Deforested hillside in Indonesia

Illegal fires put ‘sustainable’ palm oil in the hot spot

RSPO and ISPO must commission independent investigations into illegal fires by member companies, or be certified as greenwash

LONDON: The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) is calling on the RSPO and the ISPO – the world’s main “sustainable palm oil” certification schemes – to immediately commission independent investigations into the illegal burning of land in concessions owned by member companies in Sumatra, Indonesia.

The call follows a dramatic rise in forest and land fires in Riau province in recent weeks, which have led to record breaking “hazardous” haze and smog levels in neighboring Singapore & Malaysia. While many such fires have occurred in pulp and paper concessions, numerous oil palm estates are burning.

Burning land near HAGL Group rubber plantation, Xaisetha Distrit, Attapeu, Laos (c) EIA

However, EIA analysis of NASA’s MODIS fire “hotspots” identified in the past 48 hours indicates significant overlaps with numerous oil palm concessions in Riau – all of which must comply with the ISPO’s mandatory rules by December 2014, and some of which are also voluntarily RSPO members.

Jago Wadley of the EIA said: “EIA is calling for on the RSPO and ISPO to immediately commission independent studies into the numerous occurrences of fire hotspots in RSPO and ISPO member concessions, and for the resulting analysis to be formally and publically registered as breaches of these schemes’ rules by the respective organizations.”

“The evidence of systematic burning in palm estates is there for all to see, and if the RSPO and ISPO decline to commission independent studies into fires in member plantations – a very easy, fast, and cheap task – their credibility as evidence and rule-based assurances of sustainable palm oil must be called into considerable doubt”, said Wadley.

Most major globally-active consumer goods companies use palm oil for a huge range of products, and following NGO campaigns highlighting rampant deforestation and fires, many companies have recently signalled a preference for “certified sustainable” supplies.

These procurement policy signals have in turn driven the uptake of the RSPO by numerous planters, and prompted Indonesia’s oil palm growers’ association, GAPKI, to establish the ISPO, in direct competition with the RSPO. International governments are supporting these supply-chain reforms through funding and other incentives in a bid to help responsible companies reduce their forests and climate footprints.

EIA is concerned that these progressive initiatives will be fundamentally undermined if the certification schemes relied on to help deliver these ambitious goals are not acting firmly against members that breach their rules.

The recent fire data clearly shows systematic burning in numerous concessions supposedly regulated by the two schemes, raising significant concerns that they are effectively being used to greenwash illegal and destructive activities, while simultaneously assuring responsible buyers and governments that production is “sustainable”.

The RSPO has issued a statement on the fires in Indonesia, but has limited its response to “looking out should there be any complaints relating to this matter” – indicating the organization has no clear intention to proactively seek out member non-compliances itself, likely expecting NGOs to do its work for it.

Tom Johnson, also of EIA, reiterated the call, saying: “If the RSPO and ISPO are really the reliable gatekeepers of legality and sustainability in Indonesia’s oil palm sector, they will immediately commission independent research into breaches by members, rather than denying there is a link to the RSPO because they have not yet received specific complaints. Five minutes online shows that RSPO members’ concessions are burning”.

The ISPO’s website makes no mention of the fires or the haze issue.

Jago Wadley +44 207 354 7960
Faith Doherty +44 207 354 7960

Notes for Editors:

1. The RSPO is the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil, a certification scheme that audits the oil palm sector against a series of principles criteria and indicators of sustainable and legal production. Membership is voluntary, but compliance is supposed to be mandatory once a commitment is made.

2. In November 2012, the European Commission ruled that RSPO certified oil palm would be accepted under the so-called “renewable fuel standard”, which in turn regulates sources of biofuels allowed under the EU’s renewable energy directive.

3. The ISPO is the “Indonesia Sustainable Palm Oil” standard, a set of principles criteria and indicators of legal and sustainable oil palm production, against which plantations companies must be certified. The scheme has not been rolled out yet, but all plantations in Indonesia must comply with the scheme, by December 2014, following a 2011 Minister of Agriculture regulation that enshrines the scheme in law.