The RSPO - towards "sustainable palm oil"?

Down to Earth No 66  August 2005

Interview with Marcus Colchester

Marcus Colchester is Director of the international NGO, Forest Peoples Programme, and a member of DTE's management committee. He has participated with Indonesian NGO, Sawit Watch, in the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) as a member of its Criteria Working Group. This is a formal committee of the RSPO with the task of developing criteria and guidance on standards for sustainable palm oil and advising on the means by which claims to sustainable palm oil can be verified.

How did you get involved in the Criteria Working Group (CWG) and what is your role?

A group of Dutch NGOs asked me to volunteer to help advise Sawit Watch on the social aspects of RSPO standard-setting. I was flattered but also a bit sceptical, as the RSPO is industry-dominated and, I feared, likely to be used to legitimate further palm oil expansion. Frankly, the idea that palm oil plantations can be made 'sustainable' seems a bit far-fetched to me. Not even the FSC claims that for certified logging. However, I have always had a very high opinion of Sawit Watch, which also has close links with the World Rainforest Movement, and once I met up with Rudy and Norman of Sawit Watch in Bogor and discussed their strategy, I was persuaded that the RSPO was a valuable way of opening up political space for Indonesian civil society groups concerned about the impacts of palm oil. So I was 'co-opted' onto the CWG as Sawit Watch's alternate and have been able to make technical inputs to the committee.

What do you, as an NGO participant, hope that this process will achieve?

I think we can hope for: better transparency about the whole palm oil sector and quite good 'best practice' standards which may not only be used by the RSPO in formal certification but which can also be used to demand appropriate practice by palm oil companies in general. Many of the standards we are advocating can and should be adhered to in other tree crop and plantations schemes too. It would be nice to think that the process could stop companies destroying forests and valuable ecosystems and trashing people. That would be to expect too much of the RSPO by itself but, hopefully, at least it can contribute to a wider campaign with those objectives.

What have been the main achievements so far?

At the risk of sounding immodest, I think the main social protections in the draft standards are pretty good. In sum, the draft standard requires: legality; a just and transparent land acquisition process; respect for customary rights; free, prior and informed consent; respect for workers' rights; non-discrimination; fair prices for smallholders; proper health and safety and so on. The environmental safeguards need firming up quite a lot though. Apart from the standard-setting, RSPO in general has helped to focus attention on the problems caused by oil palm. It has also helped sharpen up industry and NGO thinking about all the issues.

What have been the main blockages, or where has there been less progress?

I would like to note that, in general, the Board, committee members and secretariat have been very open and accommodating to most of our inputs. But yes, there are some significant blockages. For a start, the standard does not yet suit small-holders; they have not been directly involved, though we have been calling for that. Translations of the draft standard into Bahasa Indonesia, French and Spanish are still not available, though we have been demanding that for nearly a year now. This means that Francophone Africa and Latin America are being left out, as well as civil society organisations in Indonesia and Malaysia for whom English is not a working language. In view of this problem and to improve our communication with our own 'constituencies', as NGOs we have set up a bilingual Bahasa Indonesia/ English site for web based discussions but this does not substitute for official translations (

Also, we got no support at the CWG in our call for the standard to ban GMOs. I was surprised about this as, if RSPO could say its products are GMO-free, they would have a major market advantage over other oils like soya, in Europe, at least, where consumers mistrust GMOs. There also a number of issues yet to be addressed properly, although at least they are on the 'radar', including: how to develop 'national interpretations' so that the standard suits local realities and laws; how to ensure credible and independent 'audits' - verification or certification - of those claiming to be RSPO-worthy; how to ensure a strong 'chain of custody'. I mean how on earth can we develop a credible system to stop companies cheating by bulking up oil sourced from 'RSPO growers' with oil from less scrupulous sources?

Another major dilemma, where we feel our voice is not yet being heeded enough, is about the role of government. RSPO presents itself as 'B2B' - a business-to- business venture - linking growers with discerning markets. In other words the standard is to be voluntary and not mandatory. The trouble is that a heck of a lot of the standard refers to issues that are really the government's responsibility like: labour standards, land registers, laws respecting community land rights, land use planning processes - the list is a long one. I expect the RSPO is going to ignore our words of caution and push through with its voluntary approach. But I predict it will not be long after that before mills and growers come squawking back to the RSPO complaining that they can't meet the standard because so much of the compliance requires governments to change the way they are doing things. Hopefully, this will encourage the industry to then pressure the government to reform currently inadequate laws, policies and procedures.

You've been involved in drafting the principles and criteria for sustainable palm oil - at what stage are these now? Do you expect them to be adopted, as planned by the RSPO at the next Roundtable meeting?

That will largely depend on the comments received on the second draft. The standard will also be reviewed at a number of public fora organised by the secretariat. If the overall reaction is favourable, then it won't be hard for the CWG to have a 'final' draft ready for approval by the third Roundtable which will meet in Singapore in November. The board certainly has the target of approving the standard at that meeting. I got the feeling at the second roundtable that we were already pretty near agreement.

You have previously alluded to the fact that the CWG is dominated by industry interests and excludes any direct representation of indigenous peoples, smallholders or trades unions. Has there been any progress towards resolving this problem?

Well, to be fair to the RSPO, it is also true that, as far as I know, no indigenous peoples, smallholders or trades unions have yet been pressing for a seat on the board or the Criteria Working Group. In fact, a place on the board for smallholders remains vacant. But, as a result of our demand for smallholder participation in consultations and standards development, the Board now seems to have agreed to our idea to set up a 'Task Force on Smallholders' which would have the job of ensuring that the standard could be adapted to suit their (very varied) circumstances. I doubt a credible set of criteria suited to smallholders can be shaped by November, however, much less September - the date of the next CWG. We will probably have to accept that criteria adapted to smallholder realities will need quite a bit of consultation and refinement, maybe for adoption in 2006. The real puzzle is how much responsibility should buyers and mills bear for smallholder management. It's tricky ground: on the one hand, the farmers should be free to sell their fruits to whom they wish (this gives them much better leverage in getting a fair price), but, if they have that freedom, then you can't also demand that buyers or mills take responsibility for how smallholders operate.

How far might the standard be used to protect indigenous customary (adat) land rights in Indonesia, where state recognition of customary tenure is very weak? The draft social criteria include provisions requiring palm oil producers to have a demonstrable right to use the land where the land is not legitimately contested. How far might this help indigenous peoples whose lands are targeted by oil palm developers?

At this moment I am half way through a field project carried out in collaboration with Indonesian NGOs and land tenure experts, examining exactly this issue to see how well suited the draft standard is to local realities in Indonesia. At this stage, my initial impression is - careful now, this is not our final word - I say my impression is that the requirements - for legality, respecting customary rights and for free, prior and informed consent and so on - can, if they are applied rigorously, offer significant protections to communities or offer room for much better negotiations with companies. It means, crucially, that communities should have the right to say 'No'.

What we find is that indigenous peoples and farmers are agreeing to land sales or to become part of out-grower schemes even within adat areas, but currently these deals are being struck in very dubious or unfair ways. Farmers are being cheated out of their lands through false promises, as much as through intimidation and manipulation, and the main thing people we have interviewed are demanding is transparency in the deals. In theory, the RSPO standards require this. Now, how far the standards would get applied in practice is another matter. It will depend on how well they are enforced and on whether the standards ever become mandatory, as well as how strong communities or farmers can be in negotiations.

There is a tension here between ensuring strong protections and ensuring that indigenous peoples and farmers have the freedom to decide what happens on their lands. What we have tried to do is get the standard to ensure that they can make free and informed choices. That does also mean accepting that communities or farmers may make mistakes or make choices we think are imprudent. We also find that indigenous peoples are themselves choosing not to be represented through their customary institutions in making deals.

As NGOs, you might say our slogan is: 'Paine not Plato'! I mean we are asserting a rights-based approach, in line with the principle of self-determination, not the imposition of well-intentioned pre-planned outcomes. As you know, 'the road to hell is paved with good intentions'.

Taking the industry as a whole, from producers to suppliers, retailers and so on, how much influence does the RSPO have at the moment? Is this mostly dependent on market sensitivities in the consumer countries?

Yes, given that RSPO is sticking to a voluntary approach, the main leverage for change will come through the market in Europe, which at the moment is taking about 40% of SE Asian production. So this is quite a major chunk of the market and should have some leverage. But this is likely to lessen. The western European market is said to be quite stable. The new growth in demand for edible oils - set to double over the next 20 years according to commodity people - will come from China, India and Eastern Europe, where consumer awareness is not so high. There is a real risk that RSPO palm oil will go to Europe, while the unacceptable palm oil from further expansion in forests or from already stolen lands will go to these other markets.

On the other hand, RSPO does include some major companies which also market all over the world, like Unilever, as well as major producer associations in Malaysia and Indonesia. They will not want to be out-competed by pirate operators selling illegal palm oil to Asia and so on. So the RSPO may have more clout than at first appears.

A shorter, and perhaps more honest, answer is: frankly, I am not sure.

Sawit Watch and FPP have called for international standards to be applied by palm oil producers, through the criteria. What are the key international standards and laws that are relevant to the industry?

We have listed human rights laws, ILO conventions, and international laws and standards on pesticides and chemicals. The full list of all these laws is now a part of the 'guidance' in the draft standard but many of the key points in the international laws are also incorporated into the criteria themselves. Or at least that is what we have tried to ensure.

What does the RSPO offer to smallholders, consisting in Indonesia of both private small scale growers and farmers involved in (often exploitative) corporate or state-run PIR or nucleus estate/smallholder schemes?

Well, as I have noted, the current (draft) standard just requires fair prices, whatever they are, while the associated guidance notes refer to the need to adapt these standards to smallholder realities - so this is 'work in progress' and to be successful needs many other people to get involved. A problem is that there are not many credible smallholder associations in Indonesia with good 'representation' and the capacity to engage in an international forum like the RSPO. My impression, by the way, is that a lot of the state-run PIR schemes have now been privatised but still do have exploitative regimes.

Do you think all NGOs should join the RSPO?

Not at all. Nor do I think all NGOs share a view about it. It would be a bit scary if they did. For a start local situations vary a lot. In some countries oil palm has not yet got an entry and it may be tactical to 'say no to palm oil' rather than seeming to accept it by joining the RSPO. In Indonesia, on the other hand, there are millions of people growing palm oil or working in estates and mills and another million Indonesians - I am not sure if anyone has an accurate figure - working on plantations in Malaysia. With something like another 6 million hectares already slated for expansion in Indonesia, in regional land use plans, the option of saying 'no to palm oil' at national level is a bit ostrich-like. What suits one country or one NGO may not suit another.

In fact, if all the NGOs took only one approach we would lose leverage. The 'hard cop, soft cop' approach is a tried and tested strategy and no less effective for being well-known!

Finally, how can concerned members of the public, in Indonesia or internationally, convey their views to the RSPO?

Although by the time you publish this, the official comments period on the second draft of the standard will have closed (on 25th July), I think comments sent to the secretariat will not be ignored especially if they are sent in soon. (Or else people can copy or send comments to me ( and to Sawit Watch and we can try to take these issues into account at the next CWG meeting.)

But I think it is also very important that we, as NGOs, don't focus all our efforts on the RSPO itself. The sector is huge and working through the RSPO is only one way of trying to sort it out. Also, this kind of work with standard-setting and monitoring compliance is very time-consuming. NGOs need to weigh up the merits of putting their slender time and resources into market-based reforms. Best results are likely to come from us all adopting a diversity of approaches.