Press release: Palm Oil Certification: Not ‘Out of the Woods’

Milieudefensie worked with a team of researchers to investigate the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) stakeholder consultation processes. We report on general findings and a case study on the current certification process of Socfin, a Luxembourg-based plantation company, in West Africa. We found critical gaps in the RSPO practices and policies of consultation processes, which undermine the credibility of the certificates.

According to RSPOs own rules, a positive certification decision and labelling of the palm oil as ‘sustainable’ should be based on the information provided by relevant stakeholders, such as the communities affected by the plantations. If there is no meaningful consultation, the certificate becomes empty and can greenwash destructive practices that are systemic in the agro-commodities sector.

Milieudefensie therefore calls upon Dutch and European lawmakers and financial institutions  that develop due diligence legislation or procedures to avoid using certification as a proxy for due diligence. Due Diligence is generally understood as the process for businesses to identify, prevent, mitigate, and account for the actual or potential adverse impacts of their global activities and value chains and remediate the negative impacts. Legislators should prevent below standard and ‘tick the box’ consultation processes – such as the RSPO consultation process – from being incorporated into legislation.

Based on the research, we conclude that RSPO consultation has fundamental gaps in its policies and practices for consultations during the certification process, including:

  1. The RSPO process represents a discrepancy between overly ambitious standards and lack of methodical guidance, leading to methodological weaknesses during consultation, resulting in a gap between the norm and practice.
  2. Sampling of relevant stakeholders to consult during audits does not meet its purpose. Communities and companies report that auditors do not always visit relevant affected communities who live adjacent to relevant sites — communities who may have been evicted.
  3. RSPO indicators for assessing FPIC are predominantly process-indicators and rely almost exclusively on paper-based assessments. In practice, company documents collected by the auditors are referred to more than information from the local population.
  4. Proper audits and consultation on social and human rights issues require a lot of time, which is not available to the auditors.
  5. Considering that national and international NGOs have been crucial for local communities to flag grievances or dissent, failing to include these parties in audit consultations misses the mark of meaningful consultation. This appears to happen often during the RSPO audits.
  6. Participants do not always have a safe space to share concerns as harassment and reprisals continue to occur.
  7. Sufficient human rights knowledge is often lacking among auditors in RSPO certification processes.

The Socfin case study of RSPO consultation processes in four countries in West Africa (Nigeria, Cameroon, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast) corroborates these findings. Conflicts over land and human rights violations remain undetected by the auditors. Also, intimidation upfront and after the audit, or a general climate of fear and oppression, prevents stakeholders to participate. We question the ability to understand and assess complex historical land conflicts, that often stem from colonial times, in the scope of a few hours during the audit. In the Socfin case study, several groups of relevant stakeholders were excluded, such as villages with land rights conflicts and groups that were seen as ‘anti-company’. The independence of the audit was affected by company representatives presence during the community consultation sessions and the auditors were driven around in company vehicles, were lodged by the company. One community send the auditors away because of lack of trust in the audit process.

Milieudefensie works with civil society partners in Europe and from the plantation countries to support communities in the Socfin certification process and document harms in the plantations to achieve redress for the local communities and indigenous peoples.