Memo to WWF: Destroying Rainforests and Peatland for Palm Oil is Not “Sustainable”

A pointed and powerful critique of WWF’s role in the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).  Is the RSPO corporate greenwash, or our last best chance to protect the rainforest?  Read more below.

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Learn more about Forest and Climate Policy in Borneo

By Chris Lang, 14th May 2013

WWF loves “sustainability”. With “sustainability”, there’s no need to address over-consumption, or the never-ending growth of capitalist expansion. Consumption can increase, as long as it’s “sustainable”.

Palm oil plantations destroying vast areas of rainforest? No problem. Here comes “sustainable” palm oil. In 2001, WWF started discussions with palm oil companies and industry bodies. Three years later the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil was formed.

Today there are more than 500 members of the RSPO, including palm oil producers, processors, traders, retailers, banks and a few NGOs. But buying palm oil from RSPO members does not mean that the palm oil complies to RSPO’s standards. For that you need to buy RSPO-certified palm oil – from companies that have been assessed by an RSPO-approved certification body. But RSPO certification does not mean that companies have stopped clearing forests. TFT’s Scott Poynton pointed this out recently to Jason Clay, Senior Vice President, Markets, World Wildlife Fund US:

Deforestation of secondary yet still important forests is perfectly acceptable and is happily done by companies celebrated under the RSPO standard which only obliges protection of primary and HCVF [high conservation value forest] areas. Likewise, the RSPO standard doesn’t preclude the clearance of peatlands.

In April 2013, at an RSPO Extraordinary General Meeting in Kuala Lumpur, the RSPO approved a new set of principles and criteria for RSPO certification. The new principles and criteria allow continued deforestation, destruction of peatland and use of poisonous chemicals, including paraquat. This was, “The death of ‘sustainability’,” announced Glenn Hurowitz, writing on Grist.

WWF put out a statement shortly before the meeting in Kuala Lumpur. The statement amounts to a colossal sell out. WWF acknowledged that if RSPO-certified palm oil allows continued deforestation, destruction of peatlands and use of dangerous chemicals, then it has become utterly meaningless:

Because the review failed to accept strong, tough and clear performance standards within the P&Cs [RSPO Principles & Criteria] on issues like GHGs and pesticides, it is, unfortunately, no longer possible for producers or users of palm oil to ensure that they are acting responsibly simply by producing or using Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO).

Nevertheless, WWF said it would be voting in favour of the new principles and criteria and was encouraging other members of the RSPO do so as well:

[W]e 
believe 
that, 
on 
balance, 
the 
revised 
P&Cs 
do represent
 the 
best 
compromise 
for 
the 
RSPO 
and 
are 
better 
than 
the 
current
 RSPO 
standard. Therefore 
WWF 
will 
be 
voting 
to 
endorse 
them 
at 
the 
forthcoming 
RSPO 
General 
Assembly meeting. 

WWF 
recommends 
that
 other 
RSPO 
members 
do 
as 
well.


Adam Harrison is Palm Oil Lead at WWF-International. He’s been involved in the RSPO since 2006. He describes WWF’s failure to negotiate meaningful standards as “meeting in the middle”.

WWF is now working with “progressive companies”, encouraging them to “certify all of their palm oil production against the RSPO principles & criteria” and take a series of further actions including reporting on greenhouse gas emissions, avoiding peatlands, not using dangerous pesticides like paraquat, and not buying palm fruit bunches from land that is illegally occupied or that is within national parks. How will WWF differentiate between RSPO-light and WWFs RSPO-plus? Won’t this be confusing for consumers looking for “sustainable” palm oil? And why didn’t WWF encourage these “progressive companies” to vote against the new principles and criteria?

This week, WWF changed the name of one of its email newsletters. Previously called “Forest Conversion News”, it is now called “Responsible Palm Oil and Soy News”. That just says it all: