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Roundtable On Sustainable Palm Oil: Snake Oil!

Posted by keith on April 28th, 2008

Palm Oil Forest Fire

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)

Vice-President I:
WWF Malaysia : Darrel Arthur Webber (NGO — history of corporate partnerships)
Vice-President II:
Indonesian Palm Oil Producers Association (GAPKI) : Derom Bangun (growers and producers trade body)
Vice-President III:
Malaysian Palm Oil Association : Mamat Salleh (growers and producers trade body)
Vice-President IV:
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.

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.

21 Responses to “Roundtable On Sustainable Palm Oil: Snake Oil!”

  1. The Sietch Blog » Roundtable On Sustainable Palm Oil: Snake Oil! Says:

    […] [Read the rest at The Unsuitablog] […]

  2. eric Says:

    Oeff, this scares the hell out of me, not because I disagree that this industry is lagging behind what it says it does, but because of the fundamentalist nature of your position.

  3. Amanda Enright Says:

    So what can we do? We can’t boycot palm oil because it is not labelled.

    Even if the western world only bought from the hypothetical ‘good’ palm oil producers, the developing world would still buy from the bad guys and the rainforest would still continue to be trashed.

    Perhaps the only glimmer of hope lies in these ‘Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation schemes’ (REDD) that look like happening post Kyoto.

  4. keith Says:


    Prevent deforestation, stop climate change, stop corporations running your world?

    Gee, I’d love to see what “moderate” environmentalism is in your book (actually it would probably be the same as that of FoE, Sierra Club, Nature Conservancy, WWF…


    — ————–


    If it’s marked as unspecific vegetable oil then don’t buy it. Tell the company you won’t buy it until they relabel, and if they don’t relabel then bite the bullet and stand by your convictions – telling the company and everyone else what you have done.

    Lead by example.


  5. Amanda Enright Says:

    Don’t worry, I have contacted more companies about palm oil than I care to remember and composed a spreadsheet of companies/products containing palm oil, which I avoid. Then I lodged a formal application to have palm oil labelled in Australia, which has sadly failed. I have written a blog about it all.

    You didn’t answer my questions – so what can we do about it and what do you think about post-Kyoto avoided deforestation payment (REDD) schemes?

  6. keith Says:

    Re. REDD — this from Andrew Mitchell via The Daily Telegraph (

    “So what’s up with REDD – reduced emissions from deforestation and degradation, to you and me?

    “The answer is, well, lost in translation.

    “If you think the parish council and a local foot path is tough, imagine trying to get 180 countries to agree to anything as complex as fixing this. Think of a steamy Amazon environment, with green fuzzy tops and roots in the ground that David Attenborough has convinced us is kind of cute. But Pedro with his chain saw needs cash and the forest is a pretty good ATM.

    “Add thousands of Pedros all armed with chain saws, with no laws anyone can enforce, hell bent on proving they own at least something, even if they have to cut it down and put a cow on it. At least that makes a buck.

    “Sooner or later Pedro sells his land to beef ranchers and they sell on to soya barons, who both sell food to us. It all starts with Pedro and he will carry on cutting trees unless someone will pay him more than he can make from the alternatives. That’s the inconvenient truth of food for us. REDD is a proposed UN trading mechanism that could change all that, by paying countries not to deforest.

    “If things go well in the next 24 hours, over the next two years scientists, forest communities, governments, NGOs will have to work out the precise mechanisms that will make REDD work as a means of reducing the emissions caused by deforestation.

    “With the right signals, huge investment could flow to forests now in anticipation of a favourable outcome. But the UN must agree a road map of actions leading to its crucial meeting in Copenhagen in 2009 and the fate of REDD hangs in the balance.

    “Some countries, the US in particular, are confusing the process, delivering disagreement and to get consensus on big energy issues, REDD could end up on the roadside, not the road. If that happens, Bali could be the biggest climate cop-out ever.”

    So, it looks as though REDD will only work when deforestation is being threatened by large corporations or government — the same organisations that can afford to ignore REDD. Who has the money to make *not* cutting down the rainforest worthwhile financially.

    The only clout can come from the public in refusing to buy palm oil products. So I say again, lead by eample by refusing to buy palm oil products or those that don’t disclose, and make sure everyone knows of your concerns — not companies, not governments but people.

  7. Amanda Enright Says:

    If these climate change talks get serious and governments and big business have to buy carbon credits to counterbalance their polluting ways, REDD schemes will get money. Let’s hope America does get onboard and lead the way.

    This is the only way I can see to effectively save the forests – they have to be worth more up than down. REDD schemes will have to involve alternative livelihoods for the people living in and around forest communities. From everything I have read, this critical fact comes up often – they know about it and will factor this into any REDD scheme.

    As far as palm oil goes, we have rapidly growing developing nations screaming out for palm oil along with the richer nations and the growing trend of biofuel made from palm oil. I don’t think demand is going to dry up in a hurry, unfortunately.

  8. keith Says:

    I admire your faith, Amanda. Hope and Trust are very dangerous things in this corporate-run world; Profit and Growth are the touchstones, and if something doesn’t fulfil those requirements then it is not tolerated.

    Something else is needed: industrial civilization has run its course.


  9. sonia Says:

    I admire your expertise in handling words and articulating ideas. Thanks for doing what you do!
    I believe Amanda could rent the documentary called “The Corporation”…it is one of the best documentaries I have ever watched,it has changed my life and my way of living. I also recommend “Manufactured landsacapes” (by the artist Ed Burtynsky)beautiful and inspiring… as well as “Who killed the electric car”…
    The subject matter isdisconnected from palm oil but connected to the power, interests and responsabilities of corporations and consumers.


  10. keith Says:

    Thank you Sonia, that means a lot.

    I agree, first “The Corporation” then, after a short break, “What A Way To Go: Life At The End Of Empire”.

    By that time my book should be out, and anyone will be able to download it for free.



  11. eric Says:

    keith Says:
    April 29th, 2008 at 3:49 am


    Prevent deforestation, stop climate change, stop corporations running your world?

    Gee, I’d love to see what “moderate” environmentalism is in your book (actually it would probably be the same as that of FoE, Sierra Club, Nature Conservancy, WWF…



    Sorry Keith, I’m not going to play the game of the “real” activists versus their “moderate” partners. Based on your response, I’d say you’re too busy fighting your partners and way too little concerned about those who are really causing the problem.

    I just came back from the field, and have seen and documented how an oil palm group is stealing community land, deforestation magnificent rain forests, burnt it all and at large operates illegally. The communities that I worked with have no idea what is happening to them and they called upon me to start a big time international campaign.

    But, you know, your palm oil boycott is not going to help these people and their forests. By the time you have mobilised a 1000 people or so, their forest is will already be converted into oil palm. That will only enforce your position, but it will not have helped the affected people a single bit.

    You can boycott palm oil and RSPO as much as you like under the populist banners of preventing deforestation, stopping climate change and stopping corporations running the world, but I guarantee you that it not going to change a single thing for the communities and the forests on the ground simply because you are not there with them.

    NGO activists typically move in with too little and waaay too late because they will only move when a link to their marginal elite market is established, rather than to think ahead and move in. This is why I think fundamentalist boycott approaches are useless. Moreover, if you’re not careful, your actions are going to piss of the very communities whom you depend on for political support. Seals, whaling.. need I say more?

    To dismiss RSPO at the very moment when it is yet to show what it does in practice, in my view, is so cheap and easy. You have never attended a single RSPO meeting and you have not contributed a single bit of decision making to the system better. Come on, with your angry and symbolic RSPO boycott, do you really feel that you have the ultimate answer for all the problems we are facing??

    You are also misinformed. There are various social NGOs in the RSPO board and they have pretty much gotten what they have fought for. The social issue is, of course but not exclusively, tightly connected to the forest issue.

    But if you believe that forests in Asia can be saved without the full support and consent of local communities: forget it. If you think that these communities will save the forest because there’s an orangutan or two: forget it. If you think that the government will change their policies because you boycott palm oil: forget it. If you think that people should be removed from these forests because they hunt and burn the forest for their livelihoods, I wish you best of luck.

    You have to accept that there is no single simple solution to this problem. The worst, in my view, is to dismiss what the people who think like you are trying to achieve, especially when you come in with too little, too late.

    RSPO offers communities (and forests) a real tool to fight. This is a tool they have never ever had before (the list of sad stories is endless). How can you possibly kill this opportunity before the system has even proven itself?

    There is one high level case (Wilmar) at this very moment, do you dismiss that too merely because you have some pre-conceived fundamental disliking for people who work with the reality as it is? Don’t you think you should comfortably await the result before you dismiss the whole process? Hey man, help out on the ground! The Cenaku case is all but completed. The Cenaku case is all but completed.

    Rather than you bla-bla-ing about RSPO and it’s mischiefs, why don’t you help out save some forests on the ground? I’ve got some magnificent rainforests on offer in Sambas District. Don’t hesitate: they’ll be chopped up in a blink. And, we need help, badly!

  12. keith Says:


    The mainstream environmental movement are not my partners – they are fighting to save civilization, they are not fighting to save the planet. This is the same game the corporations play. The activists and other workers on the ground *are* my partners: I have no fight with them — it is the leadership of the NGOs and the lacklustre games they play which cause the problems.

    I am far closer to the native tribes and the fragile ecosystems which they are an intrinsic part of than you realise: I have learnt how to connect and by doing so have recognised that the NGOs (let alone the so called roundtables and “representative” bodies) are hopelessly deluded if they think that industrial civilization is going to solve the problem. Industrial civilization *is* the problem: if it weren’t for the lies we are told and the ways we are forcibly disconnected from the real world then the rainforest destruction would not be taking place at all.

    You know this, but it isn’t in your worldview so it can’t be true…can it?

    You are right about one thing, though: there is no one solution — except all of the solutions that will make a difference involve removing industrial civilization for good.

    I urge you to think about this.



    P.S. Who are you?

  13. Sidney Says:

    Dear Keith,

    What about rapeseed and soy bean? Isn’t it even worst? Yields are low and there are less if any ground cover.
    To make matters worst its a seasonal crop and requires the earth to be mixed up again after replanting.
    At least oil palm land is forested and can act as a carbon sink instead of oil crops planted in the western countries.

    So are you proposing to remove all forms of oil all together?

    The RSPO is still young and would require time to grow and have credibility. As much profit as one would like to make, producers still can’t escape the scrutiny of NGO’s and other interested parties outside of certification. Reports can still be filed to create a put forth what is right (case in point, Wilmar International).

    Perhaps you should come to the ground and see what has been done so far by oil palm growers instead of just commenting from afar.

    If you have a better solution, perhaps you can share it with the industry. The RSPO is as close to a compromise as we can get.

  14. keith Says:


    I wouldn’t have a problem with Palm Oil if it was planted where previously the land had been agricultural – but it seems that option is being ignored because there is no “value” attached to forest, whereas farmland is “owned”.

    If the Roundtable is to have any credibility it needs to show massive reductions in deforestation by the end of 2008, and have moved the production of palm oil from previously or currently forested areas to land currently used for non-staple food crops.

    I don’t do compromises: they are what make people stop acting.


  15. Sidney Says:

    Dear Keith,

    The issue of deforestation has been addressed in the P&C. There are even High Conservation Value (HCV) areas that are supposed to be off-limits 100%. What is left to see now would be implementation via audits.

    What is your take on soybean and rapeseed oil? Since the farmers there ARE subsidized by the government, which would indirectly mean that the government are supporting cultivation and expansion of non sustainable crops.

    Personally I am against biofuels, with food shortage crisis at hand, we can’t really afford to be using oil to fill up the tanks of the rich.

    These few months would be interesting to watch. The audits seems quite stringent. Growers are becoming more aware of the current consumers who are more socially and environmentally conscious.

    I think also that the individual country’s laws (and implementation) are also vital in addressing these issues.



  16. keith Says:

    Hi Sidney

    Biofuels are totally beyond the pale: they are just part of the growing industrial economy and a response by business to the realisation that there isn’t enough cheap oil to keep the transport and energy industry growing. Biofuels are being made out to be a “greener” answer; but, of course, they are simply grist to the mill – a bloody great mill that is eating up habitat.

    As for the other oils, I think we need to examine why so much oil is being used in the first place in food. I use hardly any but it’s a filler to make processed food more palatable; and also feed the desire for more fried food — another gift from the West to the rest of the world.


  17. eric Says:

    Industrial civilization *is* the problem

    That’s a little bigger an issue than RSPO haha. Again, I can see where you come from. RSPO is one of those “green” tools cooked up by mainstream industrialists and mainstream NGO leaders to prevent deep ecologists from overhauling (and taking over?) world order, i.e. “industrial civilization”.


    [Excuse me for the edits, Eric, but it’s the easiest way to respond…]

    There have been good and bad revolutions in world history. What scares me about the deep ecology view on the world is that they don’t have a convincing answer to the question how 6 billion people, most of them urban nowadays, are going to survive in a world that is both ecologically sound AND democratic. So long as those things are not cleared, I prioritize fighting the ills and greed of the present “system” and fighting for a fairer deal for nature and affected people.

    But, enlighten me if you have your vision of the world all worked out. You’re coming out with a book on this?

    [Yes, it’s very difficult to summarise such a dense and long book in a small space. I don’t have a vision of a world, but I do have a vision of groups of people working out what is best for their parts of the world — small groups of people living with rather than against the natural world, but it’s a long journey and impossible to shorten while still being meaningful.]

    I was once involved in a research project that gave me a lot of the answers: take the world’s resources and divide them equally among all present and future population; then compare that to current consumption patterns and draw your conclusions: there’s still growth possible if certain areas are off limits and the rest is managed sustainably, and (access to) the produce equally divided. Needless to say that this requires “the North” to do something about overconsumption. The sweet outcome was that China and India could still grow as their per capita consumption was well below “sustainable yield” (non renewables were dealt with differently).

    [Contraction and Convergence is probably the only type of system that would work within civilization to give it a chance of survival, but civilization is as civilization does, so it will never adopt C&C. Just too damn fair.]

    This was a long time ago, and I’ve now come to see that it is not just a North-South issue, but rather a urban – rural conflict. Just consider the amount of food that needs to go into New York or Jakarta each and every day. Whether or not urbanization is an offshoot of “industrial civilization”, I don’t know. Perhaps.

    [Completely agree. Civilization is, by definition, rooted in city living – urbanisation creates massive divisions between people and the resources they use. The more urbanisation, the more disconnected the population becomes.]

    But if you refer to “industrial civilization” being the problem, then that suggests a conspiracy by industrial (and mainstream NGO) leaders. I think that gives them too much credit, and I think that it’s an autonomous process that is very much driven by the fact that it is comfortable to live in cities for a very large group, while for others it is a necessity because they’re driven from their land. Assuming that at least part of this last group prospers in the cities, sooner or later they too become part of the problem, i.e. dependent on rural production, expansion etc.

    [The surprise is that there probably is no conspiracy. I go into this into great length in the book, and don’t want to give too much away. The problem, though, is far closer than we realise.]

    Resettling 6 (or 9, or 12) billion people in rural areas on a subsistence base is perhaps an option but – how shall I put it? – it’s also kinda “ambitious” and I question if it can be done democratically. Enlighten me, especially on the democracy aspect.

    [Democracy can’t exist under industrial civilization. Voting is just an illusion of control and changes almost nothing. The numbers really are huge, and the bigger they are, the worse the crash will be — there is no easy way of saying this, there must be fewer people for many reasons. The only kind of fair systems are not rooted in our culture at all; they existed long before the Greeks “invented” representative democracy, which itself was only granted to a few elites. That’s just about the size of it now.]

    Meanwhile, I still believe that the answers must be found in making consumption in urban centers more efficient and based on production methods that are less of a strain on nature and local people. What worries me most is that no one is really effectively fighting for consumption reduction anymore. But it’s not hard to understand: if you isolate yourself (by not buying the product any longer) you can’t influence the way a product is produced anymore. The world market has become too big for effective boycotts.

    [Too big for boycotts, yes, but boycotts are targeted by their nature — refusal to take part in *any* of the functions of civilization is a different thing entirely. You are spot on about reduction, and that is a key sentence in the book: “the act of reducing must always be the first option in the decision making process.”

    Thanks, Keith.]

  18. keith Says:

    Thanks for a considered and well structured response, Eric. Please see your post for my response.


  19. Dear Kitty. Some blog :: Orangutans killed by palm oil corporations :: September :: 2008 Says:

    […] was despite the fact that these forests were included in the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil […]

  20. bodong Says:

    Some Reflections

    Now, it is easy for the EU, the Wall Street Journal and the author to take pot shots at Malaysia and Indonesia for attempting to lift themselves up economically by cultivating palm oil for biofuels. In fact, the Malaysian Palm Oil Council issued a rebuttal to some topics reviewed in this story. And although some of it is ridiculous, it does point out obviously hypocritical things like this —
    Britain has little forest left, as most land has been converted to agriculture. Such a paucity of forest cover and the preponderance of agricultural land have resulted in reduced biodiversity and caused the loss of fauna and flora.
    According to data from the Food and Agriculture Organisation, Britain has less than 12 per cent of its land under forest cover compared with 64 per cent for Malaysia. Agricultural land makes up 71 per cent of its total land area compared with less than 19 per cent in Malaysia, of which oil palm accounts for two-thirds.
    In the 19th century, Europeans were despoiling southeast Asia for the rubber and timber trades. From the WSJ, peaking of Borneo —
    In the 1800s, Dutch and British traders began carving up parts of the island to produce rubber and other commodities. Later, Malaysian and Indonesian timber barons devastated millions of hectares of forest logging tropical hardwoods. Today, only a little more than half of Borneo’s once-ubiquitous rain-forest cover remains, according to WWF, the global conservation organization.
    As a citizen of the United States — the world’s largest natural resource consumer driving much of the planet’s freefall — and largest abuser of the global commons, which is the environment upon which we all ultimately depend, I must add this apologetic to my criticisms of land use practices in southeast Asia. After all, people are just trying to feed themselves, raise their families and prosper economically as far as that is possible. Quoting the WSJ concerning Indonesia, “the arrival of new palm-oil plantations has meant jobs and opportunities for many Dayak families [of Kalimantan], and some have even taken ownership stakes in the operations.” There are environmentalists in southeast Asia just as there are here among the NGOs in America — I have quoted some of them. At the same time, John Q. Suburban in the United States is just trying to feed himself, raise his family and prosper economically as far as that is possible.
    So, in the short run, some will win, some will lose and everyone wants to live. Over the longer term, however, the underlying problem is too many people (wherever they live) consuming too much energy and other natural resources. Overshoot and unsustainable modes of living are not confined to southeast Asia, as any American should know.
    Dave Cohen
    Senior Contributor
    The Oil Drum
    davec @

  21. keith Says:

    While I agree with most of what you say, it is not Malaysia and Indonesia that are doing most of the driving: it is the huge Western oil and food companies that are looking for cheap and alternative sources of oil that are creating the demand, which the south east Asian economies are responding to. No one is innocent in this story, but without the demand (for oil, timber, mining rights etc) the deforestation just wouldn’t happen.

    P.S. I’m not an American, and this is a global website for a global audience.

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