RAN Issues Statement in Response to False Palm Oil Claims by Cargill

By Rainforest Action Network
A Duta Palma-owned palm oil plantation in Indonesian Borneo (Kalimantan). Until Cargill adopts supply chain safeguards and publicly discloses its supposed 'No Trade List,' this rainforest destruction will persist in its palm oil supply chain. Photo: David Gilbert
A Duta Palma-owned palm oil plantation in Indonesian Borneo (Kalimantan). Until Cargill adopts supply chain safeguards and publicly discloses its supposed 'No Trade List,' this rainforest destruction will persist in its palm oil supply chain. Photo: David Gilbert

Last week, Rainforest Action Network (RAN) contacted Cargill employees in over 20 countries to alert them to the company’s ties to rainforest destruction and orangutan extinction. The email urged employees to watch a recent eye-opening prime time NBC news story profiling the imminent extinction of orangutans due to unchecked palm oil expansion in Indonesia and Malaysia.

Palm oil is one of the leading causes of tropical deforestation and Cargill is the top importer of palm oil into the US as well as one of the largest palm oil traders worldwide.

Cargill responded to our email by issuing a company-wide statement to its employees that contains numerous specific allegations that are either overtly disingenuous or flat out untrue. So, RAN issued a response to set the record straight. And we sent it to the same Cargill employees across 20 countries to ensure that, even though Cargill is not telling them the whole truth, they aren’t kept in the dark by their company’s lies.

Less than 24 hours later, UPI picked up the story: “Rainforest group locks horns with Cargill.”

Here is our statement below. Please let Cargill know what you think in the comments section.

Cargill opens its statement by claiming that, “For more than four years, Cargill has tried to work with and engage RAN. We even hosted RAN staff at our Harapan Indonesia oil palm plantation.” Cargill goes on to state, RAN refuses to have a constructive engagement with us to understand how we are operating our palm oil businesses in a sustainable fashion, helping small holder oil palm farmers be more successful and protecting important wildlife like orangutans.”

Since RAN launched its rainforest agribusiness campaign in 2007, Cargill has never once made a sincere attempt to address our core concerns.

During RAN’s November 2010 visit to the plantation Cargill refers to at Harapan Sawit Lestari (HSL), RAN documented new plantings on the edge of natural forest, but we were willing to withhold judgment as Cargill was in the middle of pursing certification and claimed that the audit would be completed by January 2011. This audit is now two years overdue and Cargill is currently in breach of the RSPO’s Member Code of Conduct that requires all plantations get certified within five years. Despite these violations, this plantation is not the largest issue for Cargill.

Cargill trades enormous quantities of palm oil each year and only a small fraction is sourced from the couple of plantations the company controls outright. The overwhelming majority comes from a vast and largely opaque network of suppliers that are regularly implicated in egregious violations that range from the destruction of natural rainforest to the stealing of land from Indigenous communities to orangutan deaths to forced and/or child labor in Indonesia and Malaysia. RAN has documented Cargill’s ties to these very issues by confirming supply chain ties to problematic suppliers including Wilmar, KLK, PT BEST, IOI and Triputra.

The Indonesian organization Sawit Watch alone has documented over 600 cases of active social conflict related to palm oil expansion in Indonesia. Today, just under half of Indonesia’s original forest cover remains, one of the reasons that Southeast Asia has the world’s highest rate of deforestation.

With such widespread conflict and abuses surrounding palm plantations across Indonesia and Malaysia, and without transparency and traceability on its supply chain, Cargill simply cannot in good faith claim not to be sourcing palm oil from these controversial sources. However, it is within Cargill’s power to exclude suppliers that do not meet the company’s values. Cargill trades approximately 25% of the world’s palm oil without safeguards, meaning it buys the cheapest palm oil from the most convenient suppliers. In 2009 Cargill publicly stated that it had a ‘No Trade List,’ which included Duta Palma, a company associated with severe cases of social conflict, but has never made this supposed list public. If Cargill has a No Trade list, the company should make it public.

To be clear, RAN would like nothing more than to begin “constructive engagement” with Cargill. Cargill should look to RAN’s recent relationship with Disney as a model for how we are ready and willing at any time to sit at the table and discuss concrete steps for how a major global company can rid its supply chain of species extinction and rainforest destruction.

The bottom line is that the only way to meaningfully protect endangered wildlife like the orangutan is to protect the forest habitat they depend on. RAN is unaware of any concrete steps Cargill has taken to help protect endangered species by permanently protecting the forests where they live.

RAN is asking Cargill to adopt the following basic safeguards for the palm oil it buys, sells, ships, and trades:

SOCIAL SAFEGUARDS – A commitment to resolve social and land rights tenure conflicts, a no-trade position for growers using child or slave labor, adherence to obtaining free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC) of forest-dependent communities before lands are acquired or developed, and a commitment to implement the United Nations “protect, respect and remedy” framework for human rights.

ENVIRONMENTAL SAFEGUARDS – A commitment to reduce biodiversity loss and greenhouse gas emissions by ending the expansion of palm oil plantations into High Conservation Value (HCV) areas including critical habitat, peatlands and High Carbon Stock forests and/or remaining natural forests.

PUBLIC TRANSPARENCY – A commitment to transparent and consistent reporting of metrics and targets as well as regular stakeholder and rights-holder engagement.

Cargill states that RAN’s allegations are “completely unfounded and untrue” and that Cargill has been recognized as a leader in palm oil sustainability by many environmental NGOs and that the company has done great things to protect orangutans.

While feel good partnerships with big green groups are nice on paper, they do not necessarily do anything to slow the rapid slide toward extinction for critically endangered species like the orangutan. The urgent crisis at hand calls for clear, decisive action on Cargill’s part to take a hard look at its supply chains and make meaningful demands of its suppliers to institute safeguards like those described above. Anything else is just words and does not change the destructive spiral that currently passes for business as usual. If Cargill is serious about making this change it could start by disclosing its supply chain assessment that it paid WWF to undertake, received in April of 2012 and yet has refused to share with stakeholders or the public.

As it stands, Cargill has stated a commitment to supply palm oil certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) to the ‘developed’ world by 2015 and the ‘developing’ world by 2020. The first glaring loophole is that palm kernel oil is exempted from its targets. Second, given the reality that the vast majority of palm oil is consumed by China and India, this means the bulk of this commitment does not go into effect for 8 more years. The world’s leading orangutan scientist, Ian Singleton, estimates that orangutans will be extinct in our lifetime if unchecked palm oil expansion isn’t halted right now.

Cargill ends its statement with the outlandish claim that “more than 90 percent of the palm oil we originate from Indonesia comes from RSPO members.”

As Cargill is well aware, simply being a member of the RSPO  has very little meaning and is quite different than being certified as sustainable by the RSPO. RSPO membership does not ensure that any RSPO criteria are being met at the plantation level since the only major criteria to meet in the first 5 years is consistent dues payment. Even certification by the RSPO has a very spotty track record of resolving social conflicts or enforcing its own criteria and it is not enough for Cargill to outsource its values by relying on the RSPO to guarantee its palm oil is free from controversy.

Cargill can and should be doing much more to eliminate problematic palm oil from its supply chains. Cargill’s modest commitments are more reactive to the urgent demands of large food business customers than representative of a pro-active strategy by Cargill to meet sustainability criteria. There is no question that supply chains are complex, but we do not see Cargill bringing the urgency or resources to bear to move quickly and effectively to implement a credible and robust system of safeguards for its palm oil business.

The science is clear and the writing is on the wall. If we want our children to live in a world where one of humankind’s closest relatives, the orangutan, still lives free, real action must be taken now. Their future is in Cargill’s hands.