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No such thing as sustainable palm oil, says biologist

Imran Ariff  FREE MALAYSIA TODAY Sat, September 5, 2020

Environmental biologist Roberto Cazzolla Gatti says global demand for sustainable palm oil has led to lenient RSPO certification.

PETALING JAYA: An environmental and evolutionary biologist has alleged that the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certification is a “meaningless” attempt to pass palm oil off as sustainable without the basis to do so.

Roberto Cazzolla Gatti, co-author of a paper published in the journal Science of the Total Environment, said the certification was nothing more than “greenwashing”.

The paper deals with the findings of a study conducted by Austria’s Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognitive Research and Russia’s Tomsk State University.

The researchers claim that 99% of the palm oil supply bases in Borneo certified by RSPO was on land that was forested as recently as 30 years ago.


“If you just look at what an area was before becoming an oil palm plantation that RSPO regards as sustainable, you almost always discover a recent past of deforestation and endangered species habitat degradation,” Gatti told FMT.

Plantations are eligible to be RSPO certified if they are on land that was previously deforested by other industries such as logging.

“The problem is that RSPO does not account for what has happened in the recent past of the plantation it is certifying,” Gatti said, adding that while palm oil production might not be the direct cause of deforestation in an area, “it is almost always strictly related” to deforestation.

“Even in the cases when forest logging and oil palm establishment are independent events, there is no reason to consider a plantation sustainable if grown on an unsustainably damaged land,” he said.

Gatti said the growing global demand for sustainable palm oil had been a driving force behind lenient certification since truly sustainable plantations would not be able to meet international demands.

“This would mean that sustainable palm oil will no longer exist in the global market and the trick that is allowing its expansion will disappear,” he said.

Study biased says RSPO

In response, RSPO said the study was biased because it failed to recognise that deforestation and land conversion preceded RSPO’s formation and was in fact one of the driving forces behind its establishment.

It said its standards were not intended to absolve members of past actions.

“Rather, RSPO seeks to ensure that members implement practices which safeguard the environment, protect human rights, and avoid the recurrence of past problems.”

RSPO said it hoped that rewarding producers for sustainable efforts could “transform the production of palm oil and bring along more stakeholders on our collective journey”.

It spoke of itself and its certification as constituting an “important tool” in the elimination of deforestation and the protection of human rights.

It said many of the plantations cited by Gatti were begun before RSPO’s establishment, before strict standards and regulations for sustainable practice were in place.

Moreover, it added, the organisation’s principles and criteria were amended every five years using industry and public feedback to maintain the highest standards possible to ensure a transition to a “deforestation-free palm oil sector” that “balances the need for development, poverty alleviation and community livelihoods in high forest cover countries”.

To abide by current RSPO requirements, companies seeking membership must ensure that no primary forest or areas of high conservation value were cleared after 2005.

Existing members looking to expand their bases must submit a series of independent environmental impact assessments for review and approval.

Those found in breach of the standards and procedures may have their membership suspended or, in severe cases, revoked.

Source: FREE MALAYSIA TODAY, MALAYSIA Sat, September 5, 2020

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