Will palm oil watchdog rid itself of deforestation or continue to pretend its products are sustainable?

Palm oil produced through the destruction of forestland is still being sold around the world with the blessing of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).

The watchdog’s routine practices mean that palm oil bearing its stamp of approval to assure consumers it is sustainably produced cannot be considered deforestation-free, as a new EU law will require.

Today (30 November), EIA and 99 other organisations have issued a joint statement calling time on the RSPO and its habitual greenwashing – the act of giving the public or investors misleading or false information about the environmental impacts of a company’s products and activities.

The RSPO – the world’s leading voluntary certification scheme for supposedly sustainable palm oil – is holding its annual meeting in Kuala Lumpur this week and it is anticipated there will a significant focus on the upcoming EU deforestation regulation.

The EU is in the process of bringing in a new law that will mean palm oil and other commodities placed on the EU market must be deforestation-free and legal.

Europe is the biggest market for RSPO-certified palm oil, with 93 per cent of imports bearing the organisation’s stamp of approval, so what happens in the EU is of significance to the RSPO and its future.

The RSPO is currently revising its standards, called its Principles and Criteria (P&C), a process it undertakes every five years. In its last P&C revision in 2018, the RSPO adopted a new ‘no deforestation’ standard.

However, this standard falls far short of ensuring supply chains do not result in forest clearance, as the new EU regulation will require.


Key problems with the RSPO’s current ‘no deforestation’ standard

The certified destruction of forests

The RSPO currently allows companies which clear forests to become certified. Companies that do so must simply “compensate” for the loss – either by conserving an equivalent or larger area elsewhere or paying to do so.

This so-called compensation cannot replace the forests that were lost; the animals and plants that lived in that forest are gone, as are the people who might have depended on that forest for their homes and livelihoods.

There was much controversy recently when the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) – the main voluntary certification scheme for timber – changed its cut-off date rules to allow logging companies that have cleared forests after 1994, but not before 2020, to be certified, when they were not allowed to before.

Yet it seems to have gone unnoticed that the RSPO has always allowed this, including for forests cleared beyond 2020. While the RSPO does not allow deforestation after November 2018 on paper, if a company “mistakenly” clears forests or joins the RSPO at a later date, it can simply “compensate” for any forest lost instead.

One of the worst examples of this is PT Bio Inti Agrindo, a palm oil company in Papua, Indonesia, which was RSPO-certified in September 2021. Prior to joining the RSPO, it had been strongly criticised for years for clearing more than 20,000 hectares of pristine rainforest.

Shockingly, the compensation decided on by the RSPO is mainly for the company to support existing neighbouring protected forests, which hardly compensates for the rampant deforestation the company caused.

The new EU deforestation will require companies supplying the EU market to have not cleared forests after a specific cut-off date – proposed to be 31 December 2020 by the European Commission.

Given the RSPO currently allows companies which have cleared forests to continue to be certified, meeting RSPO requirements will not guarantee meeting the upcoming EU rules.


Palm oil deforestation in Papua

The price of unsustainable of palm oil – deforestation and the end of traditional livelihoods

Mixing of uncertified palm oil from deforestation

Another big problem with the RSPO is that it allows uncertified palm oil that comes from deforestation to be mixed with certified palm oil.

This is known as the Mass Balance model and the practice means that RSPO supply chains are tainted and allows companies sourcing from concessions that are responsible for deforestation to promote themselves as “sustainable” or RSPO-certified. This includes RSPO-certified mills being allowed to source uncertified palm oil produced from deforestation.

Last year, companies which are the members of the RSPO adopted a resolution calling for the organisation to strengthen and revise the Mass Balance system in recognition of the problems it is causing the RSPO’s credibility.

Given that the new EU deforestation regulation will require all sources of palm oil in the supply chain to be deforestation-free, RSPO certification cannot guarantee this either, given its wide use of the Mass Balance model.


Oil palm plantation on deforested land in Papua, Indonesia

Oil palm plantation on deforested land in Papua, Indonesia (c) EIA

Will the RSPO act or is its time up?

The new EU deforestation regulation and the revision of the P&C is a critical time for the RSPO. It has, and continues to face, a multitude of problems that to date it has been slow to act on.

These range from poor assurance that its standards are actually adhered to, as we have exposed, and failing to uphold complaints to its members being mired in accusations of forced labour.

Given the RSPO’s track record of inadequately dealing with serious issues in its system, there is significant doubt it will do so now.

EIA Forests Campaigner Siobhan Pearce said: “It remains to be seen whether the RSPO will act for a change and address the deforestation and other problems in its system or continue to paper over the cracks and pretend its palm oil is sustainable.”