News / 18 November 2013

Palm oil problems still to be solved

Last week the 11th Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil was held in Medan , Indonesia. One of the issues central to the discussions was the increasing conflict over land use, especially in Indonesia, but increasingly elsewhere in Asia, Africa and Latin America . The cause: the poorly controlled production of palm oil, a raw material for a wide range of products such as food and cosmetics, and as biofuel as an alternative to fossil fuels.

Prosperity and suffering

Palm oil brings prosperity in producing countries, especially for the large producers. But palm oil is also a source of conflict between palm oil giants and residents of the regions where plantations are often developed without taking into account the rights of local and indigenous people and nature. These conflicts between companies, governments and citizens are rarely resolved by the legal institutions of the countries involved.


Since the establishment of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil ( RSPO ) early 2000s, this partnership, with more than 1,300 member companies, aims to ensure that large-scale cultivation of palm oil produces no adverse consequences for human rights and the environment. RSPO members include almost everyone who has anything to do with palm oil: plantation companies, retail, banking, energy companies, processors and traders, and NGOs. Approximately 16 percent of the world's total palm oil is RSPO certified. But this doesn’t solve all the problems at all.


Resolving Conflicts

The increased demand for palm oil results in more demand for land to produce it. This causes more and more conflicts about land. The National Land Agency of Indonesia calculates that there are about 4,000 conflicts related to palm oil and land only in Indonesia. In 2009, Both ENDS initiated the establishment of a RSPO Dispute Settlement Facility (DSF), an intiative which was soon very broadly supported. It aims to help plantation companies and local communities to resolve conflicts over land. The RSPO Secretariat has now established a DSF -Unit with its own staff, assisted by an advisory board consisting of companies, mediation experts and NGOs.


And it is badly needed. The recent publication ''Conflict or Consent  - The Oil Palm Sector at the Crossroads'' by partner organizations Forest Peoples Programme , TUK and local organizations provides a detailed documentation of 16 serious land conflicts in Asia and Africa . Conflicts that also involve prominent members of the RSPO. Based on this report, FPP, Both ENDS , UK and Sawit Watch organized a three - day workshop preceding the 11th Round Table  meeting, with 60 representatives of local NGOs and communities. The conclusion of this workshop was that the RSPO should report back to its members within six months about the progress of the handling of complaints and resolution of conflicts and improved screening and training of auditors ( "Certifying Bodies ' ).

Working to improve

During the opening of the Round Table itself, where more than 750 people participated, the film 'Mapping our Future ' was screened. This film is part of a program implemented by Both ENDS and ICRAF in collaboration with Mekon Ecology, Dutch universities, local NGO partners and the local administration of the district Sanggau in Central Kalimantan, to develop more participatory forms of land use planning.

Many questions

During the Round Table Conference, the members continued to work on the outcomes of the Workshop “Conflict or by Consent”, by discussing with plantation companies about concrete questions: How can land conflicts be prevented or resolved? What lessons are important? How can we better equip both local communities and companies to enter into negotiations well informed, in harmony and with respect for local conditions, culture and rights? How can indigenous peoples and local communities who see their country and their sources of income threatened by the land hunger of the palm oil producers, defend themselves against the attacks to their existence? In the near future, the RSPO needs to take concrete steps to answer these questions.

RSPO needs support

The RSPO can’t do it alone. A more pro-active attitude of governments - both in producer countries as in consumer countries - is essential. It is worth reminding that the RSPO was established because the same governments failed to regulate. Land conflicts, deforestation and pollution are the consequence of a corruption and a lack in enforcement of laws and adequate spatial planning. The rights of the local population and public goods such as forests are inadequately protected. It’s a good sign that besides NGOs, more and more companies insist that governments do what they should do. In addition, it is essential that traders and buyers of palm oil - particularly the supermarkets - only buy RSPO - certified palm oil. This also gives RSPO more power to enforce that plantation companies adhere to the agreements.

Both ENDS’ position in the RSPO last summer

One positive change achieved by the RSPO is a contribution to a decreasing number of forest fires. Last summer, when Indonesia and neighboring states were veiled in smoke, the RSPO strictly controlled whether its members were plantation companies that caused fires. RSPO hired independent experts to do research on this question. With satellite images, the fire sites were layed over the concession areas of RSPO members, and it was concluded that virtually none of the RSPO member has violated the 'zero' burning criteria.

 Both ENDS is working hard to achieve the purposes of RSPO, as a member of RSPO, as representative of the social NGOs in the RSPO Board, as co-chairman of the RSPO DSF and through the support we provide to local organizations in producing countries.


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