Villagers Evacuate During Forest Fires in Sumatra. 06/23/2013 © Ulet Ifansasti / Greenpeace

The fires are back.

This last weekend, fire hotspots were again identified in Riau province in Sumatra, Indonesia, just weeks after Sumatran forest fires engulfed the region as far as Thailand in a choking haze.

But the palm oil industry's so-called sustainability organisation, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), has its head in the sand.

Analysis by Greenpeace and other NGOs has found that the majority of the fire hotspots detected in June were on peatland in palm oil, pulp and logging concession areas. The Indonesian government has identified the pulp and palm oil sectors as the lead drivers of deforestation and related GHG emissions; and furthermore the palm oil sector has a long history of illegal fire clearance.

Weeks after the first fires swept across Sumatra and after intense scrutiny from the media of some palm oil concessions, the RSPO issued a statement on 24 June saying it was launching an investigation to 'identify the member organisations that have been indicated as implicated' in the fires raging across Sumatra’s peatlands. It promised to 'take remedial actions' against companies if the fires resulted from 'negligent conduct', which would be determined by investigations to validate 'the reason behind the forest fires'.

Singapore Haze Pollution Hits All-Time High. 06/18/2013 © Ferina Natasya / Greenpeace

Identifying companies implicated

There is no indication that the RSPO is conducting a comprehensive review of its members' operations to assess whether RSPO members are implicated in the illegal use of fire or are otherwise negligent.

Instead, the RSPO chose to pursue a selective review of just five of the many companies that were reported in the news around the time of the fires.

How can a so-called sustainability organisation justify investigating just a handful of its members operations, when many more are implicated in the fires?

Assessing company involvement

The first principle of the RSPO is transparency. This includes (criterion 1.2.1) public provision of information on company operations such as concession maps. Its recent media statements suggest that the RSPO does not even have maps of its members' concessions.

At the launch of its investigation, the RSPO stated that it was requesting concession maps from the five companies it was investigating. More than two weeks later, on 11 July, the RSPO stated that only four of the five companies had submitted useable concession maps. It conceded that these maps did not align with those in the public domain such as those originating with the Ministry of Forestry or other government agencies. The maps provided by the companies seem to be restricted to the parts of concessions that have been licenced for cultivation rather than the wider concession area for which the company is responsible and which may be available for development.

The RSPO appears to have drawn its conclusions that there was little involvement by its members in the fires based on partial data.

How can RSPO company operations be monitored in the absence of a complete set of full maps of its members operations? How can the RSPO claim to be committed to transparency when it fails to ensure such data are publicly available?

Forest Fires in Sumatra. 06/23/2013 © Ulet Ifansasti / Greenpeace

Assessing company negligence

In its statement on the 24th of June, the RSPO promised to validate the reason behind any forest fires in its members’ concessions. Such validation requires field trips to the concessions themselves to identify the origin, cause and extent of the fires behind the hotspots detected by satellites and made available to mappers via NASA. Field trips are necessary to establish whether or not fire has been used as part of land clearing by the company, is the result of negligence by the company, or other causes.

The RSPO statement of 11 July commended those companies that it claimed 'took quick action to detect and quell the fires in their concessions'. This praise appears to be based solely on a NASA hotspot data within a limited area of the concessions reviewed by the RSPO. It claimed that any fires within its members concessions were extinguished within 24 hours.

By contrast, Greenpeace mapping analysis identifies multiple hotspots in virtually the same locations on a number of consecutive days, suggesting the fires either burned for several days or relit; this casts doubt on RSPO conclusions.

How can the RSPO be confident that its members are not negligent in the absence of any ground-based investigation?

So, what next?

The RSPO response to the recent reported fires in its members' concessions is inadequate. A full investigation by the RSPO would include:

  • a review of all member concessions – it would not be limited to a handful of the companies reported in the media
  • a review of companies' entire concession land base including field investigations – it would not be confined to areas where the company is hold cultivation licences.

The RSPO and its members should operate transparently and be open to scrutiny, rather than react to media scrutiny. As a priority, the RSPO must make public the full concession maps of all its members.

Given this data, Greenpeace – and undoubtedly other NGOs – offers to support the RSPO to do a proper satellite review of all its members’ concessions to assess whether there are potential fire-related issues that need further field investigation.

However, until it bans deforestation and peatland development, the RSPO cannot deny that its members are complicit in creating the conditions for this yearly environmental and health crisis.

Palm oil from Indonesia makes its way into everyday household products around the world, from biscuits to instant soup to cosmetics. Unless the RSPO takes proper steps to clean up its credentials, international brands cannot depend on the RSPO alone to ensure that the palm oil they use is not part of the problem.

Wirendro Sumargo is a Forest Campaigner at Greenpeace Southeast Asia