Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Palm oil and greenwashing

The Star (Malaysia): Palm oil is heading for certification – the first tangible sign of a commitment towards sustainable production of the versatile yet controversial commodity. The first certificate is expected to be issued by the first quarter of 2008, after the call for environmentally and socially responsible production of the crop came five years ago.

Buyers are waiting anxiously for the certification as they have promised to supply certified palm oil to their clients – oil refiners, food manufacturers, consumer goods producers, retailers and even biofuel plant operators – who in turn have set deadlines to phase out the use of palm oil from uncertified sources. Efforts are now being made to certify palm oil as being sustainably produced.

Environmental campaigns in the West linking palm oil production to orang utan extinction, peat fires and displacement of indigenous communities have resulted in consumer boycotts of supermarket chains and demand for sustainable palm oil.

The march towards biodiesel production using palm oil has also met with warnings that the so-called green fuel could be a net emitter of greenhouse gases and accelerate, instead of stalling, climate change. There is also concern that the biofuel rush could come at the expense of food production, given that palm oil is the world’s most important edible oil.

At the recently-concluded fifth meeting of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) in Kuala Lumpur, the verification and implementation mechanisms of the certification system were presented to some 500 participants from 30 countries representing major players in the palm oil supply chain, from growers to retailers, banks, investors, and pressure groups from environmental and developmental organisations.

The certification process will authenticate growers’ claims that their products are derived from plantations that follow the Principle and Criteria (P&C) set by the initiative. It will also enable manufacturers to assure consumers of product “traceability” through eco-labelling.

…But several issues remain unresolved after five years of deliberations. Expansion of oil palm estates on fragile ecosystems and displacement of indigenous communities are two contentious issues that divide supporters and critics of RSPO.

…Greenpeace has called for a moratorium on deforestation of peat swamp forests for oil palm expansion. Its political advisor for energy Wolfgang Richert says just like the campaign on soybean in the Amazon which got three major traders agreeing to stop expansion in the Brazilian rainforest, Greenpeace will continue to pressure RSPO members to commit on this important move. “It’s crucial for RSPO to get rid of partial certification. Otherwise, it’ll just be another green-washing exercise, undermining its credibility.”

Richert also notes that Principle 7, which forbids new planting on primary forests or areas of High Conservation Value from 200, is weak. “You can argue that most Indonesian forests are not primary forests anymore. So, RSPO will actually (end up) certifying palm oil produced from deforestation of secondary forests. RSPO members should commit to develop on the millions of hectares of abandoned, degraded land instead,” he says. Friends of the Earth (FOE) highlights that as RSPO only gives sustainability certifications for each plantation, other plantations in a company could remain unsustainable…

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