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Palm oil companies failing to respect local rights - reports

by Jake Lucas | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 7 November 2013 10:30 GMT

Efforts to protect the interests of forest and peat land communities have been largely ineffective, a series of studies say

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Palm oil production companies around the world have failed to effectively respect the rights and interests of people living in the forests and peat lands they cultivate, according to a new book.

Many of the companies are voluntary members of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), which stipulates, among other things, that they respect local and indigenous peoples’ legal and customary rights.

The book, based on 16 reports on the topic, suggests the RSPO has not been as effective as hoped in ensuring palm oil production companies respect those rights.

“We were rather disappointed,” said Marcus Colchester, co-author of the book and a senior policy adviser at the Forest Peoples Programme, one of the organisations behind the reports. “We were hoping to find more evidence on the ground that problems were being solved.”

Instead, he said high-ranking members of RSPO companies understood what they needed to do to comply with the standards, but that information never made its way to operational staff, who still carried out “business as usual operations on the ground.”

“They haven’t done enough to retrain themselves,” Colchester said.

In a statement in response to the book, the RSPO admitted that “companies need to go through a learning curve and the process toward becoming fully sustainable takes time.”

“The RSPO acknowledges it is not a perfect solution, but it is a solution nevertheless. Much has been achieved in a relatively short period of time,” the organisation said.

The book has been released just before the annual roundtable meeting on sustainable palm oil, to be held this November in Medan, Indonesia. During the meeting, members of the RSPO are expected to discuss how the organisation can be reformed to better achieve its goals.


Under the current agreement, when a member of the RSPO wants to cultivate land already occupied by local or indigenous people, that company is responsible for making sure those people understand their rights and then getting their permission to use their land, according to a UN mandate on “free, prior and informed consent,” or FPIC.

In many of the cases reviewed in the book, the interactions between companies and local communities did not result in communities giving effective free, prior and informed consent. Colchester and his co-authors identified a range of problems in the discussions between indigenous people and palm oil companies.

Colchester said he and the book’s other authors tried to look at all kinds of land conflicts when compiling the reports, including some they expected to end with solutions satisfactory for both companies and communities. But even some of those were disappointing. Overall, he said, “this report does challenge the main members of the RSPO to up their game.”

Mostly, the problems revolved around local peoples’ lack of or incomplete understanding of deals with palm oil companies. In some cases, companies failed to make sure everyone in the community got news of their intentions, instead dealing with just one person or a few people without the authority to decide for everyone.

The book also identifies problems with companies being unclear or unfair about compensation and not always respecting traditional land rights.

That’s not to say none of the land conflicts ended well. The first chapter of the book highlights a case in West Borneo in which a company set aside 1,000 hectares of their concession for the local communities who lived there. Carried out under the RSPO’s New Planting Procedure, many non-governmental organisations have celebrated this case as an example of how RSPO procedures can have a positive impact.


Although the RSPO, the International Finance Corporation (IFC) and the companies themselves all have grievance procedures to investigate land conflicts, Colchester said these procedures are overwhelmed by the sheer number of cases to be dealt with. Indonesia produces most of the world’s palm oil, and the government there has counted some 4,000 land conflicts with palm oil companies.

“Both the IFC and RSPO complaints mechanisms, while worthy in intent and though they have established some important precedents, lack both the mandate and the capacity to remedy the huge numbers of disputes between companies and communities,” Colchester and his co-authors wrote.

In many cases, national laws do not recognise the traditional land rights of local communities, making it difficult for them to negotiate with companies who are often given the land by the government.

The book, titled Conflict or Consent: the Oil Palm Sector at a Crossroads, was the product of collaboration between the Forest Peoples Programme, Sawit Watch, an organisation that helps local communities who have lost their livelihoods to palm oil expansion, and Transformasi Untuk Keadilan Indonesia, an Indonesian NGO that helps mitigate the negative impacts of development, among other organisations.

Colchester emphasized the importance of pressing for responsible palm oil all along the supply chain.

“A lot of the scrutiny falls on the producing companies and how they’re going about the acquisition of land,” he said. “That’s what we have focused on, but we do think the responsibility goes all the way up the supply chain.”

That includes everyone from producers to manufacturers, investors and retailers, he said, noting that “everyone has to up their game.”

Jake Lucas is an AlertNet Climate intern.

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