Cleaning up deforestation from palm oil needs more than greenwash

The Guardian: Annisa Rahmawati : 6 June 2014

Momentum to stop deforestation is coming from palm oil producers and brands, but unless the RSPO strengthens its standards, Indonesia’s forests will continue to burn

Demand for palm oil, an ingredient found in nearly half of all supermarket products, is at an all time high – and so is awareness of its reputation as the number one cause of deforestation in countries such as Indonesia. While the palm oil sector is finally at a tipping point, progress could quickly revert to mere greenwash unless major players ride the momentum to deforestation-free supply chains.

One of these major players is the organisation created to promote sustainable palm oil, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). The RSPO has just convened a meeting in London of members and stakeholders to shore up support for its certification scheme – a scheme criticised for greenwashing palm oil from suppliers involved in forest destruction.

Nearly 12 months ago, the RSPO was defending its members’ involvement in Southeast Asia’s forest fire crisis. The RSPO has now taken measures to be more transparent, including publishing data on fire hotspots in some concessions and a recently launched mapping initiative. However, it is has still missed the key point: the underlying cause of the fires is not solved through punitive measures and no-burning policies alone, but through long-term preventative measures that keep companies out of the forests and off the peatlands – landscapes that rarely burn if they are left in their natural, wet state.

So while the RSPO discusses how its standards are the key to sustainable palm oil, there has been genuine momentum from other quarters.

Responsible palm oil leaders

Both the world’s largest palm oil trader, Wilmar, and the largest palm oil producer in Indonesia, Golden Agri Resources (GAR), pledged last year to stop all production and trade of palm oil linked to deforestation or peatland development. Public pressure has also pushed big consumers of palm oil such as Procter & Gamble, Unilever, Colgate Palmolive, L’Oréal and, more recently, Danone to commit to no deforestation.

For the first time, independently verified standards are being trialled by producers in the Palm Oil Innovation Group (POIG) – a collection of NGOs, including Greenpeace, and progressive producers (New Britain Palm Oil, Agropalma and Daabon) that aim to provide independently verified, responsibly produced palm oil. These standards use the RSPO as a basis, but establish additional requirements on palm oil producers including to assess and protect peatland and forested areas in their concessions.

Through their additional commitments, GAR, Wilmar and members of the POIG have set the benchmark for identifying forests for protection using the High Carbon Stock (HCS) approach, a process to determine what land can and cannot be developed. This ensures that forest destruction is not part of the equation.

The combination of these market and producer commitments gives us a glimpse of what a full, credible supply chain solution could look like. So, how will the RSPO respond? Will it strengthen its standards and acknowledge that there are initiatives that deliver on no deforestation, such as the Palm Oil Innovation Group (POIG)? Will the RSPO recognise the HCS approach as the method to determine what land can and cannot be developed?

Will the RSPO rise to the challenge?

My colleagues are monitoring forest and peat fires in Riau, a province in Sumatra, home to the largest share of the country’s palm oil plantations. Not only do these fires release a carbon bomb of planet-warming greenhouse gases, but scientific modelling in 2012 suggests that an average of 110,000 deaths a year in Southeast Asia can be attributed to peat and forest fires in the region.

While this crisis brews, another scandal is breaking on the other side of the country in Papua. A few months ago when Greenpeace launched a campaign to get P&G to clean up its palm oil supplies, it documented one of its suppliers (pdf), Musim Mas, an RSPO member, has obtained permits for concessions covering tens of thousands of hectares of areas that are heavily forested, including some that contain primary forest. This is despite the fact that a presidential moratorium in place since 2011 bans the allocation of new concessions on primary forest. Greenpeace has alerted the RSPO to the threat this operation poses, providing further recent evidence, and is awaiting its public response.

Business as usual cannot continue

Greenpeace is deeply concerned that well-known players in the RSPO are pretending membership alone confers a glow of sustainability. It is waiting to see what public action the RSPO will take on the cases raised with it and how it will strengthen its standards.

In the meantime, Greenpeace demands prominent RSPO members including IOI, KLK, Musim Mas, RGE group and Sime Darby to stop the bulldozers and urgently implement a no deforestation policy. It will continue to push more palm oil consumers such as Kao (the Japanese personal care company behind brands such as John Frieda and Bioré) and others to clean up their supply chains.

To reach this tipping point has not been easy. Some elements want to portray the shift to responsible palm as an attack on the palm oil industry itself, as a call to boycott palm oil or a form or “green protectionism”. To them, Greenpeace says this: don’t ignore the crisis – don’t ignore the fact that Sumatra is burning and Papua’s pristine forests are disappearing. Recognise there is a problem, and choose to be part of the solution. Palm oil can be grown responsibly, and must make a genuine contribution to Indonesia’s development.

Annisa Rahmawati is a forest campaigner at Greenpeace Southeast Asia

How Can You Help

There are lots of ways you can support orangutans and help ensure the survival of this precious ape.

Adopt an Orangutan

Adopt an Orangutan

Orangutans are endangered and at risk of extinction. Habitat destruction results in hundreds of orphaned orangutans, who rely on our care every year. You can help by adopting one. Their dedicated ‘nannies’ teach them everything they need to know for when it’s time to release them back to the wild. You can follow their progress through Forest School.

Adopt Now
Make a Donation

Make a Donation

Please help the Orangutans in their struggle for survival. Your donation is important and goes directly to BOS Indonesia. By donating, you are helping bring this noble yet endangered species back from the brink of extinction and on a path to freedom - from rescue to rehabilitation and release.

Donate Now
Visit Our Shop

Visit Our Shop

The perfect gift for any occasion! Choose from our selection of instant gifts that directly support our orangutans. You can buy a wheelbarrow, provide food for an orangutan for two months or lots more. You will receive a certificate, personalised with the name of your choice - perfect gift for you or a friend.

Shop Now