Dispatch from the Roundtable on (so called) Sustainable Palm Oil

posted by Josh Ran

Where to start? For the last 5 days, I have been observing the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) in the resort area of Nusa Dua, Bali. Just like last year, I joined the Sawit Watch delegation- a group of almost 50 small farmers and affected community members from across Indonesia.

Over the last 6 years, the RSPO- an industry-led forum that includes representation from environmental and social NGOs- has worked on developing and agreeing on a series of principles and criteria that could be used to prove that palm oil is not destroying the environment or hurting communities. This year, the first certified “sustainable” palm oil hit the market—too bad that the company was far from actually sustainable. You can read all about that here.

I was at the RSPO to meet all the power players in the palm oil business, but mostly to support the small farmer and Indigenous delegation. This is not an easy place for them to get their voices across. First off, the meeting is conducted entirely in English- which none of them speak. Second, it was held in the luxurious Grand Hyatt in Nusa Dua, Bali- one of the fanciest resorts in Bali. All the luxury can be intimidating for folks who have just come from their villages. And, most importantly, they do not have a forum within the official meeting to address their concerns. There is a task force on small holder issues- which is important- but it meets before the RSPO, and there is no formal body for affected community members to address their concerns.

The community members have some vital information to get across, too. With the global financial crisis, the price that small farmers can sell their palm oil fruit for has dropped from about Rp.1,600 ($.14)a kilo to just Rp. 800 a kilo ($.06). Many have already either chosen to, or been coerced into, replacing their food crops with oil palm. This wasn’t a problem when prices were high- they could buy food- but now that prices have plummeted, people are having trouble just feeding their families- let alone sending their kids to school and paying for health care. Even more community members have had their land stolen from them from palm oil plantation companies- taken without their free, prior, and informed consent, and without compensation. And these are just some of the issues; pesticides, wages for labor, and cultural rights are among the many issues small holders and affected community members bring to the RSPO.

So, although it was difficult, the community members made their voices heard. How? Both the smallholders and the Papuan delegation developed a list of demands, which was presented at the main RSPO meeting. Many side meetings that were held- community members met face to face with representatives of companies that they are in conflict with. With the help of partner organizations, like SawitWatch, they met with HSBC Bank- which funds many palm oil plantations- and demanded that loans be stopped while there are still land conflicts. They asked difficult questions and presented issues from their communities in every question and answer session.

There was also the first ever outside protest of the RSPO. Friends of the Earth Indonesia (Walhi)- who have condemned the RSPO- staged a small protest outside of the conference during a coffee break on the last day. They held banners that read “RoundTROUBLE on Sustainable Palm Oil” and “RSPO for Market, Not for People”. They were quickly led off the premise. The RSPO delegates were in shock- no one had ever protested them before.

What do I make of all of this? I say that the RSPO is deeply flawed. The principles and criteria are far from where they need to be on forest clearing and peat degradation. There are no greenhouse gas related criteria. There is no good mechanism for smallholders or affected community members to enter complaints about conflicts on their land. And despite the fact that the criteria are far from where they should be, companies that are violating the principles and criteria are still getting certified. There are some well meaning RSPO members, but until the RSPO shows a real commitment to farmers, to forests, and to the climate, it will never be a legitimate certification.