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