Thursday, September 19, 2013

Down the Rabbit-Hole Again, Chasing Sustainability Certification

Sept 10, 2013

Dear Globalfilms:

I have a question regarding your film “The Sustainability Lie” dealing with palm oil plantations in Kalimantan. It’s a very interesting film and speaks to what the agency we support is facing in Aceh province Indonesia. The introduction to the youtube video states:

Wilmar International, the world's biggest palm oil supplier, clear-cuts the Indonesian rainforest without legal permits, contaminates rivers and lakes and uses force to drive people off their homesteads -- all this in the face of sustainability certificates.

Our question is: who gives out these sustainability certificates? NGOs or government agencies or both? Can you give us examples of specific corporations who received them (their names, the district/village, and how many HA these plantations have?)

Jembatan Masa Depan is also trying to create sustainable livelihoods on the buffer of one of the largest rainforests in the world and it is currently being taken over by palm oil concerns. We’d like to make sure that the information we are passing along is accurate, and so we’d like to know where these “sustainability certificates” come from and what they certify.

Thanks so much for your time.

So far, no answer.

I know the question is a little unfair, because there are a lot of certificates floating around—“certified” is the big buzzword in specialty coffee and our Arabica and Robusta projects were no exception. We bumped most disturbingly into this issue, however, when we were first doing program planning for our cocoa farming initiative. One of the things JMD wanted to do was to see if the small (but growing) group of smallholders, after they pooled their beans together to sell in bulk, could have the product certified and thus gain a higher price. As it is, we received funding for a Rainforest Alliance Certification pre-visit, scheduled for next year, but the whole thing is rather disheartening.

First, none of the certifying bodies are really monitoring the product. They want to make sure that “worker rights” are being protected, so they count how many hours someone works, how many kids are working, if women have worse conditions/longer hours than men, if the machinery is safe, etc. They also look at how a business operates within the natural resource and whether it is being environmentally sensitive and employing “organic” (green) farming practices.

All this is fine but as you can see, the certifying bodies are not going to visit small farmers who own their own land and who naturally have to work long and hard hours and so do the kids. They are interested in working only with cooperatives and large plantations where the workers are employees, not owners. There is, as far as we can tell, no such thing as smallholder certification, unless the farmers are part of a cooperative. So adored is the cooperative concept that many philanthropic arms of large chocolate and coffee companies will not consider funding projects that benefit independent farmers. And the co-op situation in Aceh is so bad that we don’t even say the word to our farmers. Co-ops here are never owned and managed by farmers. They are not collectives; they offer no training, no extension service, no bulk purchasing of seeds or fertilizer . . . in a word, they offer bupkus. Except as a large collection station and so farmers are guaranteed a sale of their product. These are the institutions that are “certified,” and how one certifies that this livelihood is “sustainable” is beyond me.

The two bodies/standards I know of that are doing cocoa certification of some sort in Aceh are Rainforest Alliance and Utz Certified.

Rainforest Alliance has been around since the 1980s and in Indonesia is committed to conserving rainforests and their biodiversity by establishing standards for large farms that employ workers. Their emphasis is on developing farm management plans and “improving workers’ welfare,” (says Wikipedia.)

Although we may be working with Rainforest Alliance, it’s still a mystery as to what they will “certify,” since neither they nor any other certifying body seems to recognize smallholder groups as being capable of consistently producing a uniform product and making decisions about their own farms and“welfare.”

Utz Certified was primarily a coffee certifier but has since branched out to cocoa I believe. It’s very active in Aceh but again, it deals with accepted formalized bodies such as cooperatives and large corporate/single owner farms. Its mission is to “create an open and transparent marketplace for socially and environmentally responsible agricultural products.” It focuses on environmental practices and “social benefits (e.g. access to medical care, access to sanitary facilities at work).” See how this could be difficult for a smallholder?

There are no certified cocoa beans being grown or purchased right now in Aceh Timur, so it’s difficult to convince people to work towards those standards—it’s harder, more time-consuming, and the greater returns are not seen until some future time when smallholders, if they waited that long, would be destitute. There also are no “certified organic” products being grown/sold there. This certification is based on the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) standards and is “the leading global umbrella organization for the organic farming movement,”according to Wikipedia. To be certified organic under IFOAM a farm must meet requirements “including the omission of agrochemicals such as pesticides and chemical-synthetic fertilizers. The use of animal feeds is also strictly regulated. Genetic engineering and the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are forbidden.”And all this sounds great but leaves me wondering again and again, who is monitoring all this?

While Rainforest Alliance and Fairtrade (which is not in Aceh as far as I know) standards were developed by social movements, many “sustainability standards” and regulations were developed by the large companies themselves including Utz, Starbucks Kraft Foods, Sara Lee and Nestle. Obviously, the object of big coffee or cocoa importers is to make sure to have access to a lot of product. One would assume that this is even truer in the case of palm oil, where the product is inserted in so many things of which consumers are unaware. But who gives out the “sustainability certificates” for palm oil cultivation?

GreenPalm ( defines “Certified sustainable palm oil (CSPO)” and palm kernel oil (CSPKO) as being produced by “palm oil plantations which have been independently audited and found to comply with the globally agreed environmental standards devised by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). These stringent sustainability criteria relate to social, environmental and economic good practice.”

The RSPO was founded in 2003 and “spearheads the global drive for environmentally-friendly production of this crucial crop.” Members include growers, manufacturers, and conservation/social services NGOs.

The principal objective of RSPO is “to promote the growth and use of sustainable palm oil through cooperation within the supply chain and open dialogue between its stakeholders”.

Forty per cent of the world’s palm oil producers are members of the RSPO, says Green Palm. Other members include Wetlands International, Rainforest Alliance, Cadbury, Marks Spencer, Unilever, Walmart, Oxfam and others.

RSPO ( put out a guidance document in 2007 (why rush?) called Principles and Criteria for Sustainable Palm Oil Production. This is a 53-page document that lists indicators for sustainability. These include:

·         transparency, compliance with “applicable laws and regulations,” and a demonstrated right to use the land without interfering with the “customary rights” of those already there (in my experience just the opposite is true)

·         Commitment to long-term economic and financial viability,” (for whom, it does not say),

·         use of appropriate best practices (this refers to practices that insure the optimum yield of the crop, and not the adaptive re-use of the fields. RSPO’s standards do not address the fact that land that is planted with Palm Oil never recovers and is not really usable again. Local farmers who remain in their communities after the palm fields have been exhausted lose all form of sustainable income in the future.)

·         surface and ground water maintenance, controlled and minimal use of chemicals, no pro- active chemicals

·         worker safety plans (I confess to letting out a small guffaw at this)

·         “Environmental responsibility and conservation of natural resources and biodiversity” “Responsible consideration of employees and of individuals and communities affected by growers and mills”

·         sexual harassment policies in place

·         “responsible” expansion

·         continual improvement of all indicators

So there you have it. I’m trying to report this objectively here, but I’m sure I’m not the only person working in Aceh who thinks that this set of regulations should be in the “Fantasy” section of the sustainability library.

So . . . .who goes out into the field and evaluates which companies are worthy of receiving RSPO certification?

According to RSPO’s website, “Independent third party certification bodies which are approved by the RSPO carry out the audits and take care of the certification procedure.” There are 12 bodies for certification for growers. These bodies are accredited by Accreditation Services International (ASI) which has “demonstrable expertise in monitoring the performance of certification bodies globally through a well-developed accreditation process.” That made my head hurt.

 [Addendum: from our “I Couldn’t Leave Well Enough Alone” Department: I had to see who this ASI was, and so I did. ASI ( is based in Bonn, Germany and is “one of the world’s leading accreditation bodies for sustainability standards systems. . . . .ASI assesses organizations that issue certificates for a range of standards, ensuring that audits are conducted with competence and global consistency. As the sole accreditation body for environmental standards systems such as the Forest Stewardship Council, the Marine Stewardship Council, the Aquaculture Stewardship Council and the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, [my emphasis] ASI oversees the correct application of a standard’s criteria for certified operations worldwide.”

But get this: “ASI’s activity does not constitute an accreditation within the meaning of Article 2(10) of Regulation (EC) No. 765/2008 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 9 July 2008. Nor does it constitute proof of any audit that may be required by the European Union or any of its Member States with regard to the sustainability criteria set out in Article 17(2) to (5) of Directive 2009/28/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 23 April 2009. ASI bases its assessment and accreditation of certification bodies exclusively on privately set standards, and they do not comprise an assessment or accreditation by public authorities.” [my emphasis].

So the private company sets its OWN standards, and ASI makes sure they are followed.]

Rather cozy, n’est-ce pas?

But let’s press on, shall we?

To get certified, a producer “must show a plan to have 100% of its associated smallholders meet RSPO standards within 3 years.” But what if it has only employees, and no smallholders? I am curious now about what the industry means by “smallholder.” I suspect that as in everything, economy of scale prohibits for-profit companies from addressing the needs of the neediest.

But how a smallholder would be able to abide by those standards is beyond me.

So that’s when, I suspect, the company comes in and says“there, there, don’t you worry, we’ll complete and sign off on your paperwork, just give us all your product.”


The certification assessment procedure "includes documentation review, field checks and interviews with external stakeholders (statutory bodies, indigenous peoples, local communities, workers’ organizations, smallholders and national NGOs) to ensure that all relevant issues concerning compliance with the RSPO Criteria and Principles are identified and assessed. If a certificate of conformance is issued, a public summary is included that outlines the main findings of the certification assessment, including non-compliances identified or issues that were raised by stakeholders. Public summaries are published on the RSPO’s website."

So for fun I did a search on “Wilmar.”

Only thing that popped up was Complaint on : PT Agronusa Investama (Wilmar) which was closed on April 2013, and involved from what I can tell the company taking over and deforesting land that was not theirs. (Shocking!) The outcome of the case stated simply that the occupants “gave up their claim on the land.” I suspect they were bought out, or out-maneuvered in court (not hard to do), or were on the wrong end of a deal made between Wilmar and government representatives to alter land records or “re-zone”that portion of the forest, which seems a very popular pastime these days (see previous posts).

RSPO’s FAQ also discusses the “trouble” that smallholders have in being certified:

“Smallholders are often not aware of the benefits of being certified - they do not know how to receive funding support and they do not have the expertise or capacity to adopt sustainable production methods. Given the significant ratio of smallholders in the palm oil sector, smallholders are central in RSPO’s strategy to catapult sustainable practices in the sector towards market transformation.” I have not seen anyone rushing to build that catapult for smallholders.

RSPO goes on to say that it has “been collaborating closely with major producing countries around the world to build capacity amongst independent smallholders in the past few years.” Not in Aceh it hasn’t. The RSPO also provides financial support to smallholders. In 2012, the RSPO established the RSPO Smallholders Support Fund (RSSF) whereby 10% of income generated from the trading of RSPO certified sustainable palm oil will be allocated for smallholders. [my emphasis] In addition to this, 50% of any remaining surplus of income within the financial year of RSPO is used in support of smallholders.

Now, I am going to have to find out about this because what I believe they are saying is that the “smallholders” who are in line to receive this support are what we would call sharecroppers—people who work for the big company, or under the big company’s rules, it being a kind of co-operative of the type that the coffee farmers loathe so much, that keeps them in debt by overcharging for seeds and materials and piling on the interest until quite soon they are indentured servants who “owe their soul to the company store.” And if I am right then in effect the money is just going right back to the Wilmars of the world—IF indeed this regulation is even being followed, which I doubt it is. And what exactly is the “income generated from trading palm oil?” What does it mean to “trade” palm oil? Does this mean that the oil itself, the finished product in a barrel, is kept track of separately by another company or a branch within the main growing company (Wilmar for example) and this particular link in the value chain is monitored (by whom?) and reported back to RSPO, who says, “Okay Wilmar, now give 10% of this back to . . . whom? The farmers who work on your farm? That’s great but it also cleverly encourages the cycle of dependence on Big Oil—Wilmar can say “if you don’t allow us to destroy more forest to produce more palm oil then the little guy won’t get that bonus at the end of the year.” 10% divided among how many“smallholders?” And you have to be in the “club” to profit from it. You cannot be independent. You cannot condemn your master’s disregard for the environmental or safety standards by which they are supposedly abiding. You cannot set your own regulations and help your own community and shrink up the middlemen so that you are making a good living.

You are not a “conservation refugee;” you are a conservation inmate.

Next: Who exactly is Big Palm Oil in East Aceh?

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