Fighting deforestation

The world’s forests are our last line of defence in mitigating climate change, stopping the extinction of wildlife and helping prevent the next pandemic.

Preventing deforestation and the selective removal of ancient living trees is essential in order to tackle the climate and biodiversity crises we face today.

Vanessa Richardson, EIA UK Forests Campaigner

 

What is deforestation?

Man in destroyed forest

Deforestation

Deforestation refers to loss of a natural forest as a result of conversion to agriculture, a tree plantation or other non-natural forest land use or severe and sustained degradation.

Often the land is converted by extractive industries such as mining or for large-scale agricultural use, growing crops such as palm oil, soy and cocoa or rearing livestock, like beef, and results in ecosystem and biodiversity loss.

Deforestation through conversion, illegal logging and timber trafficking, often overseen by large international companies and transnational criminal gangs, is having a devastating impact on forests worldwide.

As natural forest resources are destroyed, the timber industry is striving to maintain its profits and has resorted to plantations to supplement supply. However, far from alleviating the pressure on natural forests, plantations of fast-growing, exotic timber species are poor imitators of the rainforest, lacking the ecological richness required to support a diverse array of wildlife and the sustainable economies of local communities.

EIA report The Politics of Extinction

How EIA is helping to protect biodiversity

Given the breadth of our work and the wealth of information that we hold, EIA is uniquely placed to look at the connections between the illegal wildlife trade, illegal logging and deforestation to promote effective policy and enforcement responses. We aim to fill a significant gap in the understanding of the links between the two areas.

Exposing the nexus between organised crime, corrupt politicians and businessmen is our stock in trade. We work on the ground to find out who is involved, find the paper trail and determine where the money’s coming from and to whom it goes.

Faith Doherty, EIA Forests Campaign Leader

For more than 20 years, EIA has worked to reduce global deforestation by:

Highlights of our ongoing fight against deforestation

EIA was one of the first campaigning environmental organisations to expose and combat global deforestation. Over the years, our campaigns and undercover investigations have successfully combatted serious environmental crimes that are contributing to deforestation worldwide.

1999 Our report on illegal logging in Indonesian national parks led to the Indonesian Government designating illegal logging as a priority and to the timber ramin being protected by CITES.
2013 We helped set up the EU Timber Regulation (EUTR), which stops illegal timber from entering the EU market.
2017 The Danish Government restricted companies from selling Burmese teak in the country following evidence in an EIA Forests report. This triggered a domino effect of enforcement across Europe.
2017 Our Banking on Extinction report and joint action with Greenpeace prompted HSBC bank to investigate a client in the palm oil sector, saving thousands of hectares of primary rainforest.
2019 As a result of our report and allegations of ‘greenwashing’, the palm oil certification body, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), pledged to investigate how consumers are being conned about palm oil sustainability.
2019 Our State of Corruption report uncovered the criminal network behind trade in Myanmar teak, leading to increased enforcement along the China-Myanmar border that was closed to timber for a full 18 months.
2020 China is now revising its new forest law where timber that is stolen is being addressed within China’s markets.
2020 After campaigns by EIA and partners, Indonesia has shelved its plans to water down its timber regulations under the cover of coronavirus.

EIA is one of the top 20 most effective environmental charities, according to the Environmental Funders Network. Since 1984 we've been investigating and campaigning against environmental crime and abuse. Just some of our tangible successes are included here.

  • 30%

    of the Earth’s surface is covered by forests
  • 40%

    of South-East Asia's biodiversity could vanish by 2100
  • 45%

    of carbon stored on land is tied up in forests

Where are the world’s forests?

Forests exist all around the world, from the tropics and subtropics to temperate and boreal regions. According to the United Nations, more than half of the world’s forests are found in the Russian Federation, Brazil, Canada, the United States and China.

A 2019 assessment of the New York Declaration on Forests discovered that the world is losing the battle against deforestation. It found that the principal deforestation hotspots losing the most primary forest were located in the Amazon Basin nations of Bolivia, Brazil, Columbia and Peru and South-East Asian nations of Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia and Papua New Guinea. Worryingly, Africa is also suffering deforestation at an increasing rate.

Where does EIA’s Forests Campaign work?

As a charity, EIA’s Forests Campaign works globally at EU and UN levels. Through our undercover investigations, we have a special operational focus on countries in South-East Asia, including Indonesia, China, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam.

South-East Asia is home to almost 15 per cent of the world’s tropical forests and is one of the oldest and most biodiverse areas of forest on the planet. However, it has been severely affected by extensive logging operations and the conversion of forests into palm oil plantations and other land uses.

South-East Asia is an area that we know well from our ongoing environmental campaigns. This enables us to draw on our knowledge of local legislation and the criminal networks that profit from illegal logging, poaching and trafficking. There is frequently an overlap between the gangs that deal in illegal timber and those that poach and traffic illegal wildlife in the region.

Why are forests important?

Forests are indispensable to life on our planet – they are our lungs and our life-support system. They are vital havens of biodiversity that support a vast range of animal and plant species, as well as providing subsistence and income for about a quarter of the world’s human population.

  • 80%

    of the world’s land-based species, including elephants and rhinos, live in forests

  • 250

    million people living in forest and savannah areas depend on forests for subsistence and income

How forests mitigate climate change

Forests are crucial in helping to avert runaway climate change. They contain more carbon in biomass and soils than is stored in all the Earth’s atmosphere.

Carbon is stored inside biomass via photosynthesis. This process, known as carbon sequestration, captures carbon which is present in the atmosphere in the form of CO2.

The largest and oldest trees on Earth represent as little as one per cent of the world’s living forest biomass, but sequester about half of the total carbon.

Tropical mangroves and peatlands, which are particularly abundant in South-East Asia, contain the highest biomass density of all forest ecosystems.

If we continue to disrupt these complex ecosystems at the current rate, we risk accelerating climate change and doing irreparable damage to some of our planet’s most precious resources.

Why are tropical forests under threat?

Tropical forests are at risk due to the ever-increasing global demand for commodities like timber and palm oil. Coupled with poor governance, local corruption and limited enforcement, this is driving significant criminal activity, including illegal logging and forest clearance, trafficking of forest products and exploitation of local communities. These problems occur at an international level, with deforestation at the expense of local communities often serving consumption in other parts of the world, particularly the EU, USA and China.

Over-exploitation of natural timber from forests

High-value tropical hardwoods from natural forests tend to be slow-growing, long-lived species with high-density hardwood. Their repeated, selective removal from forests can often lead to cascades of negative effects.

Vanessa Richardson, EIA UK Forests Campaigner

Tropical tree species are being over-exploited all around the world. On a pan-tropical scale, the pre-logging tree species composition of old-growth natural forests does not fully recover even after half a century of regeneration.

Large number of Trucks on a dirt road in the mist, all loaded with illegal Burmese teak

Burmese teak being illegally transported into China

In other words, at a species level, the same volume of timber simply doesn’t grow back in time for sequential harvest some 30 years later. As a result, high-value timber species are becoming regionally depleted and are at risk of becoming extinct.

Illegal logging and timber trafficking

  • $227

    Billion - the value of the international timber trade

  • 15-30%

    Percent of all timber illegally harvested

  • €18.17

    Billion - worth of wood products imported by the EU in 2017

Illegal logging and timber trafficking

According to the UN Environment Programme and international law enforcement agency Interpol, between 15-30 per cent of all timber traded globally has been illegally harvested.

South-East Asia has some of the highest deforestation rates in the world. Unsustainable demand for high-value hardwoods is also a major driver of forest loss.

The logging of hardwoods has become industrialised in many countries in the region. Logging companies and gangs now have the capacity to move into a forested area and rapidly extract all available hardwoods.

Logging run by big business and criminal syndicates

These selective logging operations are typically run by large companies or criminal syndicates with strong links to the military and government. Once they move into a rural community, this can have adverse and far-reaching impacts on existing social structures, communal land tenure and traditional sources of livelihood.

Guilty parties get away

Additionally, despite these rural communities being home to some of the most vulnerable people, enforcement action is usually targeted at this same demographic as the easiest part of the trade chain to apprehend because their arrest is unlikely to result in political repercussions.

How we are fighting deforestation

Working with partners and civil society on the ground, our investigations expose the criminals, illegal timber routes and corruption which facilitate forest crime, using international laws to press for action and further reduce the scale of deforestation.

Upholding timber trade laws

Our Forests Campaign works globally and within Europe to ensure that governments and businesses adhere to timber trade laws and agreements.

We support the implementation of the EU’s Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) action plan, which aims to reduce illegal logging by strengthening sustainable and legal forest management, improving governance and promoting trade in legally produced timber.

We investigate illicit flows of money from the timber trade, and support civil society involvement in the development and implementation of Voluntary Partnership Agreements (VPAs). These agreements, between the EU and countries such as Myanmar, Indonesia, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand, ensure that timber entering the EU is legally sourced.

Enforcing the EU Timber Regulation

 In 2013, we helped set up the EU Timber Regulation (EUTR), which prohibits supplies of illegal timber from around the world from entering the EU market. Central to its requirements is ‘due diligence’, obliging companies to identify and mitigate any risks of illegality in their supply chains.

Under the EUTR, due diligence requires operators (companies regulated by the EUTR) to identify the concession within Myanmar from which timber has been harvested. Following evidence we produced in a report, the Danish Government restricted companies from selling Burmese teak in the country.

This triggered a domino effect of enforcement across Europe, and in 2020 a Dutch court ruled that importers of teak from Myanmar must be able to trace the legality of the luxury timber all the way back to felling. Our Forests campaigners had submitted a series of complaints against various companies over their imports of Myanmar teak and this latest case arose as a result of three such complaints.

We have been at the forefront of efforts to ensure illegally felled teak from Myanmar is kept out of European markets and are delighted that this ruling underlines the responsibilities of traders to ensure they are not dealing in stolen wood. To support Myanmar’s efforts to reform its forestry sector, these traders should abide by the laws in place in the EU.

Faith Doherty, EIA Forests Campaign Leader

Our work in this area continues. More recently, we produced evidence that traders are paying to ship illicit Myanmar teak into Europe via Croatia.

The Croatian Connection Exposed: Importing illicit Myanmar teak through Europe’s back door:

Calling for action on deforestation crimes at CITES

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) is an international agreement between governments. Its aim is to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival.

EIA campaigners regularly attend CITES meetings and submit reports and briefings to advocate for stronger protection measures against forest crimes, including deforestation, illegal logging and timber trafficking.

To get an idea of our campaigning work, see our report on environmental wins and losses, including CITES discussions on rosewood, cedar, ebony and palisander at the August 2019 meeting.

Fighting for forests at the EU

Our Forests campaigners consistently work with the EU to uphold timber legislation, expose loopholes and argue for better protection for the world’s forests.

In July 2019, the European Commission released its long-awaited communication  Stepping up EU Action to Protect and Restore the World’s Forests.

The EU has an objective to halt global forest cover loss by 2030, but this report acknowledged its role in driving rampant deforestation around the globe through the import of commodities such as beef, soy and palm oil.

We look forward to working with the EU to support the development of an enforceable action plan, with binding regulations to ensure supply chains and all relevant products placed on the market exclude products linked to deforestation, environmental degradation and human rights abuses.

Faith Doherty, EIA Forests Campaign Leader

EU citizens want new laws to stop deforestation

A recent YouGov poll, which we organised, sent a clear message to Brussels that EU citizens care deeply about forests and agree that deforestation is harmful for people and wildlife.

  • 91%

    of EU citizens care for forests and wildlife

  • 87%

    of EU citizens think new laws are needed to ensure products sold in the EU don’t contribute to global deforestation

  • 91%

    of EU citizens agree that deforestation is harmful to the people and wildlife in affected areas

Joining up EU and US laws

In 2018, we identified and explored the previously unrealised fact that the US Lacey Act also prohibits timber sold in violation of the EUTR, as a ‘foreign law’.

Our briefing, A Tale of Two Laws, explained that placing wood on the EU market in violation of the EUTR is a predicate offence under the Lacey Act and that any EU products containing such wood become contraband when exported to the US.

This has significant implications, as it extends legal and/or commercial risks and liabilities to virtually the entire value chain of any EU product incorporating timber traded to the US.

Helping protect human rights

EIA’s ground-breaking forest investigations and lobbying have consistently uncovered serious failings in forest governance, forcing governments and industry to acknowledge the problems and address them.

Multiple issues include land-grabbing, compensation violations, deforestation, labour rights violations and intimidation of local communities.

Deforestation due to illegal logging and destructive forest conversion is directly connected to corruption and crime, cronyism, curbs on transparency and accountability, selective law enforcement, elitist land tenure and compromised judiciaries, and often involves state officials and security apparatus.

A forest village

A forest village

Indigenous communities need to secure rights to their ancestral land to gain protection for their homes and livelihoods. Often, they are constrained by a lack of recognition of their rights and limited participation of civil society groups who represent them. So we work with forest-dependent communities in South-East Asia, specifically in Indonesia and Myanmar, on improved forest governance and equitable use of resources. We interact with indigenous communities, civil society organisations, governments, private sector, forestry and governance specialists and the media.

In every aspect of our programme, we aim to increase knowledge of rights and entitlements within the forestry and trade sector for both men and women, with an emphasis on cultural sensitivities. We are also calling for regulation of the EU market so that only products free from deforestation, degradation and human rights abuses can be placed on the EU market.

Protecting forests across Asia

For over two decades, EIA has carried out investigations and campaigns to help protect forests across Asia.

China: illegal timber finally banned

In January 2020, in an extraordinary move, China changed its Forest Law to include a nationwide ban on buying, processing or transporting illegally sourced timber.

China’s demand for raw materials for its vast wood-processing industry has been a massive driver of illegal logging around the world, especially in South-East Asia and Africa. This is potentially huge, a real game-changer for both the future of the planet’s precious forests and the battle against dangerous climate change.

Faith Doherty, EIA Forests Campaign Leader

For 20 years, the EIA has urged China to ban the use of illegal timber. Our investigations have revealed how China is effectively exporting deforestation around the world and we have urged it time and again to put its house in order.

Our 2001 report Timber Trafficking described China’s voracious appetite for tropical timber, while in 2005 The Last Frontier reported on the multi-million dollar illegal trade in timber smuggled from Indonesia to China. Our landmark 2012 report Appetite for Destruction: China’s Trade in Illegal Timber revealed China to be the single largest international consumer of illegal wood.

We are delighted at the news that China has taken this positive move which will help timber-producing countries to tackle corruption in the way they manage and trade in the products of their own forests.

Myanmar: closing EU markets for Burmese teak

Myanmar’s forests form one of the world’s most important biodiversity areas. They are home to more than 200 globally threatened species, including elephants, tigers, sun bears and the Myanmar snub-nosed monkey.

They are also the native habitat of the Tectona grandis tree, more commonly referred to as Burmese teak and renowned for being the best quality in the world. Illegal logging and trafficking of this high-value, highly-sought-after wood has led to appalling levels of deforestation in the country.

Illegitimate Burmese teak is used for the decks of luxury yachts

Illegitimate Burmese teak is used for the decks of luxury yachts

The EU is an important market for Burmese teak, with some of the highest grade timber being sent to shipyards and destined to become decking on luxury yachts. EIA has taken action in the EU market to support those who champion reform within the forestry sector in Myanmar, targeting operators who are aware of legal compliance within Europe but clearly think themselves above the law.

As a result of EIA Forests investigations and campaigns, in 2017 the Danish Government restricted companies from selling Burmese teak in the country. This set a precedent for closer co-operation between European member states against the trade.

Myanmar: uncovering the illicit teak trade

Our 2019 report State of Corruption blew the lid off a network of corruption behind international trade in Myanmar teak.

Myanmar’s Government presents the teak trade as being wholly legal and sustainable, which is simply not the case.

Following two years of undercover investigations, we revealed how Myanmar’s multi-million dollar international trade in teak wood is riddled with crime and high-level corruption.

Log yard in Myanmar (c) EIA

Log yard in Myanmar

We tracked down a near-mythic ‘Burmese teak kingpin’ who bribed the most senior military and Government officials in Myanmar and established an international network of traders.

The report showed how criminals in Myanmar were shipping non-compliant timber into Europe through countries with weaker law enforcement.

Following the release of the report, we submitted a dossier of evidence to German and European enforcement authorities regarding German company Alfred Neumann GmbH’s imports of Myanmar teak.

A year later, Dutch police seized allegedly illegal Burmese teak that had arrived in the Netherlands via the Czech Republic. This was the first raid of its kind and signalled a willingness for EU member states to co-operate to prevent circumnavigation of the law.

Laos: advocating for a legal timber system

For many years now, forest crimes have been rampant in Laos. We have discovered reports that expose systematic illegal felling of trees and extensive timber smuggling into neighbouring countries including Vietnam, Cambodia and China.

EIA has set out recommendations to both the EU and Laos that support a strong timber legality assurance system that would stem the flow of the illegal import of timber into surrounding countries.

Vietnam: exposing industrial-scale forest theft

Our Forests team has investigated the illegal timber trade in South-East Asia for more than two decades and has identified Vietnam as a major hub for criminal activity.

Multiple field and undercover investigations in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam since 2007 have resulted in us releasing eight reports exposing Vietnam’s industrial-scale theft of timber from Cambodia and Laos, widely done with the corruption and connivance of politicians and enforcement personnel.

Faith Doherty, EIA Forests Campaigns Leader.

In 2011, our Crossroads report exposed the role played by the Vietnamese military in a multi-million dollar operation stealing threatened timber species from dam construction sites in neighbouring Laos.

In 2018, our Serial Offender report revealed Vietnam’s ongoing theft of timber from a national park, a wildlife sanctuary and a dam site in Cambodia. This report was directly responsible for bringing the Vietnamese Government to the table with us to discuss how to combat ongoing smuggling of illicit timber.

The scandal of Siamese rosewood

To feed an insatiable demand for luxury furniture in China, species such as highly-prized Siamese rosewood (Dalbergia cochinchinensis) have been unsustainably harvested in the Mekong region of Vietnam.

Wild stocks of this precious wood are now teetering on the brink of collapse.

In our 2018 report, Vietnam in Violation, we highlighted serious violations of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) by the Government of Vietnam.

The Government of Cambodia produced evidence that the Vietnamese Government was using fake CITES permits to import Siamese rosewood from Cambodia. We used our report to press CITES, the Vietnamese Government and the EU to take action against this flagrant abuse of the rules.

We are currently working with the Vietnamese Government to review its legislation and draft laws to ensure there’s a negligible risk of illegal timber entering the EU market from Vietnam. We will also continue to use our research to pressure the EU to ensure that agreements with Vietnam address the country’s imports of illegal timber.

Indonesia: fighting the illegal timber trade

Illegal loggers Collect Fresh Merbau Flitches For Delivery to A Sawmill Near Jayapura_Sep 2019

Merbau, a luxurious dark hardwood, is targeted by illegal loggers in Papua, Indonesia

For more than two decades, EIA has fought to preserve the forests of Indonesia, one of the richest areas of biodiversity on Earth.

Sadly, Indonesia has one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world, with an estimated 2.4 million acres of rainforest being lost every year. This has devastating consequences both for the indigenous populations and for the endangered species which make the forest their home – from Sumatran tigers and rhinos to orangutans.

We continue to keep up the pressure on the Indonesian Government by investigating Indonesia’s illegal logging and timber trade.

Most recently, following investigative work and reports by EIA and our Indonesian partner Kaoem Telapak:

  • in 2019, 384 shipping containers of illegal merbau wood were seized, the directors of four companies were jailed for a year and fined while a fifth director was jailed for five years and fined almost $180,000;
  • in 2020, the Government of Indonesia shelved plans to drastically dilute its timber regulations.

Tackling the problem of palm oil

Until the 1960s, the cultivation of palm oil trees was largely limited to West Africa.

By the early 1990s, palm oil had been transformed from a commodity barely traded  on the international market to a lucrative agribusiness sector, grown on industrial plantations in the tropics and supplying an insatiable global demand.

Today, it is a phenomenally successful commodity, particularly in the food manufacturing industry. In 2018, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the EU consumed seven million tonnes of palm oil.

Palm oil is an extremely versatile ingredient now found in literally thousands of products, ranging from soaps and cosmetics to foodstuffs; it’s in everything from pizzas, chocolate and ice cream to lipsticks, soap and shampoo.

According to estimates, 50 per cent of products on our supermarket shelves contain palm oil or palm kernel oil in some form, where it might be labelled as vegetable oil, vegetable fat, palm kernel, palm kernel oil, palmate or a variety of other aliases.

The growth of the palm oil business in Indonesia

Oil palm plantation in Indonesia (c) EIAimage

Palm oil plantations have caused devastating levels of deforestation in Indonesia

EIA’s work to combat deforestation due to the palm oil industry is focused on Indonesia. The country is currently the largest producer and exporter of palm oil worldwide. Here, the palm oil industry has grown at a dizzying rate.

In 2000, palm oil plantations covered around four million hectares of the country. By 2018, official figures from the Indonesian Government revealed that plantations took up 14 million hectares, although palm oil industry watchdog Sawit Watch estimates the figure to be much higher – nearer 21 million hectares.

Why is palm oil bad for the environment and for society?

Palm oil’s success comes at a high cost. In Indonesia, as in other countries where palm oil is an important crop, the industry is widely linked to deforestation, illegal logging, forest fires, biodiversity loss and human rights abuses.

  • Deforestation: replacing natural forests with palm oil plantations

The tropical rainforests of Indonesia are ‘natural forests’, made up of a wide variety of different native trees that have taken many years to become established. They sequester and hold carbon from the atmosphere, helping to mitigate climate change.

One hectare of land converted from rainforest into an oil palm plantation equates to a loss of 174 tonnes of carbon.

"The quantity of carbon released when just one hectare of forest is cleared to grow oil palms is roughly equivalent to the amount of carbon produced by 530 people flying from Geneva to New York in economy class," says Thomas Guillaume, lead author of a study on the environmental impact of oil palm cultivation in Indonesia.

  • Illegal logging: plantations open the way for illicit timber

The conversion of rich forests to make way for oil palm plantations has driven a wave of illegal logging in Indonesia, as we demonstrated in our 2014 report Permitting Crime: How palm oil expansion drives illegal logging in Indonesia.

The unprecedented growth of plantations has been characterised by illegality. Successive attempts to bring order to land acquisition practices and deforestation have been undermined by a combination of corruption and incompetence. This has driven rates of deforestation in Indonesia to become some of the highest in the world.

  • Forest fires: releasing carbon and a threat to life

In Indonesia, peat-rich forests are drained to make space for palm oil plantations. The remaining peatland is highly flammable and fires can last for weeks. Fires can start accidentally during the dry season; however, many are also set deliberately to clear the ground for plantations.

As we have reported, forest fires seriously exacerbate the effects of climate change. They threaten wildlife within the forest and lead to an average of 36,000 premature deaths a year in the human populations across Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia.

  • Biodiversity loss: sweeping away vital habitats for plants and wildlife

The tropical rainforests of Indonesia are biodiversity hotspots that provide vital habitats for a vast range of plants and wildlife, many of which are only found in that region.

A single hectare of tropical rainforest in Indonesia contains over 200 plant species.

Endangered wildlife reliant on the tropical rainforest include Sumatran tigers, rhinos and orangutans. When the rainforest is cleared to make way for palm oil plantations, their home disappears.

Our 1998 report The Politics of Extinction: The Orangutan Crisis, the Destruction of Indonesia’s Forests, revealed how widespread deforestation had already destroyed more than 80 per cent of orangutans’ forest habitat.

  • Human rights abuses: appropriating land and committing violence

Human rights violations are all too common in the palm oil sector, from appropriating local communities’ land to unfair working conditions, child labour, violence, rape and other crimes.

In 2019, Sarah Agustio, from our Indonesian partner Kaoem Telapak, reported:

In this land-greedy and capital-intensive palm oil plantations industry, human rights problems are not only limited to encroachment but violence, criminalisation, shooting and intimidation. The human rights aspects are broad and fundamental.

Our work to combat palm oil deforestation

For more than two decades, EIA has worked tenaciously to combat the devastating environmental and social impacts of the palm oil industry in Indonesia.

Our focus includes highlighting widespread illegality in palm oil plantations in Indonesia and triggering formal grievance or law enforcement mechanisms where possible. We also help to strengthen national laws and palm oil production standards in Indonesia, including the Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil (ISPO) Government certification scheme.

Holding the RSPO to account

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is an industry body with a mission to reassure consumers that palm oil bearing its certificate of approval is free from links with primary forest destruction, damage to endangered species’ habitats or abuses of the rights of indigenous peoples and communities.

Our first Who Watches the Watchmen? (2015) report revealed major flaws in the system of scrutiny which underpins the RSPO’s guarantee of sustainable production.

In 2019, we followed up with Who Watches the Watchmen? 2,

which detailed the continuing incompetence of the RSPO’s assurance systems.

Our investigations established a catalogue of failures within the RSPO certification system meant to assure consumers that all palm oil bearing its stamp of approval is free from destructive impacts. It accused the RSPO of effectively giving false environmental credibility to its products, commonly known as ‘greenwashing’.

The RSPO initially claimed that our report contained “glaring inaccuracies”. However, it has now pledged to investigate our allegations.

Through our research and undercover operations, we have compiled many detailed reports on forest and other environmental crimes across Indonesia related to the palm oil industry.

In 2009, our Up for Grabs: Deforestation and exploitation in Papua’s plantations boom report argued that Indonesia’s policy on plantations posed a greater threat to Papua’s forests than illegal logging. Through field investigations carried out in conjunction with our partner, Telapak, we revealed that indigenous Papuan communities were being enticed, tricked and sometimes coerced into releasing large swathes of forested land to powerful conglomerates, backed by overseas investors and facilitated by central and provincial governments.

In 2014, we revealed how the clear-cutting of forests to make way for palm oil plantations was driving illegal logging in Indonesia. The Permitting Crime: How palm oil expansion drives illegal logging in Indonesia report showed how a widespread culture of corruption and poor law enforcement was generating a flood of illicit timber as plantations surged into frontier forests. It included in-depth case studies of blatant violations of licensing procedures and other laws in Central Kalimantan, a hotspot for forest crime.

In 2017, we followed up with Still Permitting Crime, a joint report with our partner, JPIK, the Independent Forest Monitoring Network. This revealed how an illegal palm oil plantation was continuing to clear forests with impunity.

In markets which consume palm oil, we are working to enhance the EU’s pledged initiative on deforestation and forest degradation and we monitor company compliance with new trade policies, seeking enforcement where justified.

Finally, we’re continuing to lobby the EU to introduce regulatory measures to reduce the deforestation footprint of the commodities placed on its market, including palm oil. Our In Our Palms: Ensuring ‘no deforestation’ in EU commodity supply chains (2018) briefing argued that existing methods to alleviate the negative environmental and social impacts of palm oil, such as certification schemes, have failed to stop deforestation sufficiently to qualify as ‘sustainability’.

How you can help protect the world’s forests

Forest waterfallThe world’s forests are our last line of defence in mitigating climate change, stopping the extinction of wildlife and helping prevent the next pandemic.

Please donate today to support our vital work to push for improved governance and expose the criminals behind the transnational illegal trade in stolen timber and endangered species.

We are in a climate emergency and the world’s forests are on the front line. Your gift will make a valuable difference in protecting these crucial ecosystems that provide a habitat for wildlife and livelihoods for millions of indigenous people.

Please support our work to protect forests, fight climate change and help save endangered wildlife from extinction. We couldn’t do what we do without you.