Dodgy auditors undermine credibility of palm oil group’s ‘sustainability’ claims
LONDON: A new report today exposes critical failures in an international system seeking to assure consumers that the palm oil they buy in many thousands of products is sustainable.
The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is an industry body formed in 2004 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.
However, in its new report Who Watches the Watchmen?, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) reveals major flaws in the system of scrutiny which underpins the RSPO’s guarantee of sustainable production.
Palm oil is a vegetable oil found in thousands of products ranging from cosmetics to processed foodstuffs such as chocolates, cereals, soups, dairy products and crisps.
The RSPO relies entirely on auditors to monitor the operations of palm oil growers and ensure they are not destroying primary forests and habitats or evicting communities.
However, research by EIA and its partner Grassroots demonstrates that these auditing firms are in many cases failing to identify and mitigate unsustainable practices by oil palm firms.
Not only are they conducting alarmingly substandard assessments but evidence indicates that in some instances auditors actually collude with plantation companies to disguise violations of the RSPO Standard.
Critical problems identified include:
- auditors producing fraudulent reports that disguise violations of the RSPO’s rules and greenwashing the violation of indigenous rights;
- auditors failing to identify indigenous land rights claims;
- auditors failing to identify the risk of trafficked labourers being used in plantations;
- auditors producing substandard assessments that fail to identify the habitat of critically endangered species;
- clear conflicts of interest between palm oil producers and the companies they are hiring to audit their operations.
EIA Forest Campaigner Tomasz Johnson said: “The RSPO stands or falls on the credibility of its auditing process but in far too many instances auditors are greenwashing unsustainable practices and even environmental crimes.
“Many major consumer goods firms now delegate responsibility for their sourcing policies to the RSPO and, by extension, to these auditors. If the auditors are engaging in box-ticking and even colluding to cover up unsustainable practices, then products will get to the supermarket shelves that are tainted with human trafficking, rights abuses and the destruction of biodiversity.”
RSPO members are due to meet for their 12th Annual General Assembly in Kuala Lumpur from November 16-19 and EIA strongly urges them to salvage something of the organisation’s questionable reputation by supporting a resolution to ensure quality, oversight and the credibility of RSPO assessments.
Andrew Ng, of Grassroots, said: “These failings have arisen due to structural, systemic flaws within the RSPO. There is simply not enough monitoring of the way these auditors operate, or consequences for them or companies when they produce substandard assessments which clear the way for the destruction of precious habitats. It is incumbent on the members of the RSPO to vote for reforms this week that provide clearer, mandatory guidelines for these assessments.”
A steady stream of complaints made against RSPO members implicates auditors for conducting dodgy assessments and misrepresenting the reality on the ground. But although oil palm growers are to some extent held to account, the auditors consistently evade scrutiny.
Johnson added: “This is a familiar story. Dodgy auditors have emerged from the wreckage of every major corporate scandal of the past two decades. The lesson from those scandals, including the global financial crisis, is that auditors themselves need to be rigorously policed. It is incumbent on the RSPO to heed the lesson of history, as well as the evidence in our report, and crack down on this.”
- Interviews are available on request; please contact Forest Campaigner Tomasz Johnson via firstname.lastname@example.org or telephone +44 20 7354 7960.
- The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) investigates and campaigns against environmental crime and abuses.
- Grassroots’ mission is to promote protection of forests and communities who call them home through participating in projects that have the same aim and initiating worthwhile efforts to further forest conservation. It engages in projects that contribute to its mission, partnering with civil society groups and engaging corporate and government sectors. www.onegrassroots.org
- Who Watches the Watchmen? is available to read and download at https://eia-international.org/wp-content/uploads/EIA-Who-Watches-the-Watchmen-FINAL.pdf
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