The 8th annual Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was held in Jakarta against the backdrop of unconstructive disagreements between its members that had marked previous conferences in 2008 and 2009.
Some NGOs have revived claims that the RSPO is just a way to justify environmental damage committed by palm oil companies. The palm oil business community thinks that the RSPO has been hijacked from a forum to find common solutions and turned into a body to judge the industry unfairly, to accuse others and to taint good names. Trust between the RSPO members has clearly deteriorated over the past few years.
Members of the RSPO, which was formed in 2004 to create more environmentally friendly and sustainable ways of producing palm oil, must follow set Principles and Criteria (P&C) to be eligible to produce Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO) products.
Early RSPO conferences from 2004 to 2007, which mainly dealt with the issues of membership, fine-tuning the P&C, setting up the organizational structure and other start-up ground rules, displayed plenty of goodwill from businesses and NGO communities.
However, there have been signs of retaliation between the business community and the NGO groups over the last two years. The highest profile example of this was the boycott by major food producers of palm oil produced by PT Sinar Mas Agro Resources and Technology (SMART) and its subsidiary over alleged violations of the P&C. RSPO members from the business community were outraged at what they called unfair and biased actions by RSPO in making an example out of SMART at the behest of the RSPO’s NGO lobby.
In response, the Indonesian palm oil business community has closed ranks by supporting the government-backed Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil (ISPO) certification body, where more than 100 ISPO requirements (basically a watered-down RSPO P&C) will be made compulsory for all palm oil growers by January next year. Malaysia is set to follow this step. Should palm oil producers from these countries — the two largest palm oil producers in the world — decide to withdraw their support from the RSPO in favor of national certification systems, they would potentially render the RSPO irrelevant.
How did a group that genuinely tried to find solutions to common problems turn into a house of old fashioned confrontations and internal bickering? As with any relationship, problems within the RSPO have been caused by poor communication. For example, the RSPO spent three years drawing up the P&C. Now, changes are being made very fast and resolutions were proposed in the General Assembly (GA) without properly following the principles of Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC). The RSPO statutes require that the final text of any resolution had to be with the members 21 days before being proposed at the GA, which is not enough time for large companies to properly digest the proposition and come up with a proper response.
Another problem is a lack of focus and unrealistic expectations of what the RSPO can achieve. While the business community is relatively unified in their objectives (high profit, good image), the NGO community is not. Most NGOs perceive the GA as a platform to advocate their programs, palm oil-related or not. Thus, a wide range of issues, some are new and half-baked, were presented at the GA with the hopes of voting for a resolution.
Currently, the contentious issue of the proposal to adopt the Green House Gases (GHG) emission draft into the RSPO’s P&C is a major concern as it is related to the use of peat land. Although no standard methodology of measurement has been agreed, NGO groups insisted on including the GHG issue into the P&C, outraging the business community who viewed it as a deal-breaking, selfish move. The palm oil industry will be forced to play catch-up with a fast-changing P&C, which may prevent them from implementing the P&C at all.
Finally, there are fundamental differences. In general, the business community thrives on negotiations, finding the middle ground and making compromises. However, the NGO community operates by following strict ideologies that cannot be compromised (e.g. either you cut down trees or you do not). This recipe for going nowhere has been brewing at the GA over the last two years in the form of bloc-voting. Instead of casting votes based on the merits of the issues, members’ votes were polarized between the business community and the NGOs. This contrasts with the voting in the GA at the 2004 to 2006 RSPOs. The business community seemed to give up or no longer care about the issues brought to the forum by the NGO bloc.
Overall, the RSPO must improve its internal communication mechanisms, and be strict on what issues it chooses to tackle, and then focus on them resolutely. The business community must accept that implementing the P&C is necessary for the common good and not just an economic burden. NGOs on the other hand must stop treating the forum as a free-for-all podium to expound all their grievances and programs. The RSPO should use more dialogue instead of voting (which is a last resort) during decision-making.
A forum is only relevant if its participants still have the function to provide a common ground accepted by all. If the RSPO fails to restore the goodwill and trust to the original levels, its members will simply slip away.
The writer is a social researcher and observer of palm oil issues.