Ever get the feeling you’ve been had? It’s an iconic quote from a punk legend, but as with all great sayings, it can be applied in many different places. This is one example: the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, an industry talking shop if ever there was one and, like the ineffectual light-green environmental groups who “fight” for changes to government policy and send out gleeful press releases whenever a corporation promises to behave itself, the RSPO are actually making things far worse than if the public were left to their own devices. Sustainable palm oil is simply snake oil in a clever diguise: it doesn’t exist and it never will do.
Here’s how it works.
1) As a group of big businesses whose primary interest is to ensure the expansion of the lucrative palm oil industry — retailers, traders, processors, growers, investors; that sort of thing — set up a shell organisation that claims it is going to make the industry “sustainable”.
2) Call in some gullible (yes, I said “gullible”) NGOs and environmentalists and say that they can have a seat on this august, influential body if they allow business to continue as before — but they will be allowed to suggest changes to the industry providing it doesn’t affect the business model.
3) Repeatedly announce to the world, through member companies such as Sainsburys and Unilever, that agreements are being reached and work is moving on swiftly to make plantations sustainable, but that we have to give them time because this is a tough job, and there are so many products that contain this oil it is just “impossible” to do this any other way.
4) Do almost nothing for years while counting the massive profit that has been made from cheap oil being grown on recently deforested land using cheap labour.
5) After a few years say that the there are so many plantations that no more deforestation has to take place. Meanwhile the South East Asian rainforest has ceased to exist, carbon levels through wood and peat burning have boosted the greenhouse effect, and people have still not realised they have been well and truly greenwashed.
Alternatively, you could, like Meridian Foods, just take palm oil out of your products until it is sustainably produced. I’m not in the habit of promoting companies, but you have to give them credit as they didn’t even publicise the change.
The RSPO have an impressive roster of members, but it’s the board that matters, so here is their board membership, in full:
Unilever : Jan Kees Vis (massive food multinational)
WWF Malaysia : Darrel Arthur Webber (NGO — history of corporate partnerships)
Indonesian Palm Oil Producers Association (GAPKI) : Derom Bangun (growers and producers trade body)
Malaysian Palm Oil Association : Mamat Salleh (growers and producers trade body)
New Britain Palm Oil Limited : Simon Lord (Papua New Guinea’s largest oil palm plantation and milling operator)
Aarhus Karlshamn UK : Ian McIntosh (Palm Oil trade “solutions” company)
Federation of Migros Cooperatives : Robert Keller
IOI Group (Malaysia/Netherlands) : Don Grubba
Cadbury Schweppes plc : Tony Lass
WWF-Indonesia : Fitrian Ardiansyah
Oxfam International : Johan Verburg
Sawit Watch : Rudy Lumuru
HSBC Bank Malaysia Berhad : Paul Norton
FELDA : Mohd Nor Kailany
Co-operative Insurance Society : Samantha Lacey
You will notice that there is only one organisation represented on the board management that has any interest in ensuring the palm oil becomes sustainable, and that organisation is one of the most business-friendly NGOs in the world. Overall, NGOs and small growers are outnumbered three to one on the board. They will always lose in voting.
Add to this their pathetic “aspirations” as a body:
RSPO is an association created by organisations carrying out their activities in and around the entire supply chain for palm oil to promote the growth and use of sustainable palm oil through co-operation within the supply chain and open dialogue with its stakeholders.
In other words, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil is an industry body that has absolutely no intention of producing or using sustainable palm oil all the time there is more profit to be made from the type that comprises 100% of all palm oil currently being produced. Clearly they also have no intention of scrapping the use of palm oil all the time it is unsustainable.
*** UPDATE ***
A post in Tempo Magazine Indonesia (via the Dear Kitty Blog) has justified my decision to attack the RSPO:
Novi Hardianto, manager of the habitat program at the Center for Orangutan Protection (COP) said on Thursday last week (4/9) that two big palm oil companies, IOI Group and Agro Group, have cut down forests that were known to be the habitat of orangutan.
This was despite the fact that these forests were included in the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).
Not content with members refusing to keep their word, they somehow try to smooth it over in this appalling example of sycophancy:
Meanwhile, RSPO spokesperson Desi Kusmadewi said that RSPO would check out the area mentioned by Greenpeace.
“If it is true, we will give chance for the company to repair what they have done first before being removed from RSPO,” said Desi.
Repair! How can you repair the destruction of pristine ancient rainforest?!
The rest of the article makes for equally depressing reading, putting the lie to the claim that there can ever be such a thing as “sustainable” tropical forestry where governments and corporations are involved.