Fighting for more sustainable palm oil

Every year, Indonesia faces the same disaster: large-scale forest fires that are harmful to the health of many people, even in neighbouring countries, and that destroy valuable rainforest. One of the main causes: palm oil. In 1997, Both ENDS was one of the first organisations to draw attention to the problems of large-scale palm oil production, and since then we have been tirelessly working towards a more sustainable palm oil industry.


The importance of palm oil for Indonesia

In the 1990s, the World Bank encouraged the Indonesian government to increase the production of palm oil. This was supposed to be good for the economy. By now, an area of about 9 million hectares (more than twice the size of the Netherlands) has been converted into palm oil plantations. Of all palm oil imported into Europe, about 40% comes from Indonesia. Based on earlier ambitions of the Indonesian government, another 10 million (partly uncultivated) hectares was still to be allocated to oil palm cultivation. The current president, however, has imposed a moratorium on further expansion.     web1_oliepalmen


Nonetheless, the total palm oil production will only increase in the coming years. For oil palm is one of the cheapest and most productive sources of vegetable oil. The yield per hectare is much higher than it is for the cultivation of olives, sunflowers and rapeseed. Palm oil is therefore used for many products, such as chocolate, toothpaste, shampoo and detergents, and is also widely used as a fuel (see below). For years now the world market for palm oil has been growing by about 4-5% per year.


web2_gekapt-bos     Deforestation and land grabbing: the reality of palm oil production
But the production of this palm oil is accompanied by many problems. First, there is the damage to the environment: precious rainforest and its flora and fauna – including the tiger, elephant and orang-utan – are sacrificed for it. Many hectares of forest are set on fire, although this is strictly forbidden now in Indonesia too. This makes palm oil production a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, especially when it involves the reclamation of carbon-rich peat forests.


The palm oil plantations replacing the original forest are large-scale monocultures. The original rich biodiversity declines, and the surface- and groundwater are polluted with pesticides and fertilizers. In addition, when badly managed the soil can be depleted already after 15 years of oil palm cultivation.


In addition, local residents are often driven off their land to make way for plantations. In many cases the government grants concessions to palm oil companies without recognizing existing property and use rights. There are usually no good cadastral maps available. Data on existing land use by local communities, such as forestry, agriculture and horticulture, are usually not included in the existing maps. These communities are oftentimes not recognized as legitimate owners or users, while they have often used the land as a source of income for many generations. Not only for food supply but also for other basic needs such as wood, medicinal plants, honey, rattan and other non-timber forest products.    


Sign showing court order indicating the land is not

to be developed.

Due to this land grabbing, conflicts arise over land rights between locals and palm oil companies, and among the locals themselves, leading to increased poverty, imprisonments and sometimes even deadly violence.


Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO)

In the early 2000s, when Indonesia was yet again literally on fire, Both ENDS and fellow organisations organised an international conference in Amsterdam to address these problems and come up with solutions. Businesses, the Dutch and Indonesian government and Indonesian NGOs participated in this conference. 


RSPOIn response to the increasing problems surrounding palm oil - and the hesitant attitude of governments of production and consumer countries - a number of companies (including Unilever) and NGOs (especially WWF) then took the initiative for the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). RSPO is at the same time a brand, a certification system and a platform, and it strives for 100% sustainable palm oil. 


In 2016, the RSPO has around 3,000 members, including companies involved in the cultivation, trade and processing of palm oil, financial institutions and civil society organisations. Of all the palm oil in the world, already 17% is now certified through RSPO. This means, among other things, that the companies committed to good working conditions for their employees, to respecting the (land) rights of the local population, and to refrain from felling or burning valuable forest for palm oil plantations.


Both ENDS has been a member of the RSPO since 2005. Deputy Director Paul Wolvekamp has been a member of the Board of Governors of the RSPO since 2014: "RSPO is a crucial part of our efforts to make the palm oil sector 100% sustainable." How the RSPO achieves this goal, Paul Wolvekamp explains in the following interview:



Both ENDS is committed to RSPO because RSPO - in a transparent and participatory way- aims to transform the entire sector: from palm oil production to all other segments in the chain. RSPO offers a strong standard with strict social and environmental standards and a system of independent monitoring of compliance with the RSPO standard. It also provides, inter alia, a complaints mechanism, a conflict resolution facility and capacity building of local NGOs, businesses and other key players.


web5_certifiedpalmWithin the RSPO, Both ENDS is committed to further stimulate the sustainability of the palm oil sector, to increase compliance with the RSPO standard and to strengthen the position of the local population. On the initiative of Both ENDS, the RSPO has also launched the RSPO Outreach program. With this program, the RSPO aims to support local communities dealing with palm oil production, and inform them about the possibilities of using the RSPO to get recognition for their problems, and to help them in finding solutions.


Amsterdam Declaration: towards 100% sustainable palm oil

The Netherlands is the largest importer of palm oil in Europe and wants to promote sustainable trade and production chains. Both ENDS has therefore, as a member of the RSPO, participated in a dialogue with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We asked the Dutch Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation Ploumen to promote certified sustainable palm oil during the Dutch presidency of the European Union in the first half of 2016. 


The Netherlands subsequently organised a conference in December 2015 in Amsterdam, where the 'Amsterdam Declaration' was signed by five EU member states. By signing this declaration, the Netherlands and other EU member states, as well as a number of companies, commit to 100% certified palm oil. Paul Wolvekamp: "The positive thing about this is that now also governments are willing to take responsibility for making the palm oil chain more sustainable." 


Both ENDS also works on making the palm oil sector more sustainable outside of the RSPO:


Participatory Land Use Planning

One of the ways of guaranteeing the land rights of the local population is Participatory Land Use Planning (PLUP). This entails the mapping of the actual local land use together with the local residents. From 2010 to 2013, Both ENDS co-ordinated a PLUP project in West Kalimantan, a region in Indonesia with many palm oil plantations. The project has led to a constructive dialogue between communities and the local government, and to the possibility for the government to use the community maps for land use planning.


The film 'Mapping our Future' describes how a community, based on the community map they made themselves, comes to a decision about an offer of a palm oil company:

In a follow-up project Both ENDS works with the Indonesian NGO JKPP to further enhance PLUP. Together, we have made an instruction video and a PLUP information package. JKPP uses these in training sessions for local organisations and even some district governments, so they can set up their own PLUP-projects. Together with local village communities, JKPP has already mapped 5 million hectares of community land.


Alternative to palm oil: non-timber forest products

Both ENDS additionally supports local communities in their quest for other, both ecologically and economically sustainable, ways to manage the forests they need for their livelihoods. "This diversification is important," explains Paul Wolvekamp. "Palm oil alone will never provide enough employment and revenues for the fast-growing rural population. Because even though it can be very lucrative for a small farmer to grow oil palms, it is risky to depend on this crop. The prices for palm oil are subject to the whims of the world market. Moreover, such a monoculture is fragile: it leaves little room for other crops and there is a great risk of pests and diseases. Another point is that other products from the forest are essential for food security. This strategic importance is also stressed by the current Indonesian government."


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    Both ENDS thinks that the production and sale of non-timber forest products (NTFP) are an important addition to palm oil. Examples of non-timber forest products are rattan, honey, fruits, nuts and bamboo. These products play a central role in the livelihoods of especially indigenous communities and are popular on local, regional and international markets. 


Both ENDS therefore supports the NTFP Exchange Programme, a network of some 60 local organisations in 6 countries in Asia. NTFP-EP assists 600 local communities in forest management, the 'harvesting' of non-timber forest products and the sale of these products. NTFP-EP also contributes to securing the land rights of these communities, a condition for sustainable forest management and sustainable economic regional development. In addition, NTFP-EP calls attention to the crucial importance of non-timber forest products within the policies of national governments. In the Rich Forests alliance, Both ENDS and NTFP-EP jointly promote the trade in forest products.  



Palm oil as fuel

Another point of focus is the use of palm oil as fuel. By 2020, the EU wants a larger percentage of fuel used for transportation to consist of renewable sources, such as biofuel. Many European countries have therefore made the blending of biofuels in diesel and gasoline mandatory. A large proportion of this biofuel is now palm oil. Almost half of all palm oil coming into the EU is used as biofuel. For the most part, this palm oil is not RSPO-certified. This reality is in sharp contrast with the agreements of the previously mentioned Amsterdam Declaration. 


In these circumstances, Both ENDS disapproves of the blending of biofuels like palm oil, as well as oil from other food crops, such as rapeseed, soya or sugar cane. The Dutch government should try to bring an end to this undesirable situation in the Netherlands and the EU. In a letter sent to the cabinet on 5 September 2016,

Both ENDS, Natuur & Milieu, Greenpeace Netherlands, IUCN NL & and Oxfam Novib therefore urge the Dutch government to change their policy concerning biofuels. 



The problem spreads

For the time being, the worldwide negative impact of palm oil seems to be growing rather than decreasing. More and more areas in Latin America and Africa are attracting the interest of palm oil producers. Also here it is not only biodiversity that is under pressure, but also the human rights situation. Especially in Latin America, there is a growing number of human rights violations around oil palm plantations. Both ENDS will look for ways to support civil society organisations in these regions as well, and for ways to help these organisations learn from their counterparts in Asia. 


Abuses by palm oil plantations
End of 2016 Amnesty International found serious problems in the palm oil sector. Amnesty International notes that employees must work overtime under threat of salary reduction, and are exposed to toxic substances. Furthermore, Amnesty states that child labor occurs, reporting that children as young as eight years old are doing hard and hazardous work and even quit school to help their parents on the plantations.

Amnesty also gives examples relating to companies that are members of RSPO. The RSPO has already given a detailed response and lets examine how it is possible that this violation of the RSPO standards did not come to light previously.

Both ENDS finds Amnesty's report very important because it points out the issues around labour in the palm oil sector to all the actors, as well as a broad public. This report helpts the RSPO to take further steps to work towards a solution of these problems. We are working on this topic for several years already.

Thus, Both ENDS works with Verité Asia (NGO specialized in social audits), companies and other NGOs to develop stricter RSPO guidelines on labor. Both ENDS is committed to further demands about working conditions, payment and living conditions of workers in oil palm plantations. A number of precursors (companies) within the RSPO have already taken further steps themselves, such as guaranteeing a decent living wage, including for the most vulnerable groups such as migrant workers and day laborers without permanent contract.

Furthermore Both ENDS facilitates the RSPO Assurance Task Force. The Task Force focuses on improving the supervision of the certification system of the RSPO, including working conditions. RSPO does this in cooperation with Accreditation Services International (ASI).


RSPO puts all its efforts into making sure that sustainable palm oil will be the norm and the monitoring of its standards. However, Both ENDS stresses that also governments of both consumer and producer countries should take their responsibility and ensure stricter compliance with laws and regulations. One of the reasons to found the RSPO was the fact that governments are not doing what they have to do.

Finally, Both ENDS points out that good working conditions should be better reflected in the price of products that contain palm oil, so that all players in the chain have a fairer share of the costs and benefits, and, ultimately, consumers pay a fair price.



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