Article about palm oil and the RSPO
Eco-conscious palm oil
By HILARY CHIEW, 1st January 2008
Oil palm companies are subjecting themselves to scrutiny to meet
consumer demand for eco-friendly palm oil.
PALM oil is heading for certification the first tangible sign of a
commitment towards sustainable production of the versatile yet
The first certificate is expected to be issued by the first quarter
of 2008, after the call for environmentally and socially responsible
production of the crop came five years ago.
Buyers are waiting anxiously for the certification as they have
promised to supply certified palm oil to their clients oil
refiners, food manufacturers, consumer goods producers, retailers and
even biofuel plant operators who in turn have set deadlines to
phase out the use of palm oil from uncertified sources.
A worker inspecting oil palm fruits at a factory in Sepang, Selangor.
Efforts are now being made to certify palm oil as being sustainably
Environmental campaigns in the West linking palm oil production to
orang utan extinction, peat fires and displacement of indigenous
communities have resulted in consumer boycotts of supermarket chains
and demand for sustainable palm oil.
The march towards biodiesel production using palm oil has also met
with warnings that the so-called green fuel could be a net emitter of
greenhouse gases and accelerate, instead of stalling, climate change.
There is also concern that the biofuel rush could come at the expense
of food production, given that palm oil is the world's most important
At the recently-concluded fifth meeting of the Roundtable on
Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) in Kuala Lumpur, the verification and
implementation mechanisms of the certification system were presented
to some 500 participants from 30 countries representing major players
in the palm oil supply chain, from growers to retailers, banks,
investors, and pressure groups from environmental and developmental
The certification process will authenticate growers' claims that
their products are derived from plantations that follow the Principle
and Criteria (P&C) set by the initiative. It will also enable
manufacturers to assure consumers of product "traceability" through
Palm oil is the most popular vegetable oil in the world commodity
market, with 37 million tonnes produced last year. With its
membership accounting for almost 40% of palm oil production and
utilisation in the world, RSPO is regarded as an influential force
for sustainable palm oil.
But several issues remain unresolved after five years of
deliberations. Expansion of oil palm estates on fragile ecosystems
and displacement of indigenous communities are two contentious issues
that divide supporters and critics of RSPO.
Indonesia overtook Malaysia as the largest oil palm producing country
with an output of 16 million tonnes last year. The area of land under
oil palm plantation in Indonesia tripled between 1995 and 2005. Close
to six million ha of plantation has been developed and millions more
A report by the Indonesian Forest Ministry and European Union states
that to meet the rising world demand for palm oil from 20 million
tonnes to 40 million tonnes by 2020, some 300,000ha of new estates
will be needed each year. It added that inevitably, most new estates
would come up in wetlands, as the more desirable dry lands are
Such expansion plans are largely driven by the demand for biofuel in
rich nations. In early 2007, the European Union endorsed a minimum
target for biofuel to constitute 10% of its transport fuels by 2020.
Greenpeace has called for a moratorium on deforestation of peat swamp
forests for oil palm expansion. Its political advisor for energy
Wolfgang Richert says just like the campaign on soybean in the Amazon
which got three major traders agreeing to stop expansion in the
Brazilian rainforest, Greenpeace will continue to pressure RSPO
members to commit on this important move.
"It's crucial for RSPO to get rid of partial certification.
Otherwise, it'll just be another green-washing exercise, undermining
Richert also notes that Principle 7, which forbids new planting on
primary forests or areas of High Conservation Value from 200, is
"You can argue that most Indonesian forests are not primary forests
anymore. So, RSPO will actually (end up) certifying palm oil produced
from deforestation of secondary forests. RSPO members should commit
to develop on the millions of hectares of abandoned, degraded land
instead," he says.
Friends of the Earth (FOE) highlights that as RSPO only gives
sustainability certifications for each plantation, other plantations
in a company could remain unsustainable.
"Inevitably, palm oil companies will use a sustainability
certification to green-wash, even though it will by no means
guarantee that the company is guilt-free of environmental and social
violations. The RSPO must refuse to certify palm oil coming from any
company still involved in destructive palm oil production," said Paul
de Clerck, FOE corporate campaigns co-ordinator.
FOE Europe chapter is campaigning against the EU biofuel policy,
cautioning that the demand for palm oil will drive conversion of
forests to plantations on a scale far beyond what the RSPO could
guarantee is sustainable. It has called for a moratorium on European
financial subsidies and targets that encourage the development and
production of large-scale biofuels.