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As RSPO celebrates 20 years of work, Indigenous groups lament unresolved grievances

Activists from TuK Indonesia staged a protest against RSPO during the organization's roundtable conference in Jakarta in November 2023. Image by Hans Nicholas Jong/Mongabay.

  • The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) held its annual conference in Jakarta to celebrate 20 years of growth and impact — but activists and Indigenous communities say they’ve been waiting years for RSPO to resolve ongoing conflicts and long-standing complaints.
  • Indigenous groups and local communities that have lost their lands and forests say the RSPO grievance system has left them without justice or resolution.
  • While the RSPO says it has improved its methods of dealing with grievances, affected communities say their complaints have been dismissed for lack of evidence, they have awaited answers for years and their voices aren’t being heard.

JAKARTA — When the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), the world’s largest association for ethical palm oil production, kicked off the second day of its annual roundtable conference on Nov. 21, there was a festive atmosphere.

During the opening ceremony in a gigantic ballroom at a luxury five-star hotel in Jakarta, a number of dancers performed a Dayak traditional dance accompanied with thundering percussive music.

Dancers perform a Dayak traditional dance during the RSPO roundtable conference in Jakarta in November 2023. Image courtesy of RSPO.

And then RSPO CEO Joseph D’Cruz took the stage to deliver his opening remark, where he told the attendees how the organization had grown rapidly since its inception two decades ago.

Its membership had grown from around 200 in 16 countries to more than 5,700 in more than 100 countries and territories, with members ranging from some of the largest corporations in the world to smallholders and NGOs.

Under the roundtable’s green label, producer members can earn the right to market their palm oil as certified sustainable.

Its certified area had also grown from 125,000 hectares (308,800 acres) in 2008 to 4.9 million hectares (12.1 million acres) across 23 countries in 2023.

 “All of you deserve huge congratulations for the work of the past 20 years. Together we are delivering one of the most significant transformations ever accomplished in a global commodity sector,” D’Cruz said. “This is a story to be proud of, and to tell proudly.”

RSPO CEO Joseph D’Cruz delivered his remark at the RSPO roundtable conference in Jakarta in November 2023. Image courtesy of RSPO.

While the RSPO is celebrating what’s said to be 20 years of impact, local and Indigenous communities embroiled in conflicts with the organization’s corporate members say there’s nothing to celebrate.

They grow restless as they have been waiting for decades for the RSPO to remedy their long-standing conflicts.

In a joint statement, 10 local and Indigenous groups from four regions in Indonesia said they had high hopes that the RSPO’s grievance mechanism would be able to provide justice for them, as their land rights had been denied by the operations of RSPO members.

However, as their complaints remained unsolved for decades, they doubted the effectiveness and relevance of the RSPO mechanism.

“We doubt the advantages of the RSPO in terms of defending and upholding the rights of native populations, nearby communities, and land users who lost their lands and forests,” the communities said.

TuK Indonesia, an NGO that advocates for social justice in the agribusiness sector, called the RSPO no longer relevant as a sustainability tool, as it has become a legitimizing tool for the palm oil industry, which carries out environmental destruction, human rights abuses and land-grabbing.

“We can no longer pin our hope on the RSPO to solve cases,” TuK Indonesia director Linda Rosalina said. “The RSPO has become a tool to legitimize the palm oil industry so that they could avoid [responsibilities] from their operation that destroys the environment and exacerbates environmental crisis.”

Activists from TuK Indonesia staged a protest against RSPO during the organization’s roundtable conference in Jakarta in November 2023. Image by Hans Nicholas Jong/Mongabay.

Long list

One of the affected communities is the Nagari Koto Baru Indigenous community in West Sumatra, which has been in land conflict with PT Primatama Mulia Jaya (PMJ), a subsidiary of Wilmar International, the world’s biggest palm oil trader and a member of the RSPO, since 1997.

The community said the company had developed a plantation on their customary land without their free, prior and informed consent (FPIC).

In December 2017, Syahrul Ramadhan Tanjung Sinaro, a community leader, was arrested by police under the allegation that he ordered community members to steal palm oil fruits from the company’s concession. This happened immediately after the community decided to submit a complaint against the company to the RSPO.

Syahrul was subsequently sentenced to a year in prison, eventually serving nine months.

Nevertheless, the community decided to proceed with its plan to file the complaint in July 2018.

However, the RSPO decided to dismiss the case in March 2021, and close it in June 2021, saying there was enough evidence to show that PMJ complied with the RSPO’s principles and criteria.

Syahrul said he was disappointed with the RSPO and its decision to dismiss the case, which resulted in his community continuing to have their customary rights denied.

“The RSPO did not pay any attention to the reports we submitted in our complaint and did not give any sanction for the violation of the law and the deprivation of our rights to our customary land,” he said.

RSPO dismissed a complaint by another Indigenous community in Indonesian Borneo 11 years after the case was brought to the organization.

In that case, the Dayak Hibun community in Sanggau district, West Kalimantan province, said PT Mitra Austral Sejahtera (MAS), at the time owned by Malaysian palm oil company Sime Darby Plantation Bhd., had secured a permit without obtaining the FPIC of the community.

The RSPO finally ruled on the complaint in August 2023, dismissing it due to “insufficient evidence” that MAS had obtained its permit irregularly.

“Of course people are going to the RSPO full of hopes [that their grievances will be addressed], but what’s happening in Sanggau after 11 years is that [the complaint] is rejected due to lack of proof,” Linda said. “How inhumane is that? Eleven years of waiting and the answer is no.”

RSPO assurance director Aryo Gustomo said that it could take a long time for the organization to solve grievances lodged by communities because it has to be cautious in making any decision related to complaints.

“Every decision [that we make] on complaints needs accurate information, to really prove that the complaints [are true],” he said. “Some people think that the process is too long, but that’s because of the cautionary principle [that we adopt] in making any decision to prevent us from siding with the wrong party.”

The RSPO pointed out that it had improved momentum in processing grievance cases, with 172 cases closed since 2009, and the average time to close complaint cases has dropped to 263 working days.

The RSPO also noted that it had closed 81% of cases related to human rights, such as land disputes, as of 2022.

However, it’s unclear how many of these “closed” cases had truly been resolved with remedies delivered to affected communities, and how many had been dismissed, like the case of the Dayak Hibun community, according to TuK Indonesia researcher Mufida Kusumaningtyas.

Cases like the Nagari Koto Baru community and the Dayak Hibun community are part of a long list of cases left without remedy at the hands of the RSPO, according to the U.S.-based NGO Rainforest Action Network (RAN).

And as the RSPO has failed to resolve grievances and land conflicts for 20 years, communities are starting to lose faith in the system, RAN senior forest campaigner Fitri Arianti said.

“So the RSPO’s credibility is on the line. This is their reputation,” she said. “They should be looking to remedy and do it properly after 20 years. There’s so many tools and resources now out there with High Carbon Stock Approach [HCSA], a lot of FPIC guidance. This is not new. We should figure this out by now. It’s not surprising that all these communities are coming here [to the RSPO meeting], and saying that the RSPO is not enough anymore.”

The Indigenous community of Dayak Hibun in Sanggau district, West Kalimantan, Indonesia. Image courtesy of Dayak Hibun website.

Problems in the system

There are many cases left unsolved because of weaknesses within the RSPO’s grievance mechanism, including potential conflict of interest in the auditing process, Fitri said.

Auditors might be biased because it’s the companies that are paying for the audits, she said.

Djayu Sukma Ifantara, a project officer at the NGO Sustainable Forestry Peoples’ Foundation (YMKL), said he found some cases where the team tasked with investigating RSPO’s complaints was not meeting the right people who had been affected by the operation of RSPO members.

“Companies might point the auditors toward communities who support [the companies],” he said.

In an interview with Mongabay earlier this year, RSPO’s D’Cruz said, practically speaking, it was impossible for auditors to talk to every affected community member, and thus the best thing they could do was to sample.

“And you try your best to triangulate, to identify who the right people are to talk to. But are you going to be able to come back to the certification body or to the RSPO or the plantation and say, ‘I’ve talked to everybody’? No. Logically not,” he said. “Is there going to be somebody there who wanted to have their voice heard that wasn’t heard? Yes. So that’s where you have to understand, sustainability is not a checkbox. It’s not “We’ve done this or we’ve not.”

When asked about conflict of interest due to auditors being paid by companies, D’Cruz pointed out that these auditors are professionals.

“These are the companies that audit food and safety regulations and engineering regulations, and others in a huge range of different areas,” he said. “So I think part of this is remembering that there is expertise and a big body of evidence behind the people who are doing this work on the ground.”

Djayu said he’s not expecting RSPO auditors to visit every affected community member.

“[But] at least [before paying a visit], they confirm to the people or organizations who filed the complaint so that they can be led to the right people [to talk to],” he said.

Therefore, affected communities and activists are calling for the RSPO to address the weaknesses in its system and to properly punish its members who have failed to respect the FPIC of communities.

“The lack of justice in the RSPO system simply can’t be tolerated,” RAN forest policy director Gemma Tillack said.

However, rather than addressing the weaknesses, there has been talk within the RSPO of potentially further weakening the organization’s standards, including those related to the rights of Indigenous and local communities, according to Fitri.

The RSPO is currently in the process of revising its core certification standard, and RAN has been hearing that the requirement for RSPO members to obtain FPIC might apply only to new development but not to existing plantations, she said.

“The retrospective FPIC means they’re trying to get away with not remedying the past violations, and they need to correct that first before being able to then try to implement FPIC in new development,” Fitri said.

Deforestation in East Kalimantan for oil palm plantations.
Deforestation in East Kalimantan for oil palm plantations. Image by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay.

Change in approach

Another issue with the RSPO’s grievance mechanism is the fact that there’s a lot of burden on the affected communities or NGOs to be the ones who bring their cases, instead of the RSPO actively pursuing to resolve conflicts between its members and communities, Fitri said.

Aryo said the RSPO is looking to rectify this by developing a unified, bespoke “Certification, Trade, and Traceability System” (CTTS) that replaces the existing IT platform, PalmTrace.

Through the system, expected to be launched in the fourth quarter of 2024, the RSPO aims to identify issues like deforestation and land conflicts before they’re brought up by affected communities or NGOs, he said.

The RSPO will be automatically alerted when the system detects issues, Aryo added.

“The system will predict [issues] using data. This new digital platform will include important information from audit results like concession sizes and other nonconformity issues,” he said. “From there, we will analyze [the data] to look at the trend and the risk.”

The system might even be able to identify non-conformity issues in non-RSPO members.

This way, the RSPO could alert non-RSPO members for them to address existing issues first before applying for memberships at the organization, Aryo said.

“The point is being preemptive and know what the problems are. We will then offer solutions so that they could really comply [with RSPO standards]. If you don’t comply, then you can’t be certified yet,” he said.

Aryo said the RSPO is also now focusing on providing solutions to its members who commit wrongdoing, rather than punishing them.

“Sanctions are needed to prevent recurrence, but they have to be balanced with solutions,” he said. “If proven guilty, then they [RSPO members] have to fix [the issue] so that it won’t happen again. The process is like remedy. So we’re not acting like a court, where we punish the wrongdoers. But the grievance system finds out what’s wrong so that it can be fixed. That’s why it takes time and caution.”

Deforestation for oil palm plantations in Sabah in 2012.
Deforestation for oil palm plantations in Sabah in 2012. Image by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay.

Other issues

Besides issues of land conflicts, there’s a litany of other issues plaguing RSPO members, Linda of TuK Indonesia said.

For one, some RSPO-certified companies are operating illegal plantations inside forest areas in Indonesia.

According to a 2021 report by Greenpeace and technology consultancy TheTreeMap, RSPO member plantation companies operate across 283,686 hectares (701,000 acres) of forest areas.

And some of these plantations have applied to have their illegal operation pardoned by the government through an amnesty program, with 84,000 hectares (197,680 acres) of illegal plantations having been legalized, according to data compiled by TuK Indonesia.

The largest groups of RSPO members that have applied for the amnesty are Musim Mas Holdings Pte. Ltd. (33.1%), PT Sawit Sumbermas Sarana (23.2%), Goodhope Asia Holdings Ltd. (14.9%), Golden Agri-Resources Ltd (12.4%), and Kuala Lumpur Kepong Berhad (5%), the data show.

Syahrul Fitra, a senior forest campaigner at Greenpeace Indonesia, questioned how these RSPO members, some of whom are the biggest palm oil producers in the region, could be certified in the first place.

“When the certification process started, how did the ground verification look like? Were the certification bodies not able to see [that the companies operate illegally in forest areas]?” he said.

Syahrul said there’s no way the RSPO wasn’t aware of the illegal operation of its members, since the government has also published its findings on illegal plantations since 2015.

“There’s no reason [for the RSPO to not take action],” he said. “This shows how the RSPO is mere formality.”

Some RSPO members have also failed to comply with a government requirement to allocate 20% of their land to smallholder farmers.

Tuk Indonesia cited the case of the villagers of Biru Maju in Central Kalimantan, who have been demanding plantation firm PT Buana Artha Sejahtera, an RSPO-certified subsidiary of conglomerate Sinar Mas Group, to allocate parts of its plantation to the community since 2005.

Palm oil fruits being processed into palm oil. Image by Dylan Collins.

Civil society involvement

One way for the RSPO to improve its grievance mechanism to ensure that community rights are being respected and remedies are delivered is through greater public participation, according to Djayu of YMKL.

“The RSPO has to be more transparent and open to inputs, not only from its members because the majority of RSPO members are companies,” he said. “While there are indeed NGOs inside [the RSPO], the number is not comparable to companies [that are members of the RSPO].”

As of 2021, there were 1,870 companies, consisting of growers, traders and consumer good brands, within the RSPO, representing more than 92% of the organizations’ members. Meanwhile, there were only 58 environmental and social NGOs as RSPO members, less than 3%.

Lack of civil engagement was also apparent during the roundtable conference, Djayu said.

If the RSPO is truly serious about involving civil groups and local and Indigenous communities in the process, then it should’ve facilitated sessions that invite communities and discuss issues related to communities at the conference, he said.

However, such civic space was largely not available during the conference, Djayu said.

Fitri of RAN said the cost of attending the conference presented a barrier for local and Indigenous communities to meaningfully participate in the discussion and decision-making. It costs $860 to attend the conference in person.

“Even the delegates here, like labor, Indigenous communities that come here, they don’t even have badges to engage in the conversation because they don’t even have access. It’s still $500-$1,000 to get in,” she said.

And even those from communities and NGOs able to attend the conference were still not being part of the big discussion around setting the RSPO standard, Fitri said. Instead, they were just having side meetings, she added.

“So it’s completely different space between what’s happening inside and the conversation that’s happening among NGOs and communities that are attending,” Fitri said.

Djayu said the RSPO failed to actively reach out to civil groups and engage with them.

“We have to send letters first [to be able to meet with the RSPO secretariat at the conference] long before the roundtable conference [this year],” he said. “It was up to us to ask [for a meeting], so there’s no initiative from the RSPO [to reach out to us].”

Mahatma Windrawan Inantha, the market transformation deputy director of RSPO, said the organization is open to any engagement from civil society and welcomes any NGOs that want to become members.

“If [you] want to join the RSPO, entering the complaints panel, working group and various mechanisms, or working together to review our standards, we are really open,” he said.

Gemma of RAN said NGOs had actually been working to improve the system from within the RSPO.

“There are RSPO members that are engaging at the board level, at the level of the complaints panel, and those individuals are doing a lot to consistently identify the weaknesses in the system,” she said. “So it’s not from the lack of trying on behalf of civil society.”

But these efforts hadn’t been able to address the RSPO’s weaknesses, Tillack said.

“Civil society has and continues to participate, to raise ideas; there’s been publications around what needs to change, and the RSPO as a collective has failed to take those actions,” she said. “So I think it’s a larger problem, which is the RSPO system hasn’t changed despite repeated requests from civil society to make improvement, even from those within the system.”

Windrawan also extended the offer to TuK Indonesia, which staged a protest against the RSPO at the roundtable conference Nov. 22.

If TuK Indonesia wasn’t pleased with the RSPO’s decision to dismiss the complaint by the Dayak Hibun community, which was represented by the NGO in the case, then TuK Indonesia was more than welcome to join the organization and its complaint panel, he said.

“If you want to register now, we will immediately accept [TuK Indonesia],” Windrawan said. “Let’s fight from the inside to fix the issues. Let’s participate in the complaint panel to feel how difficult it is [to process the complaint]. We will find the best solution.”

TuK Indonesia campaigner Abdul Haris said the NGO refused to engage in a dialogue with the RSPO during the roundtable conference, as there was no point on doing so.

“We refused to talk to the RSPO because for us, the RSPO has been silent for too long [and takes no action to solve complaints],” he said.


CORRECTION (14/12/2023): The article has been updated on December 14, 2023, to correct two errors.

The previous version of the article said the RSPO decided to close the case of PMJ in March 2021. However, the RSPO didn’t close the case in March 2021. It dismissed the case in March 2021, and closed the case in June 2021.

The previous version of the article also incorrectly stated that 317 grievance cases had been closed since 2019. However, that figure is actually the number of Remediation and Compensation Procedure (RaCP) cases closed by the RSPO since 2019, not grievance cases.

Since 2009 to October 31, 2023, the RSPO have received a total of 196 complaints through its complaints system, out of which 172 (87.76%) are closed.
The article has been revised to reflect this.

Banner image: Activists from TuK Indonesia staged a protest against RSPO during the organization’s roundtable conference in Jakarta in November 2023. Image by Hans Nicholas Jong/Mongabay.


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