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RSPO freezes palm oil company’s operations in Papua

Oil palm fruit in Indonesia, the world's top palm oil producer. The commodity is used in everything from detergents and cosmetics to breakfast cereals and ice cream. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

  • The RSPO ordered Goodhope Asia Holdings to stop work in seven of its concessions in Indonesia, citing “poor quality” audits commissioned by the company to ensure it follows RSPO rules.
  • High Conservation Value assessments for all seven of the concessions were conducted by a team of Bogor Agricultural University lecturers led by Nyoto Santoso. The assessments are being treated as suspect by the RSPO.
  • While Goodhope opposes the measures, they have been lauded by environmental NGOs as a positive step.

The world’s biggest sustainable palm oil association has frozen the operations of one of its most prominent members on concessions in Indonesia because of failures to meet its standards on new planting.

The Complaints Panel of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) issued a stop-work order for seven subsidiaries of Goodhope Asia Holdings as a result of “poor quality” audits and insufficient documentation required under its New Planting Procedure (NPP) rules.

The Singapore-based palm oil company, an arm of Sri Lanka’s Carson Cumberbatch, has been linked to various cases of environmental and human rights abuses in Indonesia, including allegations of grabbing land from an indigenous community in Papua province on the island of New Guinea, where the industry is quickly expanding.

The RSPO’s action comes just weeks after a group of leading environmental and indigenous rights NGOs hit out at the body for allowing a Goodhope subsidiary to post public notification of new planting plans, which they claimed were “incomplete, substandard, insufficient, and in places factually untrue.”

In a letter to Goodhope sustainability director Edi Suhardi, the RSPO Complaints Panel explained that an independent review had found that High Conservation Value (HCV) assessments conducted for its subsidiaries PT Nabire Baru and PT Agrajaya Baktitama were of a poor standard.

RSPO members must submit an HCV assessment prior to any establishment or expansion of a plantation, in order to identify areas that cannot be cleared — such as virgin rainforests — without violating the body’s standards for ethical palm oil production.

Issues with Goodhope’s HCV assessments included inadequate areas set aside to protect HCV areas and failure to identify how the company had negotiated with local communities to use their land.

The RSPO’s letter also noted that key Land Use Change Analysis (LUCA) documentation, identifying areas converted from forest to palm, was missing.

The northern cassowary is one of the birds-of-paradise for which Papua’s forests are famous. Companies that join the RSPO are prohibited from clearing pristine rainforests, but many of them do it anyway, thanks in part to shoddy work by auditors responsible for demarcating no-go areas. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.

RSPO communications chief Stefano Savi said the action against the seven Goodhope subsidiaries was a “precautionary measure” taken largely because all of the HCV assessments were conducted by the same auditor — a team of Bogor Agricultural University lecturers led by Nyoto Santoso, whose audits have been repeatedly flagged as filled with misleading claims.

In its letter, the RSPO set out deadlines for the Goodhope subsidiaries to redo their HCV assessments and complete the necessary LUCA to comply with the body’s rules.

It warned that any deviation from this timeline would “be viewed severely and may lead to suspension and eventual termination of membership.”

But Goodhope’s Suhardi maintained this week that the action was unwarranted.

“We disagree on the opinion that the HCV assessments were of poor quality. Such rating was not based on objective criteria and clear indicators,” he told Mongabay by email.

“There is no reason for (the) RSPO to demand new Land Use Change Analysis since the assessments were done prior to land development,” he added.

According to Suhardi, the issues stem from delays by the RSPO Secretariat in reviewing Goodhope’s NPP submissions, which he said has resulted in new standards being applied retroactively.

He said Goodhope was seeking clarification from the RSPO on the reasons for the action.

Shortly after the RSPO issued the stop-work order, Suhardi released a statement announcing the temporary self-suspension of the Indonesian Growers’ Caucus from the multistakeholder body, which he described as a “lame duck” target of criticism.

He retracted the statement the following day, but said he had temporarily suspended himself from all positions within the RSPO “due to alleged conflict of interest.”

Such allegations of impartiality have focused largely on Suhardi’s role as vice president of the RSPO; a position he claims not to have occupied since 2015, but which Savi this week said he still holds pending his temporary self-suspension.

Savi said the RSPO Secretariat was yet to hear a response from Goodhope about the demands for resubmissions and reassessments, but reiterated that failure to meet the deadlines could lead to the company’s membership being terminated.

An oil palm plantation on Indonesia’s main western island of Sumatra. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.

While Goodhope opposes the measures, they have been lauded by environmental NGOs as a positive step.

“This is the kind of action we would expect from an organization serious about upholding its own standard and procedures,” said Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) forest campaigner Audrey Versteegen.

“To be credible, it is the right and only action the RSPO Secretariat could take when one of its members is found to act in clear breach of several of the requirements of its membership.”

Annisa Rahmawati, senior forest campaigner at Greenpeace Southeast Asia, agreed.

“After sitting on its hands for months, the RSPO has finally confirmed Goodhope’s operations are rotten to the core,” she said.

She added that the RSPO’s action should be a “wake-up call” to Goodhope’s customers, including leading palm oil refiner Wilmar International, which had been “far too complacent.”

In a statement to Mongabay, Singapore-based Wilmar said the issues raised over Goodhope were not in direct violation of its own sustainable sourcing policies, but had raised the possibility “that we may need to review the way we assess future HCV assessments.”

The company said it was awaiting the outcome of discussions between the two sides, but encouraged Goodhope to “continue its engagement with the RSPO and resolve the issues within the RSPO procedure.”

The other Goodhope units subject to the stop-work order are PT Sariwana Adi Perkasa, PT Batu Mas Sejahtera, PT Sawit Makmur Sejahtera, PT Sinar Sawit Andalan and PT Sumber Hasil Prima.

Follow Alice Cuddy on Twitter: @alice_cuddy

Banner image: Oil palm fruit in Indonesia’s Aceh province. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.