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Want to be a responsible palm oil firm? Follow these reporting guidelines

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

  • Ceres, Oxfam, Rainforest Alliance and WWF are among the groups behind the guidelines.
  • Some of the guidelines describe how companies should map and name their suppliers, disclosing the locations of their own operations as well as those of the firms they buy from.
  • How companies can ensure they aren’t grabbing community lands are another focus of the guidelines.

Twenty nonprofits and investor groups released on Tuesday a set of reporting guidelines for palm oil firms who have pledged to operate responsibly and transparently.

Adherence to the guidelines would provide a clearer view of what companies are doing to address problems caused by the industry, whose rapid expansion is driving forest loss and social conflict in Southeast Asia and, increasingly, in Africa and Latin America.

Under pressure from civil society, many large palm oil firms have committed to purge their operations of environmental destruction, land grabbing and human rights abuses. But a chasm remains between what they have promised on paper and the reality on the ground.

“We must erase corporate greenwash and set the standard for responsible reporting on the implementation of corporate palm oil policies,” said Gemma Tillack, director of the Rainforest Action Network’s agribusiness campaign. The NGO is one of those behind the guidelines.

Some of the guidelines describe how companies should map and name their suppliers, disclosing the locations of their own operations as well as those of the firms they buy from.

No major company has yet to fully map its supply chain—to determine the origin of all of the palm oil it buys—a prerequisite before it can say it has broken the link between its operations and the harm often associated with the industry.

“Companies are beginning to release their mill locations, but very few have released concessions boundaries,” said Deborah Lapidus, campaigns director at Mighty, another of the NGOs. “This would be very helpful in knowing how to link problems on the ground with owners.”

The guidelines also ask companies to report areas of recent deforestation and peatland clearance, and areas where land disputes exist.

“They rarely reveal this information proactively, so we have to assess it using satellite analysis and are often the ones to tell them how much damage they’ve done, though surely they know,” Lapidus said.

An oil palm plantation in Indonesia’s Riau province. The archipelago country is the world’s top palm oil producer. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

How companies can ensure they aren’t grabbing community lands are another focus of the guidelines.

While the biggest palm oil firms have committed to uphold people’s right to accept or reject proposed projects on their land, a variety of tactics are available to those who wish to subvert this right.

To keep companies honest, the guidelines ask them to report on how they are addressing land conflicts in their own operations and supporting legal land tenure for communities. Firms should “report the number of land conflicts, the status, conflict resolution efforts (e.g. court, 3rd party mediation, internal mediation) and the outcome (e.g. formal community agreements).”

Noah Klein-Markman, senior associate for sustainable agriculture at advocacy group Ceres, said, “Companies need to have clear protocols around land expansion—not just on paper, but as something they operationalize and can be held accountable to by local communities and other stakeholders.”

The guidelines also address labor risks. Companies should report on whether their policies prohibit retention of worker identification documents, and whether they require the reimbursement of all worker recruitment fees. Firms should also discose the percentage of workers on permanent vs. short-term contracts and the percentage of those who belong to a union.

Banner image: an orangutan in Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler