Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil: 19 years is enough
This year’s general assembly of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), which begins on 1 December 2022 in Malaysia, marks the alliance’s 19th anniversary. For nearly two decades now, the RSPO has failed in its mission to make the industrial palm oil sector “sustainable”. Instead, it has been used by the palm oil industry to greenwash environmental destruction, labour and human rights abuses and land grabbing.
We, and other organisations working with communities affected by industrial oil palm plantations, have repeatedly denounced the RSPO for its failure to address the grievances of communities whose lands were taken by palm oil companies. The fundamental problems with the institution and its certification scheme are described in detail in international statements signed by organisations from around the world in 2008 and in 2018, and recently in reports published in 2021 on the failure of RSPO to prevent deforestation, consult affected communities and address their grievances (here and here).
Today, we find that nothing has changed. While the area of land under RSPO-certified oil palm plantations has continued to grow, the RSPO has continued to be a great deception.
Since 2020, the RSPO certified several industrial oil palm concessions in Cameroon, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Sao Tome, Ghana, DRC, Nigeria and Ivory Coast belonging to the Luxembourg-based company Socfin. The certifications were provided in complete disregard of community grievances related to lack of living space, land conflicts, deforestation, pollution, labour rights, harassment and violence. Communities in Sierra Leone, Cameroon and Ivory Coast have demanded the suspension of these certificates. After articles appeared in the media about Socfin’s Cameroon plantations, the RSPO secretariat sent a verification mission to assess the allegations made. While community leaders say the RSPO assessment team avoided talking with people critical of the company, and ignored evidence provided by community leaders, the verification assessment still documented numerous violations of RSPO standards at the Cameroon plantations. Despite these findings, the RSPO continues to issue certifications to more plantations of the Socfin group.
In Sierra Leone, 1,475 local community members affected by Socfin’s plantation signed a petition denouncing the RSPO’s certification decision in January 2022. They claimed the RSPO process was flawed and had failed to consider issues related to land grabbing, human rights violations and violent repression. As noted in an international press release signed by numerous organisations: “The RSPO consultation process was riddled with missteps. Relevant stakeholders, including affected landowners, were not consulted. A crucial government report that orders revocation of the principal lease and a participative process to solve the current land disputes was rejected as evidence. The audits were not independent from the company and a safe space for consultation was not provided despite the huge risks of reprisals for people.”
The recent certification of Socfin in Africa shows how the RSPO not only fails to help communities but can undermine their defence of life. Communities and their NGO allies have to waste valuable time and resources engaging with multiple and complex RSPO processes. Leaders who speak out during these processes are vulnerable to intimidation and harassment.
In another recent case, members of the Commune of Barranquilla de San Javier in Ecuador held a peaceful protest in 2019 to demand that the RSPO member company Energy & Palma withdraw from their lands, stop polluting their water sources and stop deforestation. The protests were violently crushed by the police and then, in a clear act of intimidation, the company took seven community leaders to court, seeking US$320,000 in damages. The court already issued one of two rulings and sentenced the community members to pay US$151,000, which the defenders appealed. The company also appealed and insisted on the payment of US$320,000. The second ruling is still pending. As of today, the RSPO has taken no action to sanction Energy & Palma.
Meanwhile, communities in Liberia are still waiting for a solution to a complaint they lodged with the RSPO over a decade ago against member company Golden Agri-Resources. Their experience and others show how the RSPO complaint system is in tatters and has never been effective.
We now have 19 years of ongoing evidence that the RSPO is not a credible instrument for holding companies in the palm oil industry to account for environmental, social and labour violations. This means that RSPO fails to uphold its own principles and criteria towards its members. It has proved to not be a trusted venue for communities to address their complaints against palm oil companies. Instead, it undermines communities’ efforts and enables palm oil companies to grab more lands.
At a moment when the area of land under RSPO certification is growing and when the RSPO is being promoted as a standard for sustainability within national, regional and international regulations and policies, we reiterate our denunciation of the RSPO and our commitment to actions that can truly serve the interests of communities and put an end to the colonialist model of industrial oil palm plantations.