The first shipment of certified sustainable palm oil is due to arrive in Rotterdam any day now for a company called United Plantations. But our investigations on the ground in Indonesia reveal that United Plantations' operations are far from sustainable. In fact, they fail to meet the already inadequate criteria established by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO - its a bit of a mouthful), and the certification, in this instance, looks like little more than a bit of marketing lubrication for the industry.
We've been pushing the RSPO for some time now to implement its currently weak standards and to make standards tougher moving forward - not least by ensuring that its members stop clearing vast areas of forest and peatland. For example, the criteria of this voluntary initiative is weak at preventing the development of plantations on peatlands even though these same peatlands are one of the largest carbon stores on earth and their protection is crucial in the fight against climate change.
In August, United Plantations was the first company to be certified by the RSPO. While the certification only applies to their Malaysian operations, all of their operations, including those in Indonesia need to meet certain minimum standards, through the so called 'partial certification' process. Environmental groups pushed for this condition so that big companies couldn't certify a showcase plantation to woo buyers, while trashing forests and peatlands on their other lands.
And lo and behold, our investigation team discovered United Plantations doesn't comply with the key standards around partial certification on its Indonesian estates. Our evidence shows that the company is embroiled in illegal practices, including deep peat conversion and land disputes to name but a few issues.
You can read our full 12-page report here (pdf), but I've summarised the highlights for you below to give you an idea how much further we have to go to get sustainable palm oil - and why we are calling on the RSPO to support a moratorium on forest and peatland clearing.
Failed - compliance with local law
Our field investigations found that a subsidiary of United Plantations has been clearing peatlands, including some as deep as three metres in Runtu village. Indonesian law doesn't allow development or degradation of peatland any deeper than two metres. Operations have also failed to respect conservation areas around lakes and additionally there are irregularities in their planning permits and documentation.
Failed - mutually agreed resolutions where land disputes exist
Four community members from Runtu village in Kalimantan have been jailed allegedly for their opposition to land clearing activities by a United Plantations subsidiary. The RSPO rules for partial certification require that a mutually agreed resolution takes place when such disputes happen - their imprisonment indisputably shows that significant land conflicts still exist in palm oil concessions owned by United Plantations.
Failed - speedy plan for full certification
The RSPO requires companies that go for partial certification to have in place an "adequately ambitious and realistic" plan for certification of all their operations. While other companies such as New Britain Palm Oil have committed to achieving full certification in one to three years, United Plantations are working towards much longer timelines.
All in all it's not a good start for certified palm oil. The case shows that there are fundamental flaws within the RSPO if certified members are failing to comply with the minimum standards, and certifiers are missing key issues like land conflict and breaches of Indonesian law.
Moreover, all members of the RSPO - certified or not - should not be allowed to keep clearing forests and peatlands. The RSPO's going to have to take a tougher line if it wants to save the forests, the climate and its reputation.