Palm oil sector moves to save orangutans and put child rights into RSPO standards

By David Burrows

- Last updated on GMT

Palm oil sector moves to save orangutans and put child rights into RSPO standards
Three major new initiatives have been launched to tackle human rights, wildlife conservation and concessions’ data across the palm oil supply chain.

The plans were announced at last week’s Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) conference in London, where new data was published showing how membership of the scheme has increased.

Wildlife alliance

Some of the world’s largest palm oil companies are teaming up with conservation groups and NGOs to launch a new initiative to save 10,000 orangutans in Borneo.

A new analysis to kick-start the Pongo Alliance showed that certification by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) together with corporate policies of “no deforestation, no cultivation on peatland and no exploitation”​ have had a positive impact on the survival of the species. However, orangutan populations continue to decline in certified plantation areas.

“The key challenge to be addressed through the Pongo Alliance is to prevent the loss of nearly 10,000 orangutans that currently still occur in Bornean oil-palm areas,”​ the authors of the report​ noted. “There is one sector that is best positioned to do this and that is the palm-oil sector itself.”

Wilmar, Sime Darby and Musim Mas are all involved in the new initiative. As such, they will take a ‘landscape approach’ to conservation, looking at ‘ecoregions’ rather than a particular palm oil concession.

Dr Erik Meijaard, one of the report’s authors and the founder of Borneo Futures, an NGO involved in the new alliance, said a collaborative approach to conservation at the landscape level can be a “game changer”.

The next step now is to scale this up and sit down with all palm oil companies having orangutans on their concessions in Borneo to discuss a joint action plan,​” he added.

Closer look at child labour

The alliance was launched at the annual European RSPO conference last week, where RSPO also announced that it will be working with UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund, to promote business practices on children's rights and workers’ welfare in the palm oil supply chain.

The sector has been hit with scandals relating to child labour in recent months. In November, Amnesty International uncovered “systemic”​ cases of child labour and labour rights abuses in plantations run by Wilmar, and traced the palm oil back to firms including Nestlé, Unilever and Kellogg. A number of other RSPO-certified growers and manufacturers were also criticised in the exposé​.

“This report clearly shows that companies have used the roundtable as a shield to deflect greater scrutiny,”​ said Seema Joshi, the NGO’s head of business and human rights at the time.

RSPO is hoping to pilot and implement a UNICEF workplace programme on the rights of children and working families in the palm oil sector. It also wants to mainstream child rights into RSPO sustainability standards and activities, as well as create awareness amongst members.

More maps and members

The new GeoRSPO mapping platform, which features concession maps submitted by certified growers, has also gone live. Created by RSPO and the World Resource Institute, it offers detailed satellite information on mills and concessions as well as tree cover and fire alerts. “It is a powerful tool to monitor developments in RSPO members’ palm oil concessions,”​ said RSPO in a statement.

RSPO also published new data at the conference, showing that membership of the roundtable has jumped by 10% in the past year, to 3,400.

More than two thirds of members (67%) reported on their progress against the scheme’s standards. Smaller companies have helped push the number of companies submitting the so-called ‘annual communication on progress on certified sustainable palm oil’ (ACOP) up from 1,322 to 1,127.

This is an “encouraging sign”,​ RSPO noted, and demonstrated that members are “committed to transparency and that smaller businesses in consumer markets are getting more engaged with the RSPO”.

The RSPO is currently reviewing its principles and criteria, with the changes due to be approved by November 2018. Many European members are keen to take an “active part in the process”​, RSPO said last week, alongside their counterparts from palm oil producing countries.

Whilst support for the roundtable’s model remains strong, there is mounting pressure on the organisation​ to keep up with the ambitions of some members. Indeed, manufacturers have told FoodNavigator​ the review is a “key opportunity for RSPO to improve its approach to deforestation and human rights”​.

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