Saving Orangutans One Company at a Time

Darrel Webber, Secretary General of the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil ( RSPO ) is a smooth talker, always quick with a pun or a play on words. At the European Summit this year, he was greeted by some twenty protesters and quickly posted pictures of them on his facebook account, calling them friendly.

At the annual RPSO meeting happening in Medan, Indonesia this week, chances are the protesters won't be as few or as friendly. Fourteen labor and environmental groups from Indonesia are planning to have thousands of their supporters protest the RSPO meeting.

Their demands are for a stop to palm oil expansions in Indonesia. That palm oil plantations abuse human rights from land grabs to the use and abuse of women and children for cheap labour. Forest Peoples Programme of the UK issued a joint report with Sawit Watch (Palm oil watch) that was highly critical of the RSPO and questioned its effectiveness in stopping human rights abuses or deforestation.

Darrel Webber being his usual self, was quoted in response to the criticism as saying.

"Non-complying member organizations can simply opt to leave the RSPO in the midst of a complaint, and consequently they will not be governed by any of our rules. The RSPO closely monitors the activities of its members [but] it has no legal way to enforce its members to comply."

The lack of an enforcement mechanism by the RSPO is in one of the big reasons why the label has not been accepted overall. Its members are not required to work by their rules or standards and yet we see claims of some 8 million tons of palm oil being produced and sold as "sustainable." Did all the producing members of this volume abide by the rules or is a part of it produced by members like Wilmar Group, which is being targeted by Greenpeace or Bumitama Group which was the subject of a comprehensive study by Rainforest Action Network?

Enforcement of standards aside, one other reason behind the low credibility of the RSPO label has to be the Mass Balance supply system that the RSPO endorses. If you look a look at the chart in the link, it will show the issues I have with it. The little black circles were done in the right color. Black. As in dirty. Yet the final product is sold as sustainable.

"The credibility of any certification label has to be strong mandatory standards and I hope the MSPO and ISPO is reading this." Take a look at certified organic cotton for example, the possibility of having certified products mixed in with uncertified products may not be as convoluted as palm oil but its still a good example of how certified products should work.

Global Organic Textile Standards (GOTS) has the best no nonsense policy to building a credible label. In order to use the label, the final product must consist of at least 95 pecent organic material. Anything less but with a minimum of 70 percent organic material is only allowed to make a claim of "made with a blend of organic." The RSPO Mass Balance scheme on the other hand hand allows a paltry 5 percent blend of certified product to be labelled as sustainable.

Cart before the horse

As for the protests and charges of the RSPO's inability to save forests or human rights, we are expecting too much out of the RSPO. Only 15 percent of the global supply of palm oil is covered under their "sustainable" standards but the biggest reason for their failure to become a forest saving standard has to be the fact that we cannot decide whether the horse should come before the cart or vice versa.

As conservationists and consumers in the West, we think that palm oil should be grown sustainably and be traceable to farm as we see in Dr. Bronner's products before we pay premium retail prices for them.

On the other hand, the palm oil growers think that WE should put our money where our mouth is first. The Indonesian Palm Oil Association (ISPO) quit the RSPO in 2011 to pursue their own mandate. The Malaysian Palm Oil Association is quitting the RSPO as well this year to focus on their own branding, Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil(MSPO). The underlying reason for both associations to leave the RSPO has been a perceived failure of the RSPO to get them the premium bucks which they thought they deserved for having worked "sustainably."

Malaysia's voice for its palm oil industry, Yusof Basiron likes to point out how Western activists are picking on palm oil when these countries should be sharing the blame for deforestation. He has a point to a certain extent. If we look at what developed nations are doing for the sake of jobs, wealth and economic development, we see cute furry animals losing their forests to clear cuts in Australia, endangered wildlife and pristine rainforests being opened up in Canada and ancient redwoods in California being threatened by vineyards of all things.

I have to remind him here that this is not a competition of how many forests we can cut down in this generation. He should find some comfort in knowing that Western countries have put several generations into debt while Malaysia remains relatively unburdened.

Saving something.

These are arguments that will never be resolved and meanwhile, the carnage continues. The only hope we have of saving something today is not to look at certification schemes overall but to look at individual companies. Just as we have to battle them one at a time, we also have to challenge any prodigal sons to pay up for past sins.

Can individual corporations like Asia Pulp and Paper play a role in saving some of it? I think so. If you look at the funding that Sime Darby has plonked into conservation projects in north Borneo, it is one big reason why the region is the best conserved in all of Borneo.

To be sure, there is always a chance that the same companies that would fund conservation one day may turn and remove high conservation value forests the next day. BHP Billington which has coughed up some cash for orangutan conservation previously is now online to destroy vast swaths of their habitat for coal mines, another big reason for forest loss in Indonesia.

or now, I pin my hopes for Indonesian biodiversity to come through individual members of certification body The Forest Trust where members have pledged to a no deforestation policy today, not 2020. If we allow corporations to delay their "sustainability" pledges to 2020, most of the ancient forests would have fallen.