A complaint lodged earlier this year about alleged abuses by a palm oil company in Indonesian Papua has raised questions over the credibility of the industry’s largest certification scheme in investigating member violations.
In April, indigenous rights NGO Pusaka wrote to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) with detailed allegations that PT Nabire Baru — a subsidiary of Goodhope Asia, which is owned by Sri Lankan palm oil giant Carson Cumberbatch — had violated “both legal regulations and the customary law” of the Yerisiam Gua people, as well as the RSPO’s own principles and criteria, which ban unsustainable practices like the conversion of virgin rainforests and land grabbing that aren’t necessarily illegal in countries where palm oil is produced.
Central to the complaint were claims that Nabire Baru took communal land belonging to the indigenous group in Papua’s Nabire district without a collective decisionmaking process.
“The company only ever met and managed to gain the support of a small group of community members, causing disharmony to emerge within the Yerisiam indigenous community,” the letter states.
Nabire Baru was also accused of using guards from the police special forces to intimidate the local community as it expanded its operations, destroying “ecologically important” and “sacred” sago forestland relied on by the Yerisiam people for food and trade.
“The sago groves in question have existed naturally since ancient times, and are sacred sago groves which have provided food for the people of Sima village from generation to generation up to the present day,” said a separate letter sent on behalf of the Yerisiam indigenous community.
Pusaka called on the RSPO, which was established in 2004 to develop and implement global standards for sustainable palm oil, to “immediately investigate the allegations” and “resolve the conflict in an open manner which involves the wider Yerisiam community.” If the violations were confirmed, it said the RSPO should revoke the certification of Nabire Baru and its parent company.
However, more than six months later, the case against Nabire Baru is still yet to be either accepted or rejected by the RSPO as a formal complaint.
According to its latest update, the RSPO is still registering the complaint under the status “reported case received.”
But the grievance does not appear in the RSPO’s case tracker as an official entry, in which documents relevant to the case would normally be made available for public scrutiny.
Pusaka Director Franky Samperante said three meetings have taken place at the RSPO’s Jakarta office since he filed the complaint. In late September, a field visit to the area was organized, but Samperante said he is yet to receive any official information on its result from the RSPO.
In the meantime, he said, the problems in Nabire persist.
The RSPO “is still very slow responding to our complaints. While in the field, the company is still not solving the problems [of the] indigenous Yerisiam,” he explained.
Pusaka’s letter to the RSPO is not the first time issues with the company have been raised.
In early 2015, a group of organizations calling themselves the “Coalition caring for oil palm victims in Nabire” urged the governor of Papua province to revoke the company’s permit over its alleged violations.
At the same time, online watchdog awas MIFEE described Nabire Baru as “possibly the most controversial plantation in Papua,” while the case was also featured in an inquiry into land conflicts affecting indigenous peoples conducted by Indonesia’s National Commission on Human Rights.
The company has denied all of the allegations.
Samperante in an email this week said he feared there were “bias (sic) interests” within the RSPO, as he called on the certification body to come to an “objective and independent” decision based on the facts of the case.
The roundtable is composed of palm oil companies, NGOs and banks that choose to become RSPO members, requiring the firms to adhere to certain standards in their operations and allowing them to promote their products with the RSPO’s green label.
Jago Wadley, a senior forest campaigner with London-based NGO the Environmental Investigations Agency (EIA), which has done extensive research into the functioning of the RSPO, described the lack of decision as “both unsurprising and galling to all who seek to depend on RSPO impartiality.”
“Failure to process complaints in line with procedure indicates, at best incompetence, and at worst wilful intent to ‘protect’ violators from due process,” he said.
He added that the case suggests the organization “has essentially abandoned its essential procedures in ways that benefit a board member’s company by keeping its violations ‘off the books.’”
Edi Suhardi, sustainability director at Nabire Baru’s parent company Goodhope, is an RSPO vice president and sits on its Board of Governors.
Andrew Ng, a founder of the consultancy Grassroots, said the time taken to reach a decision on the complaint was “consistent with the pattern and track-record of RSPO in addressing complaints in general.”
“In a Secretariat of 60+ people they have one person handling complaints as the coordinator. It used to be far, far worse…But we’re still light years away from even basic satisfaction that the system functions according to RSPO’s own procedural requirements.”
According to the complaints system, which is described as a “fair, transparent and impartial process,” the RSPO “will only decline to investigate if the complainant is unable to provide adequate evidence or if the complaint can be resolved bilaterally.”
Despite ongoing calls from Pusaka for the RSPO to process its complaint and claims that the violations are continuing, Stefano Savi, the RSPO’s global outreach and engagement director, said it is still “currently being treated as a reported case,” citing the willingness of both parties involved to “resolve the issues amicably.”
He added that the RSPO “highly values the necessity of the neutrality” of Complaints Panel members and ensures that there is no conflict of interest when it comes to such cases.
Suhardi, the Goodhope sustainability chief and RSPO vice president, said he was not aware of the delay in accepting or rejecting the complaint.
He explained that board members play no part in decisions over complaints relating to companies they are involved in, and noted that RSPO decisions on such cases in the past have sometimes taken “years for examination and more years to resolve.”
Suhardi added that the RSPO was finalizing its report on the September field visit, which he hoped would clear up all complaints.
Outside of the RSPO, a meeting was held last month between the two sides in which they discussed the issues.
During the meeting, Sanjaya Upasena of Goodhope Asia vowed to “100 percent support the community…as long as they are not self-centered,” according to a transcript provided by Suhardi.
“Not even point 1 percent we will abandon them if it is not personal but the interest of the whole community,” he added.
But as calls continue for the issues to be quickly resolved, Ng of Grassroots said the need for the RSPO to have an efficient complaints mechanism cannot be underestimated.
“For an industry like palm oil, already known as controversial and high-risk in areas of environmental degradation and human rights violations, the need for RSPO to have a credible and transparent redress mechanism is simply magnified, if this organization wants to show that it is serious,” he explained.
Wadley of EIA agreed.
“Where the complaints procedure does not function, the RSPO does not function,” he said.
Banner image: The canopy of an oil palm plantation in Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler