World Rainforest Movement

RSPO: The impossible “greening” of the palm oil business

Over the past few decades, oil palm plantations have rapidly spread throughout Asia, Africa and Latin America, where millions of hectares have already been planted and millions more are planned for the next few years. These plantations are causing increasingly serious problems for local peoples and their environment, including social conflict and human rights violations. In spite of this, a number of actors – national and international – continue to actively promote this crop, against a background of growing opposition at the local level.

It is within this context that a voluntary certification scheme has emerged – the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil- with the aim of ensuring consumers that the palm oil they consume –in foodstuffs, soap, cosmetics or fuel- has been produced in a “sustainable” manner.

Given the importance of this issue, WRM has produced a new briefing: “RSPO: The ‘greening’ of the dark palm oil business”, available at:

As the briefing states, the major flaw of the RSPO is that it tries to make sustainable what is inherently unsustainable: a product obtained from large scale monocultures of mostly alien palm trees, which have severe impacts on water, soil, wildlife, forests, livelihoods as well as on human health, provoking displacement and leading to human rights violations.

A recent Court decision in Malaysia helps to illustrate the difference between the stated aims of the RSPO and on-the-ground reality. This month, the Kayan native community of Long Teran Kanan on the Tinjar river in the Malaysian part of Borneo won an important legal battle against the Sarawak state government and IOI Pelita, a subsidiary of Malaysian oil palm producer IOI – a founding and leading member of the RSPO. (1)

The Court declared the land leases used by IOI “null and void” as they had been issued by the Sarawak state government in an illegal and unconstitutional way. In the light of this decision it is important to know that, according to IOI, the RSPO had found that the company “had acted responsibly for the management of land in Sarawak”.

The above means that, in the absence of a 12-year long legal case brought up by a local community and in the absence of a Court decision, IOI’s activities would have been “greened” by the RSPO and the communities affected would have received no compensation at all.

WRM’s briefing explains that the RSPO does not even ensure the conservation of forests. On the contrary, RSPO legalizes past, present and future destruction of all types of forests, with the exception of those defined as “primary forests” or as “high conservation value habitats”. All the others can be “sustainably” bulldozed, planted to oil palm and receive RSPO certification.

In relation to local peoples’ rights, the RSPO criteria do not ensure sufficient safeguards against the further expansion of oil palm plantations over their territories, which will deprive them of their lands and means of livelihoods, while at the same time impacting on their health.

As respects to soils, water and biodiversity, the RSPO will only serve to disguise the inevitable impacts of oil palm plantation management on these three crucial resources, while forest destruction will add further C02 emissions to climate change.

The problem with the RSPO is that it conveys the message that palm oil can be certified as “sustainable”. Confronted with that claim, the only possible response from anyone who knows something about the impacts of large-scale oil palm monocultures is that RSPO certification is a fraud.

It is quite clear that the only palm oil that could truly claim to be ecologically sustainable is the one produced by local communities in Western Africa –where oil palm is a native species- from natural palm stands. Small scale plantations outside the species’ native habitat –such as in the case of Bahia in Brazil where it is part of the culture of Afrobrazilians- have also proven to be socially beneficial and environmentally sustainable.

However, most of the oil traded internationally –even from Western Africa- comes from large-scale monoculture oil palm plantations that result in widespread social and environmental impacts. As with plantations of other trees –such as eucalyptus and pines- the problem is not the species planted but the way and scale in which they are established. To pretend that palm oil produced from such plantations can be certified as sustainable is clearly an impossible task.

(1) “Borneo natives win class action suit against Malaysian oil palm giant”, BRIMAS Media Release, 31 March 2010,, disseminated by Bruno Manser Fund, Basel / Switzerland,