Palm oil: it’s covered in greenwash

The handiwork of Sinar Mas, an RSPO member © Greenpeace/Rante

The handiwork of Sinar Mas, an RSPO member © Greenpeace/Rante

Jakarta is already a hazy blot on the horizon and we’re now sailing towards Sumatra, the sixth largest island in the world and home to highly endangered species such as Sumatran tigers, Sumatran rhinos and of course orang-utans. It’s extremely unlikely we’ll stumble across any of those but there’s no doubting what we will see – extensive areas of oil palm and pulpwood plantations where the forests and peatlands used to be.

And we cross the equator tomorrow morning. Given the experience of pollywogs on previous Greenpeace expeditions which have crossed the line, I’m a little apprehensive about what lies in store…

Speaking of palm oil, you may have already heard of an organisation called the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil and from the name, you might think that the whole problem with palm oil was, if not sorted, then at least in hand. Of course, if that were the case we wouldn’t have gone to the trouble of bringing the Esperanza to Indonesia to protest about the ongoing destruction of the forests at the hands of the palm oil industry.

Established in 2001, the RSPO was designed to set clear ethical and ecological standards for producing palm oil, so no one would have their land stolen from them or have their forests demolished. The RSPO’s own website lays out the problem:

“…there is serious concern that not all palm oil is being produced sustainably at present. Development of new plantations has resulted in the conversion of large areas of forests with high conservation value and has threatened the rich biodiversity in these ecosystems… The expansion of oil palm plantations have also given rise to social conflicts between the local communities and project proponents in many instances.”

Over the years, the list of members has grown so it now includes familiar global brand names such as Unilever, Nestle, Tesco, and Cadbury’s as well as other less well-known companies – Cargill, ADM, Duta Palma, Sinar Mas, Asian Agri and other palm oil producers and traders. Their annual meeting is being held in a few weeks’ time in Bali.

So if within the palm oil industry there’s all this awareness of the potential damage they could cause to both people and the environment, why are we still finding evidence of wholesale forest destruction? Just a couple of weeks ago, we found bulldozers belonging to Sinar Mas clearing huge tracts near Jayapura in Papua, and yet Sinar Mas is an RSPO member. There’s obviously something wrong somewhere.

That something is the basic set-up of the RSPO itself. As it currently exists, its standards and principles are too vague and weak to really do any good and, as we’ve seen, some of its members are happily chewing their way through rainforests and carbon-rich peatlands. There’s no danger of actually being penalised in any way by the RSPO, even though they’re supposed to abide by the code of conduct (pdf) which states “it is fundamental to the integrity, credibility and continued progress of the RSPO that every member supports, promotes and works towards the production, procurement and use of sustainable palm oil.” What kind of “integrity” or “credibility” does the RSPO have if it turns a blind eye when its members are clearing huge areas of forest or draining and burning peatlands?

It gets worse. The first shipments of palm oil which have been certified as ‘sustainable’ by the RSPO are due to arrive in Europe later this month from Malaysia’s United Plantations. Because the RSPO is handing out these certificates while at the same time tolerating the forest-trashing activities of Sinar Mas and friends, the organisation is really just a thick coat of greenwash for its members to coat themselves in.

We’ve been taking a good hard look behind the greenwash and there’s enough evidence in the two reports we’ve published in the last year – Cooking The Climate and Burning Up Borneo – to show the RSPO isn’t working. We also made good headway earlier this year to convince companies like Unilever that they need to do more. Never the less, part of our time in Sumatra will be spent gathering yet more evidence to show that something drastic needs to be done, like an immediate moratorium on all deforestation in Indonesia while there’s still some forest worth saving.

The Indonesian president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, is the only one who can put this moratorium in action – write to him now and tell him what he needs to do.

posted by Jamie on board the Esperanza


2 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Palm oil is a silent killer. In order to cultivate it, corporations are clearcutting old growth forests and converting the land into industrial plantations on a horrific scale. Hundreds of thousands of square acres of pristine rainforest in Indonesia and Malaysia have already been destroyed– and every living creature in these forests has been systematically killed in the process.

    One of the biggest victims of the palm oil industry is the orangutan. The forests of Borneo and Sumatra are the only place where they live, and the cultivation of palm oil has directly led to the brutal deaths of thousands of individuals as the industry expanded over the last decade.

    When rainforest is cleared, adult orangutans are usually shot on sight. These peaceful sentient beings are often beaten, burned, mutilated and tortured. And they are often eaten. Babies are torn off their dying mothers and sold on the black market as illegal pets to rich families who see them as status symbols of their wealth and power.

    Some of the luckier orangutans are confiscated and brought to sanctuaries such as the Nyaru Menteng Orangutan Rehabilitation Center, which is now home to approximately 700 orphaned and displaced orangutans– many as young as a few weeks old. The Center is run by Lone Droscher Nielsen and the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation, and is featured on Animal Planet’s series ‘Orangutan Island’.

    To learn more about the crisis facing wild orangutans because of palm oil and see how you can help protect them, please visit the Orangutan Outreach website:

    Thanks for your time and keep up the great work!

    Richard Zimmerman
    Director, Orangutan Outreach
    Reach out and save the orangutans!
    Facebook Cause:

  2. 2

    Having seen the programme on tv about the plight of the orangutans I was horrified at their treament. I know many felt as I did as a lot of money was raised for their cause as a result of the programme. The destruction of areas so important for the climate is puting all our lives in jeopardy. Those destroying the landscape and its pivotal role in our world should be taken to court and imprisoned for the destruction they are causing.Why must the whole planet suffer so that those who want to get rich quick with no thought for what they are doing MUST be made to see the destruction they loading us with.Caring for the environment and the creatures in our world are too precious for us to sit and do nothing about. Biofuels will be unsuccessful according to latest reports. We should be growing wheat not GM crops which do harm and potentially make the poorest of the world’s farmers even poorer as they would have to buy the seeds yearly, benifiting only those who cause the GM seeds to exist.
    I want my grandchildren to inherit a planet as it was designed to be not one human vandals have ruined.God help us as we certainly can do nothing without his help.

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