Down to Earth No. 66, August 2005

The RSPO as a tool in the struggle for justice

The following is an English translation of an Indonesian article compiled from a DTE interview with Rudy Lumuru, Executive Director of Sawit Watch, the Indonesian NGO network on palm oil.

Indonesia has oil palm plantations extending over 6,059,441 hectares* of land and is the world's second largest producer of crude palm oil (CPO) after Malaysia. This plantation area is set to increase, in line with the government policy of opening investment opportunities in the sector. In 2004, Sawit Watch noted that the total extent of land allocated to increasing oil palm plantations in Indonesia is 19,840,000 hectares, located in provinces on the islands of Sumatra, Kalimantan, Sulawesi and Papua.

The large-scale oil palm plantation system practised in Indonesia disadvantages local and indigenous communities, by removing community land rights, denuding the forests and introducing monocultures. This shuts off access for forest-dwellers and communities living close to forests and prevents them cultivating fields (berladang), planting perennial tree crops and collecting forest products.

Sawit Watch is trying to build a movement with communities to stop the expansion of large-scale oil palm plantations. This is not anti-oil palm itself, but is against the large-scale system. Companies operating these large-scale plantations should not focus on expanding the extent of their concessions, but should make better use of the land they already control in order to increase output.

Why the RSPO?

As an organisation that highlights the negative impacts of Indonesia's large-scale oil palm plantations, Sawit Watch wants to adopt an influential political position in order to change a system which is damaging for so many people, especially communities living in and around forests.

The Second Sawit Watch Members Forum, from 26-28 September 2004, recommended that Sawit Watch participates in the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO)**, and currently Sawit Watch is one of the 'stakeholders' in the Criteria Working Group (CWG).

The RSPO is a formal instrument which can be used to convey directly to parties involved in the problems of oil palm plantations in Indonesia, the situation of communities working and living in areas where the large-scale plantations are located. It can also inform them that the current system used by large-scale plantation operators negates community rights and is far removed from principles of justice.

Sawit Watch considers that the RSPO can be a concrete means of driving processes to resolve the social problems and the violations of human rights which follow the development of plantations. By being actively involved in drafting criteria, Sawit Watch is pushing for changes to the existing plantation system to drive it in a more just and humane direction.

Raising awareness and benefits for communities

Sawit Watch is actively raising awareness about the results of the RSPO. In every village meeting or other gathering, Sawit Watch informs people about developments in the RSPO. It also does this through its newsletter, Tandan Sawit.

There has been a varied response to involvement in the RSPO from the Sawit Watch network. Some consider that by joining the RSPO, Sawit Watch will weaken the struggle, because most of the RSPO participants are from the palm oil industry, meaning that Sawit Watch's presence will legitimise the current large-scale plantation system. There are also those who consider involvement in the RSPO as a good strategy for influencing the pro-investor policy of the Indonesian government.

If the question was asked now, what is the impact or benefit of Sawit Watch's involvement in the RSPO, of course it could not be explained as something visible and measurable. One result of Sawit Watch's involvement in the RSPO is that several communities have met and have been able to convey directly to the companies the problems caused by large-scale oil palm plantations in their areas.

Sawit Watch's strategy for the RSPO

At the first RSPO in Malaysia, Sawit Watch explained the general problems resulting from oil palm plantations in Indonesia.

At RSPO II in Jakarta, Sawit Watch showed examples of how oil palm-related problems have been resolved; how companies lack the will to resolve problems over land, and how the government fails to focus on resolving existing problems.

At RSPO III, which will take place in Singapore, Sawit Watch is going to present the results of research being conducted now into ‘Green Palm Oil’, which, it is hoped, will give a clear picture to all stakeholders of the conditions and the model of management required in Indonesian oil palm plantations to create sustainable oil palm management.

(Source: Rudy Lumuru, Executive Director, Sawit Watch; ‘Wajah baru kolonialisme itu system perkebunan besar’, Tandan Sawit Vol 2, 2005; ‘Forum Anggota Sawit Watch: Dari Jaringan ke Perkumpulan’, Tandan Sawit Vol 2, 2004.)

The Sawit Watch website is at:

* Sawit Watch data 2004. [Accurate official figures for the total area planted with or zoned for oil palm plantations are not available, so estimates presented in this issue of DTE vary according to the source.]

** The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, an industry-dominated voluntary body, was set up by the palm oil industry and World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) partly in response to NGO charges than oil palm plantations destroy forests and impoverish local communities - see also DTE 63.

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