Down to Earth No. 72 March 2007

A report from the RSPO

The fourth Roundtable meeting on Sustainable Palm Oil was held in Singapore on 21-22 November 2006. The oil palm advocacy network, Sawit Watch, organised the participation of a 25-strong contingent of Indonesian CSO representatives. This included farmers from Kalimantan and Sumatra, people from communities who have been adversely affected by the expansion of oil palm plantations onto their customary lands and supporting NGOs.

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is an international association of plantation companies, palm oil refiners and buyers, manufacturing companies; banks, investors, chemical companies, conservation and social justice NGOs who are involved in or concerned about the production of palm oil. Its secretariat is based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

The RT4 agenda
In contrast with other Roundtable meetings, the agenda for RT4 was rather less challenging. The decision to draw up a series of guidelines characterising 'sustainable palm oil' was taken at RT2 and the list of eight Principles and Criteria plus their indicators, hammered out in a year of negotiations, was agreed at RT3 (See DTE 68 for background).

RSPO members, particularly plantation companies, are now engaged in a two-year period of field trials to test the workability of the Principles and Criteria which include environmental and social issues. Meanwhile, a Verification Working Group (VWG) is drawing up the procedure to ensure that palm oil marketed as 'sustainable' genuinely meets all the RSPO Principles and Criteria.

So the focus of RT4 was more about sharing preliminary evidence from different stakeholders about how the Principles and Criteria can be applied in practice and a consideration of options for the future, and less about decision-making. Presentations and discussions on the first day centred around palm oil production and included a presentation of options for the verification system as well as reports by Malaysian and PNG companies about their experience of trying to implement the Principles and Criteria in the field.

The second day focused on the supply chain, in particular, the options to ensure that consumers know exactly what they are getting when they purchase 'sustainable palm oil' or products made from it. The RSPO has yet to decide which of the alternatives is the most reliable and acceptable to its members. The RSPO also introduced its Code of Conduct which will be binding on all members.

Controversially, the issue of biofuels was not on the official agenda, but was very much in the forefront of most participants' minds. The potentially huge market for biodiesel has stimulated the interest of companies and governments alike to increase palm oil production. This is driving an expansion in oil palm plantations, with all the attendant threats to the environment and local communities. Sawit Watch has found that 20 million hectares of land in Indonesia - much of it still forested - has already been zoned for palm oil and more may be found now to meet this demand. Yet most of the discussion was in terms of 'sustainable palm oil' as supplying a niche market, predominantly in Europe. Meanwhile, China and India represent vast potential markets for any Indonesian palm oil produced under conditions that do not meet RSPO standards.

Another important development announced at an RSPO side meeting was the establishment of an RSPO Liaison Office in Indonesia. This will be located in the Department of Agriculture's offices in South Jakarta under the wing of the Indonesian Palm Oil Commission for its first six months, after which it can hopefully find a more neutral home. One of its main tasks will be to spread information about the RSPO and encourage more plantation companies to become members. It is also expected to play a key role in the development of a National Standard on sustainable palm oil, integrating the RSPO's Principles and Criteria with Indonesian law.

Giving communities a voice
As the slick presentations rolled on in the two day-meeting, it became increasingly obvious how RSPO members were talking about many aspects of palm oil production, and making much of contributions towards environmental protection, but saying very little about social impacts. The big companies appear still to be unaware of the problems large-scale plantations cause for local communities and few have any understanding of land rights issues or the problems with the government and Indonesian law.

Opportunities for discussion in plenary sessions of previous RSPO meetings have always been an issue, but this is not surprising given that there are several hundred participants. But the RT4 seemed to have been deliberately organised in a way that limited discussion. Participants were arranged around small tables and all questions had to be submitted in writing to the panel on the stages. Questions about contentious subjects like tenure simply disappeared in the process. Nevertheless, Norsianus, who represents a group of communities in Sanggau, West Kalimantan, was allowed to make an emotive appeal from the platform for the rights of peasant farmers in Indonesia to be recognised.

Some of the biggest battles are yet to come. At the next Roundtable meeting, scheduled to be held in Malaysia in November 2007, RSPO members will have to decide whether to amend accept the Principles and Criteria as currently drafted and to decide on the mechanism for marketing 'sustainable palm oil'. There are already signs that the plantation companies, especially the powerful Malaysian palm oil producers, want to weaken the RSPO Principles and Criteria which they consider are too difficult and expensive to implement.

Despite the shortcomings of RT4, members of the Sawit Watch delegation felt that the visit to Singapore had taught them a lot. For most it was a rare chance to meet investors, retailers and food processing companies, as well as senior representatives of the plantation companies who have taken over communities' lands, on an equal basis. But, as one community representative pointed out: "We need to be careful and not be fooled by the nice words the companies use when they meet us at these events. They have their own interests and agendas which we should always be aware of."

More information on the RSPO, including the Principles and Criteria, can be found at

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