Palm Oil Companies Keep Breaking the Promises They Claim to Keep

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was created in 2004 by the palm oil industry and civil society groups (including conservation groups like the WWF) to set guidelines for greener oil production and to encourage industry expansion without social conflict. 15 percent of palm oil produced is now certified as “sustainable” by the RSPO. A just-released report says that RSPO members are not keeping their pledges by “violating the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities in the forests and peatlands of tropical nations worldwide.”

The study was put together by U.K.-based Forest Peoples, Transformasi Untuk Keadilan Indonesia (a human rights organization in Indonesia) and Sawit Watch (a founding member of the RSPO). It looks closely at 16 oil palm operations (many run by RSPO members) that have not upheld human rights and environmental standards as required under RSPO criteria.

Land grabs, violation of laws and court rulings, bulldozing people’s dwellings into creeks, selective consultation between companies and co-opted community representatives: local communities reported about all of these to monitors from the three human rights organizations who authored the report. Palm oil producers have often failed to obtain permission from communities in violation of a United Nations mandate known as free, prior and informed consent (FPIC). The destruction of the forests has also further endangered species like orangutans and Sumatran tigers.

As Norman Jiwan, director of Transformasi Untuk Keadilan Indonesia says, “Since its founding the RSPO has adopted good standards, but too many member companies are not delivering on these paper promises.”

The report has been published to coincide with the annual meeting of the RSPO in Medan, Indonesia. This city can be considered the unofficial capital of the palm oil industry. Medan is the largest city in the province of Sumatra, which is where many of Indonesian plantations, processing plants and other facilities in the palm oil supply chain are located. Indonesia is the world’s largest producer and exporter of palm oil. By 2020, it is projected that more than 10 percent of the country will be planted with palm oil trees.

Jefri Saragih, Executive Director of Sawit Watch, notes that “we can point to one or two good results on the ground.” But in reality “there are thousands of land conflicts with oil palm companies in Indonesia alone, and the problem is now spreading to other parts of Asia and Africa.”

While senior company executives may have committed to ethical practices, “too often operational managers in the field — lacking the necessary training and incentives — have failed to respond.” Marcus Colchester, Senior Policy Analyst of Forest Peoples, points out that many governments still have laws that “deny or ignore indigenous peoples’ and communities’ land rights.” Global investors, retailers, manufacturers and traders must all, he emphasizes, “insist on dealing in conflict-free palm oil, and national governments must up their game and respect communities’ rights.”

The need for developing sustainable practices for producing palm oil is more than obvious. Indonesia is currently ranked third in the world for carbon dioxide emissions; deforestation and destruction of the nation’s peatlands are some of the main reasons for this. Palm oil has been touted for health benefits but these are questionable. Companies must implement the ethical pledges they sign on to because, in the words of Colchester of Forest Peoples, RSPO was meant not to be “a marketing ploy” but “to represent a wholehearted dedication to respecting the lives and livelihoods of indigenous peoples and local communities, and the lands that they call home.”

Photo from Thinkstock


Jim Ven
Jim Ven3 years ago

thanks for the article.

Carrie-Anne Brown

thanks for sharing :)

Patricia O.
P o5 years ago

One of our largest grocery chains recently proudly announced they had artificial flavours and colours removed from a lot of their organic and certain brand products. I thought great, now I can buy those appetizers for seasonal parties and not have to labor so much. Not until I was ready to pop them in the oven did I notice the addition of PALM OIL. Sneaky.

Donna Ferguson
Donna F5 years ago


Wong Jowo
Wong Jowo5 years ago

Mark Donner: You're dead wrong.
I'm the son of poor palm oil farmer. My dad worked hard and broke his back, to send me & my siblings to schools and universities.

Do contact me, I can show you around and see for yourself how people around me use the income from palm oil to escape poverty and dare to dream to live like modern people in the developed countries.

Do you think you can survive hard labor in the blazing tropical sun, to earn a living for USD2/day?

Mark Donner
Mark Donner5 years ago

Wong J: It's so obvious you're working as a propaganda enabler for the Palm Oil criminals who are wiping out the tropical forests of Asia, wiping out the earth and all its biodiversity and wildlife, you cannot succeed in criminal excuses by pointing bloody fingers at others. You have NO ethical ground to stand on and your propaganda won't work here. Go back to your greedy tyrannical bosses and tell them the propaganda you were paid to spew failed to convince anyone. The palm oil gang are simply a criminal mafia who will get the Karma they deserve and eventually die, if not by their own hands, by the civilized world who will smash and bankrupt you and your masters and send the criminals of Indonesia to their rightful place.

Wong Jowo
Wong Jowo5 years ago

Palm Oil is the world's most efficient crop, producing 10x times more yields per hectare than its closest contender; soy, canola, rapeseed, etc. Not supporting Palm Oil also means, the same land will be used for other crops that are less productive and even more damaging to the environment. Realistically speaking, there's no better alternative crops than Palm Oil.

The World Bank after exhaustive research, realised its mistake and reverted back its decision to fund Palm Oil programs, because its proven to eradicate poverty and raise the living standard of poor tropical countries in ASEAN, Africa, LATAM, etc.

Any "PR for profit" NGOs such as Greenpeace should have realised the axiom, that everything beneficial has tradeoffs that must intelligently and not emotionally calculated.

The World Bank and RSPO as a multi-stakeholder organisation are still the best venue to advance causes for the poor farmers and the environment, until something better comes along.

Dave C.
David C5 years ago

sadly noted....

chrisitne Olle
christine olle5 years ago

palm oil is an ecological disaster and no one is listening..................

JO MUNZ5 years ago

Go to ORANGUTANS -- MEN OF THE FOREST on Care2 website -- engage and learn -- how NOT to buy palm oil products -- what to look out for -- the many names that PALM OIL goes by -- if the markets rise up and raise hell against these products, the corporations will HAVE TO change! Someone has to make them change!