Landmark legal win boosts oil palm sector transparency

Oil palm plantation in Indonesia (c) EIA

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On March 9, Forest Watch Indonesia (FWI) won a long-fought freedom of information request against the Indonesian Ministry of Land and Spatial Planning to obtain the formal commercial operations maps of oil palm companies operating in Kalimantan.

This is an exceptional, albeit overdue, victory for civil society organisations fighting for the most basic transparency in the palm oil sector in Indonesia.

While plantation maps should be publically accessible – the plantations exist on state land managed for the people by the Government – it has taken legal wrangling in Indonesia’s Courts since 2015 for FWI to obtain access. Once in possession of the data, FWI plans to make it available on its website.

Soelthon Gussetya Nanggara, FWI’s Director, insisted on the importance of disclosing such documents as the lack of access to data often hinders the resolution of land conflicts: “Information meant to serve the public should be openly accessible, so that development can be done in a participatory way, ensuring the sustainable management of our natural resources, and the welfare of our peoples.”

The opaque nature of both the palm oil sector and Indonesia’s Ministry of Agriculture has long been a barrier in driving the industry towards sustainability. The sector’s systemic lack of transparency prevents effective monitoring and accountability, and has been the focus of a number of campaigns by watchdog organisations.

Reflecting these concerns, the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) – a voluntary certification standard whose members profess to be progressive actors in the sector – announced in 2013 it would require members to release their operations maps. More than three years later, many RSPO members are still refusing to disclose their maps and the RSPO is fundamentally failing to hold them to their commitment to transparency, one of the fundamental principles of the organisation.

Such failings have prompted criticisms of the RSPO and other corporate supply chain commitments in a report on oil palm and deforestation voted on by the Environment Committee of the European Commission, which cast doubts over the adequacy of voluntary standards – ironically on the same day as FWI’s victory.

FWI’s win in Indonesia has succeeded where the voluntary sector has failed for years and has done so not through the lure of access to ‘green’ corporate supply chains but through the gritty fight of a nation’s citizens to uphold the rule of law.

“FWI’s victory is proof that resolute national civil society involvement can deliver governance outcomes that voluntary and corporate-led initiatives haven’t been able to achieve,” said Audrey Versteegen, EIA Forests Campaigner. “This landmark judgement must now be extended to all provinces of Indonesia to facilitate independent forest monitoring in support of good forest governance”.

EIA believes that progressive markets such as those in the EU now seeking to limit the negative environmental and social impacts of their palm oil consumption should not blindly trust voluntary supply chain commitments but support efforts to engender good forest governance that results in a transparent and effective system in producer countries.

 

NOTES

* Forest Watch Indonesia (FWI) and EIA have worked as partners in forest governance reform in Indonesia for many years. To see FWI’s press release about this legal victory, visit here.

* Related Mongabay article here.

* For more information on the work ongoing at EU level on the impacts of palm oil, see here.