Palm Oil

Palm oil supply chains: community leaders demand action on human rights violations and land grabs

EU-Parliament-Indigenous and civil society leaders, visiting Europe from across the world, have called for urgent action to stop human rights abuses linked to palm oil supply chains and to bring an end to land grabs by plantation owners.

The delegates from Peru, Colombia, Indonesia, and Liberia, who were on an eight-day tour of key European capitals, pressed for stronger EU regulation of palm oil supply chains.

They called on the EU and its member states to strengthen the regulation of financial institutions and private sector companies involved in the agribusiness sector “to ensure legality, including compliance with national and international human rights and environmental protection laws”.

The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) meanwhile released new evidence about the involvement of European institutions in financing oil palm plantations on illegally deforested lands.

The visiting delegates joined with a wide coalition of indigenous and civil society organisations from Europe and North America to demand that financial regulatory bodies remove United Cacao Limited SEZC from trading on the Alternative Investment Market (AIM) of the London Stock Exchange.

ROBERTGUIMARAESVASQUEZ_answer_3_xlargeRobert Guimaraes Vasquez (pictured left), a representative of the Shipibo-Conibo people in the Peruvian Amazon said: “We are demanding that the London Stock Exchange immediately halt the trading services and cancel the registration of companies that act outside of the law.”

United Cacao is alleged to have been involved in illegal deforestation, and to be guilty of human rights violations.

The EIA says that at least 11,100 hectares of forest has been illegally cleared in the Peruvian Amazon by United Cacao’s direct subsidiary, Cacao del Peru Norte, and two related companies, Plantaciones de Pucallpa and Plantaciones de Ucayali.

Violations in the palm oil sector

Agus-Sutomo-IndonesiaAgus Sutomo (pictured left), the director of the NGO Link-AR Borneo, in West Kalimantan, Indonesia, said human rights violations were being committed within the palm oil industry, which was expanding because of demand in the EU for palm oil and bioenergy.

Millions of tonnes of palm oil are imported into Europe every year.

Delegates on the European tour said that, despite efforts to regulate the palm oil industry with such initiatives as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) and the International Sustainability and Carbon Certification (ISCC) system for biomass and biofuels, the palm oil industry was failing to be accountable to affected communities.

Franky-Samperante-IndonesiaFranky Samperante (pictured left) is from Sulawesi, Indonesia, and is the founder and director of the indigenous peoples’ organisation Pusaka.

He said: “The palm oil industry has not dealt with many of the past and present violations of community rights by agribusiness developments.

“It is not enough to create voluntary certification schemes while we continue to suffer land grabs and the on-going violation of human rights.”

Samperante said the uncontrolled expansion of palm oil plantations was creating land rights conflicts and was leading to social and cultural upheaval and unprecedented environmental damage.

From April 25 to May 4, the visiting delegates spoke to members of the European Parliament and EU officials about the impacts of the palm oil industry.

Their interlocutors included the European Commission directors-general for the environment, trade, energy, climate, and development aid.

The delegates told EU decision-makers they had grave concerns about the rapid expansion, and projected increase, in the area of land slated for oil palm plantations and the production of biofuels.

Ali-Kaba-LiberiaAli Kaba (pictured left), who is the programme coordinator and a senior researcher at the Sustainable Development Institute in Liberia, said there needed to be strong and binding regulations covering the supply chains that brought palm oil and other agricultural commodities to Europe.

When indigenous people did not have secure rights to their lands, there were often land rights violations, human rights abuses, environmental damage, and poverty in communities affected by the palm oil industry, he said.

The Forest Peoples Programme (FPP), which organised the delegates’ visit to Europe, says that certification schemes like the RSPO can sometimes be useful to communities as they are often the only immediate means by which they can challenge corporate abuses and destructive plantation development.

The FPP adds, however: “In order to be more effective, certification complaints systems like that of the RSPO must be strengthened and better equipped to respond and investigate community complaints.”

According to the FPP, testimonies from communities on the ground indicate that green labelling and voluntary approaches are not adequate to provide proper redress for community grievances, and are insufficient to ensure land rights protection and full compliance with national and international human rights laws.

Sedequías-Ancon-Chávez-Peru-1Sedequías Ancón Chávez (pictured left) represents the Shipibo-Conibo people and is a member of the council of directors of the Interethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Amazon (AIDESEP), the largest organisation of indigenous Amazonian communities in Peru. He said: “We have travelled to Europe with an urgent message from our communities.

 “When listening to people from across Southeast Asia, Latin America, and Africa, we are hearing the same problems: land rights are not being respected by the palm oil industry and other agribusinesses.”

Chávez says the most effective way to protect the remaining standing forests is to support the Shipibo-Conibo people’s demands for collective legal titles to twenty million hectares of land belonging to 1,240 indigenous communities.

Willian-Aljure-PeruWillian Aljure (pictured left), who represents Communities Constructing Peace in Territories (CONPAZ) from the Mapiripan area of Colombia, said: “Our Mother Earth is weeping about the violation of our peoples’ rights and the destruction of our environment.”

Referring to the delegates’ visit to a European palm oil refinery, Aljure said: “The smoke from this refinery represents the blood of our families that has been spilt at the hands of the paramilitaries, and the suffering that is now being inflicted by the palm oil industry.”

Aljure said the delegates were calling for international solidarity and were demanding proper investigation of investments and plantation operations in the palm oil sector that were harming indigenous and other local communities.

Abuses needed to be properly sanctioned, he said, and this needed to include reparation for historical injustices. “You cannot separate human rights from environmental damage,” he said.

Robert Guimaraes Vasquez says Peru has the fourth highest rate of murders of human rights and land defenders in the world. Community leaders who are speaking out against the palm oil industry face grave dangers to their security, he says, and need protection.

United Cacao

EIA says United Cacao began raising funds on the AIM in December 2014, despite ongoing Peruvian government actions to sanction its subsidiary, related companies, and their employees for breaking Peruvian laws governing forests and agriculture.

United Cacao’s CEO, Dennis Melka, controls a network of at least 25 corporate entities based in Peru.

The EIA´s programme director in Peru, Julia Urrunaga said: “The illegalities, abuses, and forest destruction perpetrated by Dennis Melka’s companies in the Peruvian Amazon have been public for years.

“In spite of the Peruvian government having ordered the companies to stop operations and comply with the law, they continue to systematically violate Peruvian laws and ignore the Peruvian authorities.”

The agency published a detailed briefing, including dozens of primary source documents from Peruvian government bodies that the EIA says contradict claims made by United Cacao and reveal serious omissions of relevant information.

In April, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), which has its headquarters in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur, ordered Plantaciones de Pucallpa to stop operations immediately.

In a complaint brought by the indigenous community of Santa Clara de Uchunya and supported by the Federation for Native Communities of the Ucayali Region (FECONAU), the Institute for Legal Defense (IDL) and the FPP, it is stated that “the company has allegedly been clearing community lands and destroying natural forests without any reference to RSPO standards”. Plantaciones de Pucallpa is also alleged to have planted oil palm on the native customary land of the indigenous community of Santa Clara de Uchunya.

In a preliminary decision sent to Plantaciones de Pucallpa on April 25, the RSPO cited evidence that the company had violated indigenous rights and was in non-compliance with multiple Peruvian environmental standards.

Aerial imagery and official government reports shows that Plantaciones de Pucallpa has felled more 5,200 hectares of mostly primary forest since January 2013. “Fire is being used to burn cleared timber and other vegetation. Valuable timber resources have also being sold,” the complaint states.

Community testimony reveals that Plantaciones de Pucallpa acquired rights to the area in question without any process of engagement or free, prior, and informed consent from the community.

“Furthermore, the company has been clearing extensive areas of forest without any engagement with the local communities, laying waste to large areas of forest which the communities use for hunting, fishing and gathering and as a source of medicinal plants and materials for construction, killing local wildlife, and destroying their vital habitats.”

Community testimony also reveals that waste materials are being dumped into the water system and all the main streams in the affected lands are no longer fit for drinking and fishing.

Official investigations conducted by the ministry of agriculture determined that Plantaciones de Pucallpa had failed to secure the relevant permits required for forest clearance or to conduct the relevant social and environmental impact assessments. The ministry consequently ordered the suspension of the company’s operations.

The complainants allege that government representatives have been threatened by company representatives.

The complainants further state that, despite the suspension order, Plantaciones de Pucallpa has been promoting the incursion and invasion of third parties in forested areas in places adjacent to the land cleared by Plantaciones de Pucallpa with the objective of subsequently acquiring these areas.

“This has resulted in the national indigenous peoples’ organisation (AIDESEP) calling for the suspension of all oil palm operations in Peru until contradictions and loopholes in the legal framework are resolved and for the Congressional Commission of the Amazon and Ecology to establish a high level national taskforce to address the issue of large-scale agribusiness and social conflict.”

The complaint to the RSPO further states that Plantaciones de Pucallpa is part of a wider network of companies in Peru known locally as “los Malaios” (the Malays), which appear to be owned by the same proprietors.

“It has not been possible to identify the full ownership structure of the company and the exact nature of its links to Malaysian companies as many of these companies are registered in offshore tax havens, which require limited disclosure of company information.

“Nevertheless, as a result of the company’s own declarations to the RSPO, as well as NGO investigations, it appears that these companies are connected to Asian Plantations which, in 2014, was bought by FELDA Global Ventures, a founder member of the RSPO.”

Rose Davis from the EIA said: “If AIM and UK financial regulators do not investigate and sanction United Cacao, they will be sending a signal that UK markets are a profitable place to bet against law enforcement, environmental sustainability, and human rights in countries like Peru.”

Growing awareness

The FPP said EU decision-makers had invited the delegates to submit further testimonies.

There is, the FPP says, a growing awareness among EU citizens of the way forests and communities are being destroyed by the production of conflict palm oil.

There is an increasingly loud call for EU and member state regulators to take decisive regulatory action in response to this call for a clean-up in agribusiness supply chains, the FPP says.