RSPO promises to defeat palm oil-linked deforestation

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil opened its 12th annual conference with a strong commitment to preventing deforestation by stronger enforcement among its members and a call for greater collaboration among industry members. Vaidehi Shah reports from KL.

aerial view of palm oil plantation
Aerial view of an oil palm plantation in Malaysia. The industry is frequently blamed for illegal deforestation, which accounts for 18 per cent of total greenhouse gas emissions. Image: Jaggat Rashidi /

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is set to step up its fight against illegal deforestation by taking stronger discplinary action against members who flout RSPO rules and inking new partnerships to grow the sustainable palm oil market.

Speaking at the 12th Annual Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RT12) on Wednesday, RSPO chairman Biswaranjan Sen told delegates that collaboration and compliance were two key elements that shape RSPO’s efforts to make sustainable palm oil the norm.

Although it is mandatory for certain RSPO members to submit documents outlining their progress on efforts to attain certification, Sen noted that 40 per cent of them had not done so despite several reminders. A further 5 per cent of members had not submitted these documents for three consecutive years. 

“This is not acceptable. RSPO is not a club where payment of membership fees is enough to secure a seat at the table,” said Sen.

Member companies who have not submitted reports for the last three years will be expelled within six weeks and those failing to report over two years will be suspended, he announced. RSPO announces membership terminations on its website, and being expelled from the roundtable would publicly show that a company is not producing palm oil sustainably.

Founded in 2004, the Malaysia-based RSPO is an industry-led association jointly set up to address the global call for sustainably produced palm oil. Its membership includes oil palm growers, processors and traders, environmental and social NGOs, consumer goods manufacturers, and retailers.

RSPO has to date terminated the membership of just one company – Indonesian grower Duta Palma Nusantara – for illegal burning and development on carbon-rich peat land.

In recent years, the non-profit organisation has often been criticised by environmental groups such as Greenpeace for its weak enforcement of membership rules.

Adam Harrison, senior food and agriculture policy officer, WWF, welcomed RSPO’s move, saying: “This is a sign that the RSPO has finally lost its patience with those members who have been bringing the organization into disrepute by failing to make commitments, never mind keep them.”

NGOs also say RSPO’s measures to protect forests under the current RSPO standard are not strict and robust enough.

Global demand for palm oil is expected to grow rapidly over the coming decades, sparking concerns that more forests will be cleared to make way for new plantations. A ubiquitous ingredient in food and consumer products today, the crop produces significantly greater yields per hectare than rapeseed or soybean, all while requiring less fertiliser, pesticides, and water.

Acknowledging that deforestation resulting from palm oil production has worsened dramatically in recent years, Sen emphasised the need for various stakeholders in the industry to work on improving certification standards. This includes ensuring that these translate to action on the ground, and that such activity is closely monitored. 

His comments come shortly after one such partnership was inked between RSPO and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) on Friday which aims at generating market demand for certified sustainable palm oil.

Both organisations said they will combine their political and institutional resources to strengthen sustainability efforts by community groups, NGOs, and businesses.

Doug Cress, programme coordinator of UNEP’s Great Apes Survival Partnership, pointed out that “RSPO is leading the charge on the sustainable development of an important commodity”. This was closely aligned with the United Nations’ goals and objectives, he added. 

RSPO’s efforts to balance the economic benefits of palm oil with environmental and social protection are closely aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), he added.

The SDGs are a set of principles that will guide the United Nations’ development agenda beyond 2015. Due to be finalised next September, the SDGs will pursue sustainable economic growth, consumption, production patterns, and forest management, among others.

Protecting forests, reducing emissions

5 per cent of our members have not submitted ACOPs for 3 consecutive years. THis is not acceptable. The RSPO is not a club where payment of membership fees is enough to secure a seat at the table.

Biswaranjan Sen, RSPO Chairperson

While sustainable forest management has eluded RSPO to date, NGOs and researchers at RT12 shared ways in which oil palm growers and policymakers can identify and conserve the most environmentally and socially valuable forest areas.

Grant Rosoman, global forests solutions coordinator at Greenpeace International, proposed a “High Carbon Stock (HCS)” approach, which assesses the vegetation cover in a forest to identify degraded areas suitable for plantation development and dense, carbon-rich areas that merit protection.

Various consumer companies including Mars, Nestle, Colgate Palmolive, Neste Oil and Unilever, refer to the HCS methodology in their responsible sourcing policies.

John Raison, chief research scientist of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation presented another approach called the High Carbon Stock Study, which also aims to identify carbon-rich forest areas that should be protected.

Commisioned by a group of growers including Sime Darby Plantation, Musim Mas Group, and IOI Corporation, the study differs from the HCS approach in that it identifies high-carbon land that should be conserved by assessing not just above-ground vegetation, but also the carbon stored in soil and underground peat. It also factors the socio-economic value of land into its recommendation. 

Both groups are vying to have their methodology accepted as the industry standard and eventually worked into RSPO’s principles and criteria - which companies must fulfil in order to obtain certification.

For now, there is little alignment between the two. Raison pointed out that the HCS Approach does not factor in the emissions resulting from the burning, drainage, and degradation of peat land, which has a high carbon content.

Groups behind the HCS Approach, including Greenpeace, Rainforest Action Network and the Forest Peoples’ Programme, in turn criticised the High Carbon Stock study, which is chaired by Raison and Forum for the Future chief Johathon Porritt, saying it lacks engagement with diverse stakeholders and falls short of new benchmarks for responsible palm oil production and trade.

Darrel Webber, secretary general, RSPO, told Eco-Business that while forest carbon will definitely feature in future versions of RSPO’s principles, the final form of this criteria will be shaped by feedback from RSPO members. He added that he saw both efforts to identify high carbon forests as complementary and hoped for convergence among the two.

As these debates unfolded, RSPO also recognised at an award ceremony smallholder farmers who had recently attained the sustainable palm oil certification for their plantations, after having made the switch from traditional farming methods to the sustainable techniques required to obtain the endorsement.

Smallholders have frequently been pinpointed as the one of the sources of illegal forest clearing and burning - a practice which is attributed to a lack of resources to clear land in a costlier but more sustainable way, and to a lack of knowledge on best agricultural practices.

There are about 3 million oil palm smallholders worldwide, 145,000 of which are RSPO certified.

Among those receiving their certificates on Wednesday was the Tani Maju smallholder cooperative from South Sumatra. Comprising 45 farmers who supply to Cargill’s PT Hindoli plantation, the cooperative worked with the plantation over two years to achieve the certification, received training, administrative, and financial support in the process.

Rianto, a smallholder from South Sumatra who heads the cooperative, told Eco-Business that obtaining the certification had helped each smallholder increase their annual yield from 18 tonnes per hectare to 20 tonnes due to improved farming practices.

By selling to the PT Hindoli plantation at guaranteed prices, smallholders also earned upwards of 1600 rupiah (S$0.17) per kilogram, compared to 1,200 rupiah (S$0.13) before certification.

Speaking at the event, director of Malaysian NGO Global Environment Centre Faizal Parish commented that while efforts to increase the percentage of palm oil companies and smallholders are important, the fact that the entire industry is built on one crop and relies on land clearing for its expansion, warrants a search for alternatives.

The clearing of biodiversity-rich forests for palm oil might destroy other valuable species of plants in the process, said Parish, and added that not enough money is being invested in researching alternatives to palm oil that may perhaps be less damaging to ecosystems. He expressed hope that “RSPO will eventually think beyond oil palm”.

“I hope we will be talking about different development models in ten years,” he said.

RSPO’s annual roundtable meetings host a general assembly for members, an exhibition, and a three-day conference on issues related to sustainable palm oil. RT12 was held at the Shangri-La hotel in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. 

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