Oil palm fruits

After timber exports, now it’s palm oil sustainability Indonesia is seeking to water down

Having weakening timber export rules to spur economic growth, the Government of Indonesia is now poised to dilute the sustainability of its palm oil industry.

When the Government last month published a directive undermining its ability to keep illegal timber and wood products from export, it claimed it was doing so to counter the impact of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic on the country’s economy.

President Joko Widodo has now issued a new regulation reforming Indonesia’s Sustainable Palm Oil (ISPO) certification scheme – but it too looks to be primarily a means to weaken the standards, threatening both forests and human rights.

As part of this, a further new implementing regulation is set to be published by 16 April that will set out more details on the revised ISPO. This abrupt timescale is a cause for concern as it threatens a weak ISPO standard coming into effect and will not allow time for stakeholder input.

In drawing up this new Presidential regulation, key requests from civil society groups had included enshrining top-line principles on human rights, the highest standards of palm oil traceability and an independent monitoring system.

These essential standards were agreed in previous drafts but have been thrown out of the window, along with a principle to protect primary forests and peatlands which was previously part of ISPO and, arguably, one of the key parts of it.

The President’s new regulation doesn’t seem to achieve anything much except for binning the principle on forest protection  – raising fears that the implementing regulation that is set to be issued next week will allow for further deforestation to make way for palm oil production.

The issuance of this regulation now – when it has been long awaited – at the time of the coronavirus pandemic is also concerning, in that it may not allow for proper input and scrutiny.

Indonesia is currently pursuing an alarming trend towards environmental deregulation; as well as last month’s move to weaken its timber legality rules, there are widespread concerns about the Omnibus bills that the Government wants to pass in 100 days which would all but scrap the need for environment impact assessments and would be a disaster for the environment.

The consultation process on the reform of the ISPO has so far been poor. Despite initial regional consultations and multi-stakeholder meetings in 2016-17, the process in 2017 backtracked and moved behind closed doors. Indonesian civil society organisations expressed serious concerns when a new draft ISPO regulation appeared to ignore previous inputs. A national consultation which had been promised has never occurred.

Given that one of the main reasons for the ISPO reform was to increase the acceptance and competitiveness of ISPO in international markets, these developments are enormously disappointing. ISPO is often ranked as the worst palm oil standard and this regressive move will not assure international buyers otherwise.

We strongly urge the Government to delay the publishing of the implementing regulations and involves Indonesian civil society and the general public in the process, to allow proper time for inputs and to make the process more transparent – especially since transparency is supposedly a new ISPO principle.

The implementing regulation must include provisions to protect natural forests, peatlands and human rights, given these are omitted as ISPO principles in the regulation published so far.