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Local community forest land cleared and planted by Golden Veroleum in Butaw District, Sinoe County, previously contained areas of high­ quality forest many stories high. A woman from a nearby village described that "way back we had land to make farms and

Local community forest land cleared and planted by Golden Veroleum in Butaw District, Sinoe County, previously contained areas of high­ quality forest many stories high. Photo: Justin Kenrick / FPP.

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    Community land in Sinoe County, including grave sites and sacred forest areas, have been cleared and planted by Golden Veroleum, without the communities' free, prior and informed consent. Photo: Justin Kenrick / FPP.

  • Plantation workers gathering oil palm fruits for processing. Photo: Patrick Anderson / FPP.
    Plantation workers gathering oil palm fruits for processing. Photo: Patrick Anderson / FPP.

To make palm oil 'sustainable' local communities must be in charge

Forest Peoples Programme

14th May 2015

The palm oil industry's repeated failure to keep its promises illustrates why global initiatives to achieve 'sustainable palm oil' must place communities centre-stage, writes FPP. Standard-setters like the RSPO must demand action, enforcement and accountability - not just lofty commitments that inspire hope, but rarely deliver.

Everyone is keen to see good news in the palm oil industry, but it would be an unconscionable green-wash for companies to be allowed to get away with simply pledging compliance to high standards without adhering to them.

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certification logo is increasingly visible on everyday groceries containing palm oil.

This looks like progress - RSPO membership and certification commits member companies to social and environmental sustainability. And the RSPO boasts many of the biggest palm oil producers and buyers among its membership.

Yet the palm oil industry's bad reputation lives on. Displacement and dispossession of indigenous peoples and local communities from their lands, farms and forests are rife.

Rampant forest loss, peat fires and threats to the Orang-utan and other species also continue. Consumers hoping to buy their favourite soap or peanut butter with a clear conscience may well start avoiding palm oil altogether, certified or not.

And among the companies doing the damage, many are RSPO members. How so?

Waking up to the greenwash

The RSPO standard is good on paper. RSPO rules prevent the acquisition of land from communities without their free, prior and informed consent, and require concessions to avoid areas important to communities and to biodiversity.

Unfortunately industry non-compliance with the RSPO standard is ubiquitous, bringing its credibility to the brink. The RSPO has shown itself reluctant to ensure good rules are matched by good implementation. The Complaints Panel frequently appears unable or unwilling to make decisions that stand up to major companies.

Some environmental campaigning NGOs dismiss the RSPO as industry-dominated greenwash, arguing that the RSPO standard only excludes palm oil from areas of the highest conservation value, rather than aiming for zero deforestation.

So some of these NGOs now work with the biggest industry players to get them to sign up to company-specific no-deforestation promises.

High profile examples include Wilmar's 'No-Deforestation, No Peat, No Exploitation' policy and Golden Agri-Resources' 'Forest Conservation Policy'.

Often following high level negative publicity campaigns by large environmental NGOs, the focus in practice has been on ensuring that all forest lands are excluded from plantation development. The adoption of these policies has been welcomed with much fanfare. Companies are naturally keen to bask in the rare publicity of their overnight conversion from forest villain to forest hero.

'No-go areas' are all very well - but that's only for starters

These 'no-deforestation' policies do include a social element. In practice however, implementation appears to be chiefly concerned with identifying forest 'no-go' areas for companies to avoid. Social problems are all too often left under the radar.

Most concerning of all is that these no-deforestation policies lack any credible accountability structure to enforce them. All that stands in the way of these high profile promises being anything other than yet another public relations green-wash are the few International NGOs who brokered them.

By accident or design, these NGOs have landed themselves with the job of being judge, jury, executioner, counsel for the defence, counsel for the prosecution, and witness in chief for both. An impossible task.

Transferring our faith in the transformation of the palm oil industry from the RSPO (with good standards, and at least some accountability structure) to these company-specific policy commitments (with perhaps higher standards in forest protection but no credible accountability structure at all) seems like dangerously wishful thinking.

What's the use of a new emperor without any clothes, when we already have one that is only half-dressed? What use is a proliferation of standards and commitments with an even weaker emphasis on ensuring compliance?

A reality check from Liberia

A new Forest Peoples Programme ('FPP') report documents the numerous human rights failures in the palm oil concession of Golden Veroleum Liberia, and is based on research conducted since 2012 including by researchers based full-time in Liberia.

Communities in such places appear to be at risk of a double land grab - the loss of land to palm oil companies, and the loss of their forests to 'no-go' conservation areas.

With such palm oil companies avoiding the heavily forested areas, they often now turn to the land used most by communities for cultivating food. The obvious risk is that communities who have lost farmland will have to clear forest to make new fields. The forest is lost by the back door.

Golden Agri-Resources (GAR) - the world's second largest producer of palm oil - is a lead investor in Golden Veroleum. Both companies are RSPO members, and both companies have been involved in piloting GAR's Forest Conservation Policy. However as FPP's report shows, their Liberia project is failing to meet requirements of either the RSPO or their Forest Conservation Policy.

Communities still lack the information and technical and legal advice they badly need. Golden Veroleum standard operating procedures give it a license to short-cut the need for obtaining communities' free, prior and informed consent.

According to a so called 'provisional' agreement procedure, the company is acquiring community land (potentially permanently) in return for a handful of often casual jobs, and other vague and arguably unenforceable benefits.

The practical outcome is that communities lose valuable productive land in return for what on occasions amounts to little more than a few school benches and some zinc roofing.

Reports are that local community members have been threatened with losing jobs unless they support Golden Veroleum's project. We have also been informed of instances where Golden Veroleum staff have also told community employees that they will lose their jobs if their community does not give the company land.

A woman from a nearby village described that "way back we had land to make farms and gardens and make our living. Now we are crying to have somewhere to have our crops. It's embarrassing." Another said: "we want for them [the company] - what they spoil - we want them to pay rent."

Despite communities' long­standing customary ownership of their lands and the productive value of the land to communities, rent is paid directly by the company to the state under the concession contract agreed between the company and the government, and at an astonishingly low rate of $1.25 to $5 per hectare per year.

RSPO unwilling to confront the grim realities

It appears that even in the face of demonstrable community opposition, Golden Veroleum has gone ahead and granted jobs to some community members, causing irretrievable community division. It has also acquired land that is the subject of pre-existing disputes between neighbouring communities.

Land acquisition and clearance seems to have accelerated during the course of the Ebola outbreak, suggestive of an attempt by GVL to consolidate its land holding while civil society's ability to monitor the project and support communities was at its weakest.

Community complaints to the RSPO's Complaints Panel in 2012 provoked an initially encouraging reaction from the RSPO which decided that there was a case to answer and requested a freeze in operations.

Since then the Panel has shown itself increasingly unable or unwilling to stay the course. A June 2014 fact-finding mission to Liberia exposed critical weaknesses in the RSPO's enforcement capacity.

Astonishingly, Golden Veroleum played a central role in determining how its performance was to be investigated, and hosted and provided logistics for the RSPO staff conducting the mission. The RSPO repeatedly failed to see the importance of ensuring that it met communities without the potentially intimidating presence of company representatives.

There has also been no apparent leverage from the Forest Conservation Policy in the absence of any credible accountability or enforcement procedure.

Meanwhile Golden Veroleum continues to clear and plant community land without resolution of those complaints. It has even begun expanding operations from Siloe county into neighbouring Grand Kru county.

The solution must respect communities' sovereignty

First, a recognition by all parties that communities have a right to own the lands they have traditionally used and possessed, and a right to determine their own development visions and trajectory, in line with international human rights law. They have the right to a controlling interest in decision-making concerning their lands, resources and futures.

Secondly, the increasing body of scientific evidence shows that when community ownership over their traditional forests and lands is legally recognised and respected, they have the capacity to be the best custodians of those forests.

This enables communities to think long-term, which means that their choices are most likely to be sustainable ones. In fact it is frequently the case that the local rules and customs developed over centuries by communities are the reasons forests and ecosystems have remained intact for so long, because unsustainable practices threatened their survival.

The intrinsic value communities retain for intact forest landscapes and cultures, linked to land and place, persists in many forest communities to date against the odds.

It is when those systems and intrinsic values have been disregarded, undermined or overridden - by laws and the practices of governments, companies and others - that communities will come to see themselves as having no choice but to be complicit in a smash and grab. They fear losing out completely if they do not cash in now.

The logic that a gamble on a promise of development now is preferable to fears of no development at all is often the Achilles heel for communities.

Companies like Golden Veroleum have (intentionally or not) become well versed in exploiting this fear: "the more land you give us, the more development you will get." These fears are exacerbated by a lack of visible development alternatives, when in fact there are many.

Liberia and other countries around the world have numerous examples of rural communities working hard to find ways to not only meet basic needs but also to increase incomes through self-development while conserving their forest-connected cultures. All too often however governments, companies and many NGOs overlook the potential for communities to be the best agents for their own development and for conservation.

RSPO must ensure community rights are respected

Legal and practical recognition of forest communities' collective land rights is therefore of paramount importance. This provides a foundation for enabling locally determined rural development and conservation.

Communities and civil society must be central drivers in shaping both. This is also the only context where private sector investment can be socially, legally, and therefore financially and reputationally sustainable.

The RSPO and other parties involved in extracting strong commitments from companies obviously can play a key role in ensuring community rights are respected. At a basic level, they must ensure that the land and resource ownership rights of communities take centre-stage in the commitments companies make.

Crucially however, they must urgently begin building effective and credible accountability and enforcement mechanisms, to enable strong commitments to be matched by equally strong implementation.

Everyone is keen to see good news in the palm oil industry, but it would be an unconscionable green-wash for companies to be allowed to get away with simply pledging compliance to high standards without adhering to them.

The far greater risk however is the one borne by communities duped by false promises into permanent dispossession from their lands, and the destruction of their forests, wetlands, and strongly land and forest-connected cultures.

 


 

The report: 'Hollow Promises: An FPIC assessment of Golden Veroleum and Golden Agri-Resource's palm oil project in Liberia'.

Forest Peoples Programme works with forest peoples in South America, Africa, and Asia, to help them secure their rights, build up their own organisations and negotiate with governments and companies as to how economic development and conservation is achieved on their lands. For more information, please visit www.forestpeoples.org

 

 

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