Consumer goods giants Unilever, Mondelēz, Nestlé, and Proctor & Gamble (P&G), as well as leading palm oil traders Cargill, Golden Agri-Resources (GAR), Musim Was, and Wilmar, are all members of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).
Yet in a recent report published by Greenpeace International, titled ‘Burning down the house: How Unilever and other global brands continue to fuel Indonesia’s fires’, the environmental watchdog has accused these agri-food companies of purchasing palm oil from producers linked to Indonesia’s ongoing fire crisis.
A reported 70,000-plus fires burned across South-East Asia this dry season – a large proportion of which originated in Indonesia and contributed to a ‘toxic haze’ in the region.
According to Greenpeace, these forest fires are ‘fanned’ by ‘unrelenting’ industry growth, whether that be in the food, energy, or other industrial sectors.
“These fires, often set deliberately to clear land for plantation or agriculture, are a massive wake-up call that shows just how deeply these sectors are implicated in climate and ecological breakdown,” noted the report. “Thanks largely to them, our global economy is burning down the house that we all live in.”
In the report, Greenpeace accuses all eight businesses of purchasing oil originating from producers linked to these fires.
Specifically, the watchdog calculates that in the first nine months of 2019, up to 10,000 fire hotspots were detected across the operations of palm oil producer groups supplying Unilever, Mondelez, Nestle, and P&G.
Further, Greenpeace claims that all of the 30 palm producer groups ‘mostly closely linked’ to Indonesia’s ongoing fire crises trade in the global market.
As all eight companies assessed are members – or even board members, as Greenpeace stresses – of the RSPO, the report has implications for the industry body.
The report also claims that three-quarters of the hotspots recorded during this nine-month period were in operations controlled by RSPO certified producer groups.
This is ‘quite an indictment’ of RSPO, noted Greenpeace, “an organisation with a 15-year history whose intention is to ‘transform markets by making sustainable palm oil the norm’.”
The Greenpeace report ‘misses the mark’, says RSPO
The RSPO, however, claims than less than 0.5% of all fires in Malaysia and Indonesia this year were on its members’ concessions.
Greenpeace has rejected this claim, suggesting that the industry body’s information is based on ‘incomplete concession data’ in the RSPO’s own GeoRSPO platform.
For the RSPO, this statement indicates the Greenpeace report ‘misses the mark’. “Perhaps Greenpeace misunderstood the tools that the RSPO uses for hotspot monitoring and fire detection,” the sustainable palm oil organisation noted in a statement.
Where GeoRSPO is used as a public facing hotspot monitoring tool, the organisation uses its own Investigation and Monitoring Unit (IMU), and specifically, tools such as Global Forest Watch Pro, ESRI ArcGIS GIS Software Suite, and NASA Fire Information for Resource Management System (FIRMS) hotspot data for internal monitoring.
Further, the body has copies of all concession maps from its members globally – and not just what is published on the GeoRSPO site – which are also monitored internally.
RSPO CEO: If a member ignites a fire for profit, ‘we would not be merciful’
During a press briefing at RT17 in Thailand, Bangkok, the RSPO’s executive team made certain there were no mixed messages regarding its fire policies.
“Since 2005 we have had a strict no burning policy. There is no excuse,” CEO Datuk Darrel Webber told FoodNavigator alongside other journalists. “If we found a member had on purpose set fire to profit from this fire, I can tell you we would not be merciful.”
RSPO co-chairman Dato’ Carl Bek-Nielsen reiterated Webber’s stance. “We fully endorse very harsh action to be taken against any grow member…that intentionally goes out there and uses fire as a means to enhance their operations. They must be dispelled, they must be thrown out because they are doing a disservice.”
“There were over 70,000 fires this last dry season in South-East Asia, of which less than 0.5% originated from RSPO members. So please understand one thing: that does not mean than an RSPO member has intentionally started a fire. This could [mean] fires are spreading from elsewhere, or wildfires are starting from lightening etc.” – RSPO co-chairman Dato’ Carl Bek-Nielsen
Both executives stressed the organisation’s commitment to transparency and ‘positive surveillance’ concerning hotspot monitoring.
“We are the only industry body…who transparently puts up all our members’ maps for everyone to see, so you can analyse where those fires are in relation to our members,” said the CEO. The organisation would like to see that level of transparency across the sector, for both RSPO members and non-members, he continued.
The RSPO’s ‘positive surveillance’ or ‘self-mitigation’ is having an extraordinarily positive impact on the way its growers behave, according to Bek-Nielsen. It is encouraging them to do ‘the right thing’, which is ‘not to use fire’.