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.
A new report by the Environmental Investigation Agency and Grassroots exposes serious problems in the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil's certification system.
Auditing firms that are supposed to monitor palm oil companies' operations are colluding with the companies to hide violations.
The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was set up in 2004 following a series of meetings between WWF and palm oil companies. According to WWF, "One of the huge successes of the Roundtable is the development of a certification system for sustainable palm oil."
There's no mention of the fires that engulf Indonesia every dry season. There are no interviews with workers forced to work in conditions of modern-day slavery.
Instead, we watch a series of graphics, with WWF's voice-over telling us that RSPO's certification system helps to protect nature and people. It guarantees fair working conditions. It upholds indigenous peoples' rights to their land. Clearing rainforest is forbidden. Areas rich in biodiversity and endangered species are protected.
WWF explains that "qualified independent certifiers inspect each plantation to ensure that they meet these standards." Anyone who feels there has been a violation of RSPO's standards can file a complaint. If WWF's version of events sounds too good to be true, that's because it is.
Who watches the watchmen?
The new report by EIA and Grassroots finds that "Auditing firms are fundamentally failing to identify and mitigate unsustainable practices by oil palm firms.
"Not only are they conducting woefully substandard assessments but the evidence indicates that in some cases they are colluding with plantation companies to disguise violations of the RSPO Standard. The systems put in place to monitor these auditors have utterly failed."
The report is titled, 'Who watches the watchmen? Auditors and the breakdown of oversight in the RSPO', and includes a series of case studies that highlight the failures in the RSPO system. The case studies identify the following problems:
- auditors providing fraudulent assessments that cover up violations of the RSPO Standard and Procedures;
- auditors failing to identify indigenous land right claims;
- auditors failing to identify social conflicts arising due to abuse of community rights;
- auditors failing to identify serious labour abuses;
- auditors failing to identify risks of trafficked labour being used in
- ambiguity over legal compliance;
- auditors providing methodologically and substantively flawed HCV (High Conservation Value) assessments that will enable destruction of HCVs;
- Certification Bodies displaying weak understanding of the Standard;
- Certification Bodies providing suspect assessments in response to legitimate complaints from NGOs which fail to address the substance of the complaints;
- conflicts of interest due to links between Certification Bodies and plantation companies.
These bear more than a passing resemblance to the problems that have plagued the Forest Stewardship Council - particularly the conflicts of interest between palm oil companies and their auditors.
Oversight of RSPO is provided by NGOs and communities
EIA and Grassroots found that oversight of the RSPO system is not carried out by auditors or the RSPO, but by NGOs and communities. There are currently 52 complaints in the RSPO system, but as the report points out this is likely to be the tip of the iceberg. The palm oil sectors covers millions of hectares of land across three continents, and NGOs work on limited budgets.
The way RSPO deals with complaints is not reassuring: "There is a wealth of evidence to show the complaints process has failed to provide acceptable outcomes to complainants or has held errant members to account.
"There are concerns with conflicts of interest, with companies that have been subject to complaints joining the Complaints Panel even while the problems raised remain unresolved. Some complaints have dragged on for five or more years without resolution."
The report notes that auditors have made matters worse through further substandard assessments and conflicts of interest.
In October 2012, EIA made a formal complaint against a subsidiary of RSPO member First Resources Ltd. The subsidiary, PT Borneo Surya Mining Jaya, was clearing land belonging to the community of Muara Tae in East Kalimantan. The conflict between the palm oil company and the villagers has still not been resolved.
RSPO's Complaints Panel commissioned a field review that confirmed EIA's allegations. But until the Complaints Panel had upheld EIA's complaint, PT BSMJ continued clearing forests and encroaching on community territories. Meanwhile, the head of sustainability at First Resources has been allowed to become a member of the RSPO Complaints Panel.
EIA Forest Campaigner Tomasz Johnson says: "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."
This report exposes an unfortunate truth: the world's only global palm oil certification system - meant to ensure ensure sustainability, human rights, labour standards, respect for the law and environmental protection in the sector - does no such thing.