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Greenpeace International’s newly published report Burning Down the House shows that 21 of the 30 palm oil producer groups most strongly associated with Indonesia’s ongoing fires crisis are (in whole or part) members of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). Collectively these RSPO members and their associates account for three-quarters of the fire hotspots detected in the plantation concessions of all 30 groups in the first nine months of 2019.

In response to these new figures, the RSPO has repeated previous claims that RSPO concessions account for a much lower percentage of hotspots – just 0.4% – over a ‘snapshot’ period of 10­–16 September.

It is not surprising that the RSPO’s figure is lower, for the following reasons:

1. Sample period: A sample period of one week is misleading and too brief to provide reliable understanding of the relationship between RSPO member land holdings and fires.

2. Scope: The RSPO counted all fire hotspots including those not located within palm oil concessions – ie also including those on agricultural land and in pulp plantations, which are strongly associated with fires. Greenpeace International on the other hand, has ‘zoomed in’ to analyse hotspots occurring on land controlled by the 30 palm oil producer groups most strongly associated with Indonesia’s ongoing fires crisis (the ‘top 30’).

In the period studied by Greenpeace, about a fifth of hotspots were in palm oil concessions, and just over a third of those were accounted for by the ‘top 30’ – around 7% of all hotspots in the period; RSPO member-linked concessions within the ‘top 30’ accounted for about 5% of all hotspots in Indonesia.[1]

3. Group-level maps: Most importantly, many producer groups have only partial RSPO membership and fail to declare to the RSPO all, or even most, of their linked companies and concessions. These groups are blatantly disregarding the RSPO’s rule requiring group-level membership, a rule the RSPO appears unwilling to enforce. As a result the RSPO does not take account of (and may not even know) the full extent of its members’ plantation land interests. Its fire hotspot figures are fundamentally underestimated due to this incomplete understanding.

The RSPO has failed to acknowledge the weakness of its governance or to address the scandalous finding that its members account for a large majority of producers most associated with the fires crisis. Instead it has preferred to put up a smokescreen, claiming that Greenpeace ‘misses the mark’ by basing its report ‘on the assumption that the RSPO hotspot monitoring is based off our public facing GeoRSPO’, which it describes as a ‘transparency tool’, rather than on a range of other tools that it claims to use for internal monitoring, reporting and verifying, supposedly including complete concession mapping.

While it is true that Greenpeace’s new report assumes that the RSPO’s own low figure is ‘based on the incomplete concession data in the RSPO’s own Geo-RSPO platform’, the figures that the Greenpeace report itself presents are in no way dependent on this assumption, being derived from Greenpeace’s own analysis of government and other public data. It is therefore nonsense to say that the report is ‘based on’ a mis-assumption regarding the RSPO’s methodology. Indeed if, as the RSPO claims, it bases its figures on a set of tools and data that it regards as more complete than those in its public domain GeoRSPO platform, then the shortfall in its data for hotspots in members’ concessions is all the more disturbing and only serves to emphasise how out of touch the organisation is with the reality of its members’ contribution to the fires crisis.

For example, Wilmar International, an RSPO board member is still supplied by producer groups legally responsible for nearly 8,000 fire hotspots during the first nine months of 2019, as well as more than 140,000 ha of burned land between 2015 and 2018. And Unilever, also an RSPO board member, is linked to 27 of the ‘top 30’ groups most associated with fires and is supplied by eight plantation companies with court actions or sanctions against them and 20 companies whose operations have been sealed for investigation as a result of the 2019 fires.

Greenpeace’s report comes hard on the heels of a report by the Environmental Investigation Agency and Grassroots, which found ‘Violations of the RSPO’s Standard and procedures remain systemic and widespread’. Such findings call into question the value of ‘certified sustainable palm oil’ as it cannot guarantee sustainability and cannot address the climate crisis we are facing now. 

Given the RSPO’s claimed commitment to transparency, it is time for the organisation to ensure its members come clean. This starts by making public maps of all member-linked concessions and mills, enabling independent scrutiny and review of its members. RSPO should also urgently publish and enforce standardised protocols for data used in monitoring, reporting and verification – notably for concession boundaries and mills maps, and including consistent attribute information on ownership or control.  

The bottom line is that consumer companies like Unilever and Mondelez cannot rely on the RSPO or other certification standards to meet their 2020 commitments to ensure supply chains are deforestation-free. They need to limit their use of commodities like palm oil, soya and beef to what they can publicly demonstrate does not come from groups responsible for forest or other environmental destruction, or – if they are unwilling or unable to do what is needed to fix the global commodities trade – they must instead avoid such high-risk commodities entirely.  

Greenpeace International stands by the data and analysis presented in its report.

Notes:

[1] Indonesia total FHS for the period 1 January – 30 September: 145,275;

In oil palm concessions: 28,471 (~20%);

In the top 30 oil palm groups: 9,960 (7%);

RSPO member-linked concessions in the top 30 group: 7,427.