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Malaysia to let RSPO publish oil palm concession maps

Deforestation for an oil palm plantation in Sabah, Malaysia. Plantations frequently fail to sequester as much carbon as native forests and they devastate biodiversity. Despite those facts, plantations have long been included under the UN’s definition of the word “forest.” Image by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay.

  • The Malaysian government has decided to allow the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) to publish concession maps for Peninsular Malaysia and Sarawak of its members in a bid to boost transparency in the sector.
  • The RSPO has described the move as a “milestone” and it could leave neighboring Indonesia — currently the world’s largest palm oil producer and exporter — further behind in the pursuit of transparency in the palm oil sector.
  • Activists have called on Indonesia to follow Malaysia’s footsteps if it doesn’t want to have the image of its oil palm products further tarnished compared to Malaysia.

JAKARTA — The Malaysian government has decided to allow the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil to publish maps of corporate land concessions for Peninsular Malaysia and Sarawak, in a bid to boost transparency.

The RSPO, which is the world’s largest association for ethical palm oil production, called the move a “milestone” that could leave top palm oil producer Indonesia further behind in the pursuit of transparency in the sector.

The RSPO, a voluntary certification scheme whose members include producers, traders and buyers of the commodity, as well as NGOs, in about 90 countries, initially committed to publishing the maps in 2013.

But concerns over the legality of doing so prevented the RSPO from doing so, the group has said.

In Malaysia — the world’s second-largest palm oil producer — only the maps for Sabah state had been published in RSPO’s interactive map application, GeoRSPO.

But now all oil palm concession boundaries of RSPO members in the country are publicly available through GeoRSPO after the roundtable received the legal go-ahead from the Malaysian government. The RSPO published the latest maps on Dec. 12.

These maps display relevant data including active hotspots, tree cover loss, tree cover gain and more.

“It is a great step forward for transparency and accountability,” said Darrel Webber, chief executive of the Kuala Lumpur-based RSPO. “We hope this move will bring greater objectivity to discussions on fires and other topics that have sometimes been attributed to the palm oil sector.”

Denise Westerhout, a markets specialist at WWF, called the move “a true game-changer.” Andika Putraditama, sustainable commodities and business manager at think tank the World Resources Institute, said it “would go a long way to accelerate the transformation of the palm oil industry to be more sustainable.”

Greenpeace forest campaigner Annisa Rahmawati, however, said the move was “too little, too late.”

For one, she said, the data doesn’t include RSPO members’ third-party suppliers, which make up much of production.

“It’s too little because the RSPO’s definition of group ownership is not sufficient and is poorly implemented,” Annisa said. “It’s too little because the data isn’t downloadable as shapefile or other geodata format permitting analysis. And it’s five years too late because the RSPO resolved to do this in 2013, setting a 2014 deadline for publication.”

A palm oil plantation in Sabah, Malaysia. The Malaysian government has decided to allow the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil to publish maps of corporate land concessions for Peninsular Malaysia and Sarawak, in a bid to boost transparency. Image by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay.

Nationwide map publication

The RSPO’s move could be followed by the publication of all plantation maps in Malaysia, not only those of RSPO members, as Malaysian Primary Industries Minister Teresa Kok has pledged to make the maps available for public access.

“The future or palm oil is through its sustainable production traced throughout its supply chain,” Kok said in November.

The Malaysian government, through its own certification scheme, the Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) standard, is targeting 100% traceability right to the plantation level nationwide by 2025.

To meet the target, the Malaysian Palm Oil Certification Council (MPOCC), which manages the MSPO, recently launched an app for identifying the locations of oil palm plantations and palm oil processing facilities that have obtained sustainability certification in the country.

“These efforts are crucial in convincing the international community that CPO produced in Malaysia is guaranteed in terms of sustainability and quality, especially to deny accusations that link palm oil to deforestation, exploitation of workers, violation of rights of Orang Asli and others,” MPOCC CEO Chew Jit Seng said.

The app, called MSPO Trace, is akin to GeoRSPO.

“The initiatives by MSPO Trace and GeoRSPO will assist the country in encouraging mapping transparency of palm oil area in the country to ensure the sustainability of the industry and the responsibility of all shareholders in the country’s palm oil industry,” Chew added.

Palm oil plantations stretching out across Malaysian hills.

Indonesia falling behind

Malaysian’s move towards greater transparency is a stark contrast against the Indonesian government’s stance in the matter.

Proponents of transparency have for years tried to obtain access to Indonesia’s plantation maps, locally known as HGUs.

The prevailing lack of transparency, they argue, has fueled the problems associated with Indonesian palm oil, including deforestation, overlapping concessions, land grabbing, and labor rights abuses.

Despite the Indonesian government’s repeated rhetoric on the importance of transparency, top officials have balked at making plantation data public, on the grounds that the information is proprietary and of strategic national interest.

This continued refusal to publish the data goes against a ruling by Indonesia’s Supreme Court that detailed maps and related documents on plantation companies operating in the country must be made public.

And in May, the government issued a letter to the nation’s powerful palm oil lobby advising its member companies not to share plantation data with other parties, including external consultants, NGOs and multilateral and foreign agencies.

The Indonesian chapter of RSPO has criticized the government’s decision to keep the plantation maps out of the public’s reach, saying that it renders the policy to improve sustainability in the oil palm sector through a moratorium on new licenses ineffective.

With no transparency, it’ll be impossible to measure the progress and the effectiveness of the moratorium, according to RSPO Indonesia country director Tiur Rumondang.

Greenpeace Indonesia’s Annisa said even if the Indonesian government continued to refuse making its plantation maps publicly available, the RSPO should go ahead and publish a complete set of its members’ maps in Indonesia because of the Supreme Court ruling that oil palm plantation concession data is public information.

RSPO said GeoRSPO website already includes Indonesian member concessions, but Annisa said the maps were incomplete as they didn’t cover all concessions that should be belong or defined as a group and third party suppliers.

“Have all RSPO members and their suppliers, including third party ones, submitted their maps [to RSPO]?” she said. “Who haven’t submitted their maps? And is there any sanction for non compliance?”

Annisa also pointed out that the maps on GeoRSPO weren’t downloadable in a format that could be analyzed by stakeholders.

“The data is only accessible for visualization on-line right now and not downloadable as shapefile or other geodata format which permits the evaluation and analysis of the data by other stakeholders,” she said.

Agung Ady Setiawan, a campaigner at Forest Watch Indonesia, which challenged the Indonesian government’s refusal to disclose the plantation maps and won at the Supreme Court, said Malaysia’s transparency pledge should serve as a wake-up call for Indonesia.

“We are falling far behind,” he told Mongabay. “Our government should be courageous like Malaysia. We’ve always been defensive whenever there are allegations of deforestation and fires, but at the same time we hide our data. If we open our data to the public, people will be able to monitor [plantations] in real time if there are fires or deforestation.”

 

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that RSPO has made maps of its members in Indonesia available on GeoRSPO, but Greenpeace calls for the publication of a complete set of the maps that’s downloadable.

 

Banner image: Deforestation for an oil palm plantation in Sabah, Malaysia. Activists have called on Indonesia to follow Malaysia’s footsteps in allowing RSPO to publish plantation maps if it doesn’t want to have the image of its oil palm products further tarnished compared to Malaysia. Image by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay.

 

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