The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was set up by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to involve companies in creating more sustainable ways of producing palm oil. However environmental experts believe that not only is the RSPO ineffective, it has become a way to green wash poor practices.

“The RSPO gives the companies a green front and encourages more consumption, which is precisely the cause of the problem,” said Valerie Phillips, forest campaigner of the Greenpeace branch in Papua New Guinea, one of the three countries most adversely affected by the palm oil industry.

The Roundtable board includes stakeholders from producers, processors to traders and retailers who work with NGOs to develop a set of ‘Principles and Criteria’ that all member companies must follow to be certified.

One of the environmentalists’ main concerns is that there is no legal framework around the ‘P&C’ and companies work at their own pace to meet them. Often they are not met at all.

“It is a voluntary initiative so the company cannot even be held accountable for failing to meet standards,” said Eddie Tanago of the Centre of Environmental Law and Community Rights (CELCOR) in Papua New Guinea.

“Up till now there are 11 or 12 companies certified under RSPO mechanism, however all of the companies have gotten complaints because of most of them are not following the principles and criteria of RSPO but still have the certificate,” said Agrofuels campaigner from Friends of the Earth Indonesia, Torry Kuswardono.

WWF’s Global Forest and Trade Manager Lydia Gaskell says that companies wanting to be certified are given action plans and targets according to ‘the size of the company and how sustainable they are.’

“To take a company off certification for failing to meet standards and criteria is at the very least, impractical,” said Gaskell. “There would be no need for the RSPO if everyone was meeting those principles and standards from day one.”

The fact that action plans and targets are negotiable is another weakness, said Grant Rosoman, Forests Campaigner for Greenpeace International. He believes that WWF’s close affiliation with businesses has led to compromises in their conservation efforts.

Misuse of environmental indicators

Under the P&C, the company must work with WWF to identify ‘High Value Conservation Forest’ (HCVF) areas prior to plantation. WWF, with the assistance of other independent consultancies such as Daemeter Consulting use a HCVF ‘toolkit’ as a framework to define these areas.

“They’ve taken the HCVF concept and misused it,” said Rosoman, “The HCVF is essentially open to interpretation and when used this way, the assessments see heavy interference from the company.”

“Say the assessment is done and 50 percent of the land is written off as being primary forest. The company says not feasible. It then becomes negotiable with WWF to reducing that down to a more ‘economic level’. In the end it gets to something ridiculous like only 10 percent of the area.”

WWF has been under fire in the past for receiving enormous levels of funding from corporate companies. In 2007, it received $20 million from Coca Cola for research into water efficiency. Its 2008 annual Financial Report recorded revenue of $196.5 million while Greenpeace reported a 2007-08 revenue of a little over $40 million.

“WWF needs to take a side and really stick to their guns and not be influenced by the client. Poor HVCF assessments risks good work done on the ground,” said Rosoman.

Kuswardono is also concerned with the lack of transparency with HCVF assessments and the role that WWF plays in the process.

“It’s hard to know what WWF’s role is because they are always acting in the gray area between the government and the company,” said Kuswardono.

“Although WWF will set principles and criteria which promote their interests in HCV forests, they won’t push the companies to implement them.”

Violation of land rights

Investigations into RSPO certified company Wilmar International show that it has been clearing land without proper consultation with communities. Criterion 2.3 in the P&C states that the company must ensure ‘use of land for oil palm does not diminish the legal rights, or customary rights, of other users, without their free, prior and informed consent’ and that prior negotiations with locals must involve ‘open sharing of all relevant information in appropriate forms and languages, including assessments of impacts, proposed benefit sharing and legal arrangements.’

Kuswardono says that when companies do consultations, they are insufficient and often misleading.

“They will use tactics of division by selecting certain figures of the community who support their projects and cause a divide between communities in this way.”
A joint investigation by NGOs into Singapore palm oil giant Wilmar International in October 2009 revealed that crucial information about land rights were often omitted during negotiations with community. The team discovered that a large majority of local people living in the Landak plantation area had been misled into relinquishing their land to the company.

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