By Laurel Sutherlin

As Rainforest Action Network’s palm oil campaigners wrap up a full, fast and furious week here at the 12th annual gathering of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, we can’t help but reflect a bit on this pivotal moment. This dispatch is meant to shed some light on what we see next for the responsible palm oil movement. 

Palm.jpgLet’s be real: palm oil plantations are directly descended from a colonial model that requires artificially cheap (read: stolen) land and artificially cheap (read: slave) labor to be profitable, or at least to be as wildly profitable as it has proven to be. This industrial-scale, scorched-earth style of agriculture has now been violently imposed upon tens of millions of people across millions of acres of forest in Indonesia and Malaysia and is now aggressively seeking to expand into primary forests in Africa, Latin America and Papua New Guinea.

So when we talk about achieving a deforestation-free palm oil sector that respects its workers and does not leave wholesale ecological carnage in its wake, we are not talking about reforming a few bad apples or tweaking some industry practices here and there. We are talking about fundamentally transforming a deeply entrenched multibillion-dollar business empire that is permeated with corruption and a lack of transparency and has made its top power players very, very rich.

In this context, the gains achieved by a small band of environmental and human rights NGOs over the past couple of years is truly remarkable. Just in the past eighteen months, many of the biggest actors in the palm oil world, and it is a world unto itself, have made high profile public commitments to stop logging forests, to respect human and labor rights and to stop the worst of the worst of the extreme carbon pollution their development is responsible for. 

Have these lofty pledges been implemented down to the ground to improve the lives of laborers and save the habitat of endangered orangutans? No, not yet. Will it be enough even if current commitments are implemented fully? No, it won’t. 

That said, these kind of comprehensive commitments, many covering third party suppliers across entire supply chains, were unthinkable just a few years ago and it cannot be denied that a corner of some sort has been turned, a new benchmark for what is acceptable has been set, a real sense of momentum is at hand. 

So what now?

As NGOs, many of us are struggling to adjust after many years of throwing rocks from the outside, trying to ring the alarm to get the world to pay attention, to an uncomfortable but encouraging new reality where we keep campaigning full tilt to bring along the laggards, but also try to help the behemoth companies that have made pledges to figure out how to actually accomplish the promises we’ve bludgeoned them into making.

Whole new systems need to be developed, new mapping, Indigenous land tenure and tracking tools need to be built, new accountability and verification processes must be set in place, new data must be collected, new research needs to be done, meaningful engagement with communities must be implemented, grievance mechanisms that actually work need to be instituted, entire new oversight devices must be established for an industry that is notoriously opaque and fiendishly complex. 

Just for companies to figure out where the oil they use is coming from is a surprisingly huge undertaking, much less to legitimately ensure that workers on remote plantations are being recruited ethically and treated well on the job. A new army of private, third party consultants is emerging; a whole new branch of business infrastructure is taking shape.

RAN is involved at the foundation of many of the new initiatives that aim to make the nice words on paper turn into tangible results that improve millions of lives and preserve earth’s remaining rainforests from the seemingly unstoppable juggernaut of palm oil plantation expansion.

Here is a quick breakdown of the primary initiatives we are most excited about and believe to be the most promising pathways to institute real change moving forward: 

Palm Oil Innovation Group (POIG):

The POIG is a collaborative initiative between NGOs and leading, progressive palm oil producing companies that goes above and beyond the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) to demonstrate what truly responsible palm oil production looks like. The POIG is quickly growing in membership and has recently added labor organizations and consumer facing companies and is building its expertise in field verification. The hope is the POIG can create enough gravity to pull the RSPO as a whole further towards stronger standards and more robust enforcement.

The High Carbon Stock Approach:

The HCS Approach was first developed by Greenpeace, Golden Agri Resources (GAR) and The Forest Trust (TFT) and is a comprehensive approach to land use planning that integrates social and ecological factors to identify what areas can and cannot be developed in order to avoid deforestation while respecting communities’ rights. This approach continues to be refined and trialed in Liberia, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea and an incredible multi-stakeholder governing body has been established to make sure companies actually protect forests and respond to the needs of communities.

Fair Labor Principles:

RAN has been working closely with dozens of Indonesian, Malaysian and international labor and environmental allies over the past year to build consensus for a widely agreed upon standard for fair labor principles in the palm oil sector. When complete, this detailed set of standards will be delivered as a set of recommendations to help guide companies, plantation certification bodies and government regulators towards eliminating systemic abuses currently rife throughout the palm oil industry. 

Palm Oil Action Team (POAT):

Ten of the Snack Food Twenty companies targeted by RAN’s Conflict Palm Oil campaign have made substantial public commitments to clean up their palm oil supply chains, but there are still ten major food giants to go! The dedicated team of activists called the Palm Oil Action Team will be crucial to generate the pressure needed to bring these laggards along while holding all twenty companies accountable to their promises. PepsiCo is in the crosshairs now and others will soon follow until the whole sector has been purged of the egregious abuses of Conflict Palm Oil!