Oil Palm Growers Ignore Human Rights, Study Alleges

A human rights organization representing indigenous peoples charged today that the palm oil industry is continuing to ignore human rights and environmental standards despite standards set by the industry organization Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil

The NGO, the Forest People’s Program, issued a book, Conflict or consent? The oil palm sector at a crossroads, in Medan, Indonesia, at the site of a palm oil growers’ meeting which purports to detail cases in which palm oil producers have failed to obtain permission from communities—a process required by the RSPO based on the UN mandate that is known as free, prior and informed consent. The findings also support accounts of the destructive impact that the palm oil developments are having on indigenous peoples and local communities, the NGO charged.

Forest Peoples Program, Sawit Watch and Transformasi Untuk Keadilan Indonesia produced the investigative study in collaboration with 17 international, national and grassroots partner organizations and supporters in the major palm-oil producing countries: Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The research focuses on three main themes:

  • Supply chains: The journey of palm oil from the plantation to the processing plant to the consumer must be made transparent and fully traceable.

  • Enforcement: The mandate and capacity of the RSPO approved certification bodies must be expanded and enforced. Complaint procedures and conflict resolution mechanisms must also be given teeth.

  • Commitment: The pledges by the RSPO members to respect human rights and environmental standards should be upheld and not treated as optional.

“So much effort has been invested in the RSPO and the International Finance Corporation’s dispute resolution mechanisms, but to little avail,” Jefri Saragih, Executive Director of Sawit Watch, a founding member of the RSPO, told reporters. “We can point to one or two good results on the ground, but there are thousands of land conflicts with oil palm companies in Indonesia alone, and the problem is now spreading to other parts of Asia and Africa. We are calling for an urgent and vastly expanded response to this crisis.”

The Forest People’s Program acknowledged that some RSPO member companies have adopted new operational standards and procedures, improved their practices on paper, and even received certification for some of their operations. However, “the reality on the ground suggests business-as-usual. Senior company officials may have committed to the new approach, but too often operational managers in the field—lacking the necessary training and incentives—have failed to respond. Procedures to provide remedy for impacted communities are also deficient.”

Southeast Asia, particularly Malaysia and Indonesia, constitutes the epicenter of the palm oil industry. Indonesia has taken the title of the world’s largest producer and exporter of palm oil from Malaysia, with 10.8 million hectares of land planted with oil palm trees, a number projected to expand to more than 20 million hectares—more than 10 percent of the entire country—by 2020.

However, Indonesia also ranks third in the world for carbon dioxide emissions, primarily because of deforestation and destruction of the nation’s peatlands, which are crucial storage assets for the sequestration of carbon dioxide, the main culprit in climate change and global warming.

The 16 case studies in the research reveal that the RSPO process has at times led to an improved understanding of the key issues, both for communities and companies, in achieving ‘sustainable development’ based on respect for fundamental human rights, according to a press release put out by the organization, which added that some of the procedural improvements may provide a basis for resolving land conflicts, and that several companies have responded positively and adjusted their operations to better accommodate community livelihoods and demands.

However, the NGO alleged, many of the companies agreeing to be governed by the RSPO pay little attention to gain community consent. It cited PT Permata Hijau Pasaman I, a subsidiary of the Singapore-based multinational Wilmar International, in West Sumatra, Indonesia, in which land acquisition was done with the acquiescence of what it called “co-opted community representatives.” In the case of Tanjung Bahagia Sdn Bhd, a subsidiary of the Malaysia-based Genting Plantations, lands and forests have been cleared and planted despite sustained objections from the communities.

“Many companies are also failing to follow the RSPO procedures by not taking the requisite steps to recognize customary rights,” the group said. “In West Kalimantan, Indonesia, there has been collusive manipulation of the concept of customary rights by personnel from PT Agrowiratama, a subsidiary of the Indonesian Musim Mas group, in favor of local elites over local Melayu land-user communities. In East Kalimantan, Indonesia, PT Rea Kaltim Plantations, owned by British company REA Holdings PLC, did not undertake participatory mapping or land tenure surveys before acquiring land,” although the company has recognized the oversight and begun mapping.

Protests by local communities are often met with arrests and physical assaults. SG Sustainable Oils Cameroon PLC in South West Cameroon, owned by American company Herakles Farms, actually withdrew its membership of the RSPO in September 2012 in reaction to a formal complaint lodged against it and widespread criticism of its project. In PT Permata Hijau Pasaman I, conflict between the company and local communities has led to various arrests and an on-going court case at the Supreme Court of the Republic of Indonesia.

The studies also show that existing conflict resolution mechanisms, including those of the RSPO, have yet to produce tangible results for local communities. Both the International Finance Corporation (IFC) Compliance Advisor/Ombudsman (IFC CAO) and RSPO conflict resolution processes, despite having established some important precedents, lack both the mandate and the capacity to remedy the huge number of disputes between companies and communities.

“The RSPO only works if the commitments its members make are genuine,” concluded Marcus Colchester of Forest Peoples Program. “RSPO certification was not meant to be a marketing ploy. It was meant to represent a wholehearted dedication to respecting the lives and livelihoods of indigenous peoples and local communities, and the lands that they call home. As an RSPO member, we are calling on the RSPO as a whole to reassert this commitment and live up to it.”