Unilever drops major palm-oil producer

The Independent: Martin Hickman: 22 February 2010

BBC documentary shows Indonesian company clearing protected rainforest

The household goods giant Unilever has distanced itself from a major palm-oil producer after a BBC documentary filmed its staff clearing protected rainforest to make way for plantations producing the widely-used ingredient. In its second blacklisting of a palm-oil producer in three months, Unilever said it would avoid buying supplies originating from the Indonesian company Duta Palma, ensuring they did not end up in best-selling brands such as Dove soap and Flora margarine.

The move – disclosed in an edition of BBC1's Panorama tonight – comes two months after Unilever halted its contract with another Indonesia company, PT Smart, following allegations by Greenpeace that it too was destroying rainforests. Duta Palma made no comment about the BBC's evidence. Following the suspension of its Unilever contract, PT Smart admitted to "minor mistakes" and introduced stricter environmental controls.

The disclosures pose fresh questions about the effectiveness of Indonesian laws protecting wildlife-rich jungles and the industry's attempt to clean up its image. Both Duta Palma and PT Smart are members of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, the body founded to protect the jungle and convince shoppers they can consume palm-oil products with a clear conscience.

Unilever, the world's biggest user of palm oil and a founder member of the RSPO, is one of the few companies that has bought segregated sustainable supplies. Some 97 per cent of palm oil is mixed together in refineries, making it hard for any company to state that its supply has not come from newly-deforested land.

As The Independent reported last year, half of best-selling foods such as Kit Kat and Hovis contain palm oil, but environmental groups and the British government are alarmed at the widespread damage its production causes in South-east Asia.

Of particular concern is the destruction of peat-rich land that releases vast amounts of greenhouse gases and the loss of habitat for endangered creatures such as the orangutan and snow leopard. Despite claims by the industry that its operators obey national laws protecting pristine jungle, the BBC found heavy machinery knocking down trees in a protected area of Kalimantan on the Indonesian side of the island of Borneo. "This is clear evidence of illegal logging," Mr Rowe said in the programme, to be broadcast at 8.30pm tonight.

Willie Smits, the eminent primatologist and former environmental adviser to the Indonesian government, said: "The area is classified as high conservation-value forest. It's virgin forest. Under Indonesian law, you cannot convert this high-quality forest to an oil palm plantation... This is criminal; this should not take place. It means there is no hope left for the most endangered sub-species of the orangutan in west Kalimantan."

The Indonesian government said that it would look into the footage and that it was getting tough with illegal logging.