid expansion of the archipelago’s oil palm industry has eaten away at the primates’ jungle habitat. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

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