The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), which has been accused of having critical deficiencies in its monitoring system, said yesterday that it was taking these claims very seriously and was working to improve its auditing procedures.
In a report entitled “Who Watches the Watchmen?”, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), which is based in Britain and the United States, said it had found some RSPO auditors to be “woefully substandard”.
In some cases, auditors had colluded with plantation companies to disguise violations of RSPO standards, the report – which the EIA produced in partnership with the Malaysian non-profit organisation Grassroots – stated. “The systems put in place to monitor these auditors have utterly failed.”
There was also evidence of auditors failing to identify indigenous land right claims and of social conflicts arising because of an abuse of community rights, the EIA stated.
Auditors, the agency added, had failed to identify serious labour abuses and the risks of trafficked labour being used in plantations.
The report’s conclusions are based on nine case studies.
At the 13th annual roundtable conference, taking place in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, RSPO secretary-general Darrel Webber (pictured left) said the RSPO had, several years ago, recognised the need to improve its monitoring systems and was now working with Accreditation Service International (ASI). “We are very happy to get this kind of professionalism on board,” he said.
The RSPO, he said, had suspended some auditors who were not doing their jobs properly, and had terminated its relationship with others.
The roundtable, Webber added, was now working with the High Conservation Value Resource Network, which was taking the lead on the training and licensing of auditors.
“We recognise the issues and we have been taking steps in the past. We haven’t yet fixed all of it, but we will definitely fix it gradually over time.”
There is a severe lack of good auditors, Webber says. “This is a challenge for us. How do we get good, honest auditors on the ground?”
The RSPO is now working with two universities in Malaysia to develop courses on auditing sustainability standards.
The roundtable said in a statement that it reaffirmed its commitment to transparency and open dialogue with all stakeholders willing to address the sustainability challenges of palm oil production.
“It takes very seriously the claims contained in the EIA report, and welcomes it as an opportunity for intensifying this dialogue, and further improving its certification system.”
The EIA report questions the ability of the RSPO’s auditors to certify the correct application of the roundtable’s principles and criteria by palm oil growers, protect primary forests and other High Conservation Value (HCV) areas, and prevent land-grabbing and other abuses against local communities and palm oil workers.
There was evidence, the EIA said, of auditors providing “methodologically and substantively flawed HCV assessments that will enable destruction of HCVs”.
The failings demonstrated by auditors are systemic, the EIA says. “They betray not only a lack of competence, but, more commonly, a lack of intent to identify shortcomings and hold companies to the standards of the RSPO. The reaction of certification bodies to evidence of violations suggests an unwillingness to address them, let alone understand how internal procedural failings occurred.”
The establishment of the Assessors Licensing Scheme in 2014 and the appointment of ASI to regulate certification bodies were likely to bring some improvements to the system, the EIA said, and, this year, the RSPO also began consultations on a new, more detailed draft of its New Planting Procedure. “However, structural and systemic problems persist.”
The RSPO said it believed that the nine case studies presented by the EIA, however serious, could not lead to a general dismissal of the RSPO certification system.
“ASI provides independent third-party accreditation to the RSPO’s certification programme and conducts regular assessments of certification bodies, including both office and field witness verifications,” the RSPO added in its statement.
ASI is working with the RSPO and the certification bodies to improve the current system and will conduct a series of compliance assessments in 2016.
In 2016, the RSPO will implement an auditor registry in partnership with ASI “to ensure better oversight of RSPO auditors”.
The RSPO and ASI are, meanwhile, reviewing the case studies analysed by the EIA.
In one case study, an investigation by ASI found that PT Mutagung Lestari and Control Union Malaysia – the auditors responsible for assessing Federal Land Development Authority (FELDA) mills for RSPO certification – had failed to identify abusive labour practices.
“ASI found major weaknesses in the audits carried out by both PT Mutuagung Lestari and Control Union,” the EIA stated. In both cases, the auditors had failed to consider areas of potential environmental and social risk in smallholding, and FELDA was not compliant with a range of significant RSPO principles that had “not been appropriately evaluated”. These related to the use of pesticides, the training of staff and contractors, social impact assessments, and workers’ rights.
The EIA says another case study shows how PT Borneo Surya Mining Jaya (PT BSMJ), a subsidiary of the RSPO member First Resources Ltd, failed to obtain free, prior, and informed consent from residents of the village of Muara Tae in East Kalimantan, Indonesia, before starting to clear their land.
An HCV assessment and social and environmental impact assessment for the concession were produced by assessors from the Bogor Agricultural Institute and were verified as RSPO compliant by a certification body, TUV NORD Indonesia, the EIA states.
“The documents claimed that all local people’s land within the concession had been identified and land had been acquired by PT BSMJ through a process of free, prior and informed consent. The documents also claimed that PT BSMJ was not yet operational.
“In fact, PT BSMJ had already begun clearing land at the time the assessments took place. It had encroached on land belonging to the community of Muara Tae without its consent and stoked a conflict with the village that continues to this day.”
The ASI stated recently that, of the nine cases, two related to a certification body whose accreditation for the RSPO program was terminated in 2014. One had already been investigated by ASI and one was currently under assessment.
“All other cases have already been logged and will be accounted for in ASI’s 2016 assessment planning,” the accreditation service said.
Developing action plans
At yesterday’s opening of the roundtable conference, the co-chairman of the RSPO, Biswaranjan Sen (pictured left), said that the recent fires and pollution crisis in Indonesia, which affected neighbouring countries as well, brought home the need for governments, civil society and the oil palm industry to work collaboratively, “to address the challenges and problems facing this industry: the problems of deforestation, the problems of peatland destruction and the challenges of creating a positive social and economic impact for people associated with this industry”.
For months, until the monsoon rains arrived in early November, huge fires raged through vast areas of forest on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo.
Thousands of hectares of forest have been destroyed, there have been fatalities, and at least half a million people have been suffering from respiratory illnesses because of the pollution.
This year’s fires have been described by conservation scientist Erik Meijaard as “probably the biggest global environmental disaster of the 21st century”. They were exacerbated by the effects of the El Niño weather phenomenon, which caused a prolonged dry season in Indonesia.
Most of the fires were on peatland, which should be protected, but has been drained, mostly to make way for oil palm plantations. Once dried out, the peat is extremely inflammable. The fires burn underground and are very hard to extinguish.
There are those who believe that the solution is to walk away from the problem, Sen said, “to sell products without palm oil”. This, Sen said, was naïve. “The solution is not to walk away from the problems. The solution lies in the sustainable farming of palm oil.”
The RT13 conference, Sen said, is seeking to develop specific regional and platform-wide action plans to enable the goal of making sustainable palm oil the norm in the industry.
There had been a nine percent increase in the “global certified area”, mostly in Malaysia and Indonesia, Sen said. Another 30,000 hectares had been certified in the rest of Asia, and there had been a 37 percent increase in the certified area in Africa.
In his official address, Seri Mohd Bakke Salleh, the president and group CEO of the palm oil multinational Sime Darby, said people burned forest because it was the cheapest way to clear land. Sime Darby, he said, had had a zero burning policy since 1985 “because we value the environment, because we value air quality, because we value the health of our people; because the cost of being cheap is too high”.
Salleh added: “We may practice zero burning, but we are surrounded by people who don’t.” Sime Darby was therefore committed to, where possible, “looking and acting beyond its boundaries”.
The company, he said, was committed to working with all stakeholders “to ensure a fire-safe zone moving progressively beyond our boundaries for up to a five-kilometre radius”.
Sime Darby, Salleh said, would commit resources to assist in a multi-stakeholder effort to delve into the causes of the annual haze.
Salleh also announced that Sime Darby had launched Open Palm, a new dashboard that will enable customers to trace the origin of the Sime Darby palm oil they are buying.
Currently, the RSPO has 57 grower members, accounting for a total certified production area of 2,656,894 hectares. There are 22 approved certification bodies working with the RSPO worldwide.
More conference coverage to follow.