Sustainable palm oil is still a distant dream, despite the WWF's RSPO trademark

It will take a lot more effort to stop orangutans and other animals from losing their habitats

Belinda Ng |

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Officials transferring a Sumatran orangutan from a palm oil plantation to a safer location in Geulagang Gajah village, in Southwest Aceh Regency, Indonesia.

Last year, there was shocking footage of an orangutan’s futile attempts to fight off a bulldozer in Indonesia. This put the spotlight on the rapid deforestation of Southeast Asia caused by the palm oil industry. 

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was formed in 2004 by the global conservation body WWF and other key stakeholders to set the standard for “sustainable palm oil”. And in 2011, the RSPO trademark was launched. But the clearing of jungles hasn’t stopped and there are problems with the visibility of the RSPO  logo on supermarket shelves. All this is proof that there is still a long way to go before sustainable palm oil becomes a reality.

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RSPO certification involves an independent body assessing palm oil plantations according to certain criteria. These standards include respecting the community and human rights, minimising erosion and soil degradation, and preventing forests being burned to prepare land for palm oil cultivation. This is particularly important in Southeast Asia, where land is often cleared by human-induced fires. Violation of these principles will result in palm oil companies being suspended from RSPO membership. 

One problem with the RSPO is the argument that it remains a corporate cover-up for destructive forest practices. A 2018 Greenpeace report named companies – including RSPO members Johnson & Johnson and Kraft-Heinz – who refused to publish the producers they source their palm oil from.

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In fact, it was only in a 2013 amendment of RSPO guidelines that deforestation was banned, a change that seemingly comes years too late given the statistics about rapid habitat loss for wildlife in the region’s tropical rainforests. 

From a consumer’s point of view, the RSPO certification is not as recognisable as fair trade, where we know higher prices will go towards the farmers and sustainable production practices. It seems that the RSPO is merely a label; in terms of who is adopting it and how it is being used to improve conditions in plantations, it will take a lot more effort to stop orangutans and other animals from losing their habitats.

Edited by M. J. Premaratne