The Palm Oil Awareness Initiative was interviewed this week on Mrs. Green’s World about the work we’ve been doing and our message to consumers locally and globally. The team spoke with Mrs. Green about conflict palm oil and some of the latest updates on this issue affecting our environment, endangered species, human rights, health, and how each and every one of us can do something important to affect this issue. The participants on the radio show were Assistant Professor Stacey Tecot, medical anthropology Ph.D. candidate Kim Kelly, and Nicolas Alexandre (Ecology and Evolutionary Biology undergraduate student). Many Anthropology undergraduate students were involved in preparing for the event, including Heidi Williamson and Caitlin Hawley. The show was funded by a UA Green Fund Mini Grant and the School of Anthropology. Learn more about the interview and listen to the show here.
On May 24th, Heidi, Vicki, and Nick set up a little exhibit in the seating area of the Tucson COOP. Vicki even had the wonderful idea to have a running slideshow in the background. Before we left we were able to give a stack of stickers, buttons, and wallet cards to the cashiers in order to get our word out. Events like this are likely to be common next semester as it is the perfect opportunity to get our word out on a street as popular to University students as Fourth Ave.
Safari Night was a huge hit! This event allowed us to put the Malayan Sun Bear in the spotlight as a victim of the palm oil industry and gave parents the incentive to eagerly grab our wallet cards. Caitlin and I even had time to get our faces painted and try out some of the health food snacks at the table next to ours.The palm-oil-free candy (dum-dums, tootsie rolls, York) was a great way to get kids and their parents over to the booth.
In honor of RAN's day of action in an effort to get PEPSICO to improve their policies, today was a successful day at Reid Park Zoo for Endangered Species Day with Stacey, Kim, Caitlin, Vicki, and Nick. Here we are in front of the gibbon exhibit where we had an orangutan mask and coloring page craft area as well as a platform for a lot of good poster board info. Most importantly it was our first chance to premier our new wallet card to the public. And for those with a sweet tooth, we had lots of palm oil free candy!!!
Working at the Festival of Books on March 15 gave our group a great opportunity to reach out to the community and talk to people of all ages about conflict palm oil. People of all ages were interested in our booth, from children to grandparents. We talked to people about how to be a responsible consumer, and encouraged them to check the labels of products before they go to the checkout line.
The POAI would like to note that the following post is based on research done by POAI members and reflects the issue as we understand it. For any feedback or criticism, please email the POAI at UAPOAI@gmail.com
How “Sustainable” is the RSPO?
by Nicolas Alexandre, Kim Kelly, and Stacey Tecot on behalf of Palm Oil Awareness Initiative
NOTE: The opinions and information expressed here are based on research done over the last several months via the internet and through contacting experts in this field. We have summarized this information to the best of our ability and this blog post is a summary of that information to the best of our knowledge.
Once aware of the problems associated with palm oil, many of us are often left feeling powerless as consumers. Palm oil is in 50% of packaged goods in the United States (e.g., food, cosmetics, cleaning products), so it is nearly impossible to avoid it.
The Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was first envisioned in 2001 by the World Wildlife Fund as a governing body that would promote the use of sustainable palm oil products through a global standard. Consumers could then use products containing palm oil guilt-free! In fact, many environmental and zoological groups promote foods with RSPO-certified palm oil by listing them on palm oil-friendly shopping guides. But the environmental community has also heavily criticized the RSPO as greenwashing. So what’s a consumer to do? What exactly IS the RSPO? Who are its members? How do they ensure that their members maintain sustainable practices? Are consumers the only ones buying into the RSPO, or are producers upholding their end of the bargain as well?
These were some of the questions we had as we began looking into RSPO certified palm oil to determine if it really was something we could use to help make informed consumer choices. Here we attempt to answer these questions, discuss some of the criticisms about the RSPO, and then explain why we do not believe that the RSPO is currently our best bet in terms of stopping deforestation, climate change, habitat destruction, and human rights abuses rampant in the palm oil industry. We also offer a few suggestions.
What is the RSPO? The RSPO was borne out of an informal collaboration between World Wildlife Fund, Aarhus United UK Ltd., Migros, Malaysian Palm Oil Association, and Unilever. Their original idea was to develop a governing body that would promote the use of sustainable palm oil products through a global standard.
Who are RSPO members? Today, membership in the organization tops one thousand members. There are two types of members, Ordinary Members and Affiliated Members. Ordinary Membership in the RSPO is limited to groups that fit into one of the following categories: oil palm producers; palm oil processers and traders; consumer goods manufacturers; retailers; banks and investors; and social and conservation-oriented non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Affiliated Membership is open to organizations or individuals who are not actively involved in any of the above-mentioned 7 sectors, and have expressed an interest in the objective and activities of the RSPO. To find out more about these different memberships click here.
What is Expected of RSPO Members?
Members are expected to maintain active and constructive communication with the RSPO, support its efforts, help develop and implement plans of action aimed at promoting sustainable palm oil production, procurement, and consumption. Additionally, they are expected to operate transparently and inform the RSPO on these plans of action. Full principles and criteria can be found here.
Our Concerns About the RSPO
1. Green Palm Certificates.
The RSPO backs ‘Green Palm Certificates’, whereby RSPO-certified palm oil producers can convert their certified oil into certificates (one ton of certified crude palm oil or palm kernel oil converts to one certificate) that can then be purchased by manufacturers who use palm oil, palm kernel oil, or any palm-based derivative in their product manufacturing. These manufacturers, through their purchase of these GreenPalm certificates, are then able to make the claim that they support the production of RSPO-certified sustainable palm oil. Additionally, the full value of each certificate is then sent back to the RSPO producer to “reinvest this premium to help tackle the environmental and social issues created by the production of palm oil” (GreenPalm.org).
However, we believe that GreenPalm Certificates are problematic:
So, it seems that Green Palm certificates actually aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on, as they do not promote or guarantee sustainable practices! To learn more about Green Palm Certificates, including what other groups have written about them, see these links:
2. The RSPO’s language is weak.
In a public debate with mongabay.com president Rhett Butler, the RSPO made vague statements about their policies and skirted around questions regarding repercussions for companies who violate its policies. When asked: “How do you deal with governments? Government knows the bad effects of planting oil palm on peat land, but they still convert forest for plantation. If a company gets a concession in forest area but that violates RSPO criteria, what happens?” the RSPO’s Adam Harrison responded “The RSPO needs to engage with policy makers in Indonesia on identifying HCV (High Conservation Value) areas and whether they are recognized under national rules. Companies take initiative but the RSPO needs to be involved to align policies”. One might ask why they aren’t doing this already!
Furthermore, the Secretary General of the RSPO was asked: “There is one member who is having problems with fire management. So can RSPO enforce compliance? There are several questions from the audience about this. Can the RSPO have any legal power?” He responded: “The rules of RSPO is very clear: no open burning. We have auditors going to the ground to check. If you have done open burning, you cannot become certified. We also have a complaints system. The ultimate sanction is to ask the member to leave. But we think it is the last thing that you should do. If you want to create change you have to guide change. We want them to change and to guide them towards change instead of expelling and doing nothing. We want to see net positive change on the ground. In all complaints we have looked at so far, both parties were right and both parties were wrong at the same time. Every complaint is handled here; it takes a long time to understand what the reality on the ground is. And then we decide how to move on.”
So exactly how much does the RSPO tolerate and what measures are they taking to guide these companies to change? Unfortunately these issues and measures the RSPO will take in order to enforce compliance and “guide” members to effect “positive change on the ground” are not well outlined in the RSPO literature or their policies as available on their website. As such, it is very difficult to understand just how the RSPO enformces compliance and what measures they have at their disposal to do so. Clarity on these issues is especially important for an organization on which so many consumers currently rely in order to make informed purchasing choices.
3. The RSPO lacks the power to enforce the rules and guidelines it has set forth, making it ineffectual.
Although member organizations are supposed to adhere to the principles and criteria set forth by the RSPO, RSPO members have been documented clearing critical wildlife habitat including forest and peatlands, as well as abusing and ignoring the human rights of workers on plantations, all of which are prohibited in the principles and criteria set by the RSPO. Some recent examples include:
For more information click here to read the Rainforest Action Network’s statement on the RSPO and here to watch a debate about the RSPO by experts on the issue.
What has the RSPO done to respond to these violations by its members? Sadly, the answer is very little. Although the RSPO members have signed on and agreed to certain principles and criteria, the organizational system of the RSPO affords them very little recourse, aside from suspending membership, in responding to violations. Here are some examples that demonstrate how “toothless” the RSPO has been:
This is not to say that the RSPO is all bad, or evil, or is intentionally trying to hoodwink consumers in some grand scheme of deception. To the contrary, the WWF and others started the RSPO with the best of intentions, and the hoped-for outcome was that in time it would become an effective and powerful organization that consumers could trust. And the RSPO has recently made some important contributions to stop problems rampant in the palm oil industry, including ordering palm oil giant KLK to leave Collingwood Bay in Papua New Guinea in order to protect the pristine forest and way of life of the indigenous people who call this area home. You can read more about this issue here and sign a petition to by the RAN network to support their efforts here.
Additionally, they recently kicked a notorious offender, Duta Palma, out of the RSPO after it had violated RSPO principles for years. Duta Palma is a palm oil producer that has been found to be noncompliant to RSPO principles in the past, yet continued to remain a member of the RSPO. For example, Duta Palma burned hundreds of hectares of protected tiger habitat illegally, which they did without even attempting to obtain a permit. However, after Greenpeace and other organizations lobbied the RSPO for several years to stand up to Duta Palma, it finally kicked Duta Palma out of the RSPO in May 2013, making it the first company it has taken action against since its inception over a decade ago.
What CAN be done and what should consumers be doing in the meantime?
Because so many of us are concerned about this issue, it is critical that we work with groups such as the Rainforest Action Network, Forest Trust, and Greenpeace. These are just a few of the leaders in this area who are putting pressure on the RSPO to become more than just another cog in the palm oil wheel. Real pressure needs to be put on the member organizations as well as the RSPO itself in order to encourage them to enact real and meaningful changes around who can become members, how members and their activities are overseen, and how good and bad activities are rewarded and punished, respectively.
Recently, activists celebrated a major victory in this area. Wilmar International, the world’s largest palm oil trader – long criticized for its practices in trading palm oil which have contributed to the deforestation, habitat destruction and human rights abuses of its workers – announced that it, along with its subsidiaries and third-party suppliers (which include Unilever), would commit to a no deforestation, no peat, and no exploitation of local peoples policy (click here to read a story about this).
Although some are skeptical, and continued pressure needs to be applied to ensure they follow through, it is a great example of where we as activists and concerned citizens can and should play a role in supporting companies to make responsible changes that will have tangible and meaningful effects on the palm oil industry.
Robert Hii is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post regarding issues with conflict palm oil, and says that there are four different types of palm oil to keep in mind.
1. According to Hii, the best type of palm oil available is “identity preserved” palm oil. Companies such as Agropalma in Brazil produce this type of palm oil by utilizing fresh fruit bunches from their plantations, which are then processed into crude palm oil prior to further refinement for various food and toiletry products.
2. The next best palm oil is “segregated” meaning that fresh fruit bunches come from plantations that are entirely certified under the RSPO. This fruit is then processed; however, no one actually knows what plantations it comes from.
3. The problem gets fuzzier when a “mass balance” system is used, in that roughly 5% of this palm oil is certified palm oil from a certified plantation, leaving 95% of the oil unaccounted for. This label is the most commonly used because suppliers can now label their product as sustainable by doing the bare minimum.
4. Finally, and most unfortunately, is palm oil with a “Greenpalm Certificate”. A Greenpalm Certificate is obtained when a grower is labeled as sustainable under the RSPO label by providing to them a report of annual yield in return for a certificate for every ton produced. Unfortunately, large snack food companies often use this form of palm oil.
Additional Resources and Sources for this Blog Post:
Butler, Rhett. "The Palm Oil Debate: Can the World's Most Productive Oilseed Be Less Damaging to the Environment?" Mongabay.com. 21 Oct. 2013. Web. 30 Nov. 2013.
Chew, Kristina. "Palm Oil Companies Keep Breaking the Promises They Claim to Keep." Care2.com. 11 Nov. 2013. Web. 30 Nov. 2013.
Hii, Robert. "Saving Orangutans One Company at a Time." The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 11 Nov. 2013. Web. 30 Nov, 2013.
Parker, Diana. “Palm oil companies ignoring community rights, new study shows.” Mongabay.com, 07 Nov. 2013. Web. 29 Nov, 2013. http://news.mongabay.com/2013/1107-dparker-palm-oil-rights.html "Greenpeace Demands RSPO Strengthen Standards, Expel Rogue Forest Destroyers." Press Release RSS. Greenpeace, 15 Apr. 2013. Web. 06 Dec. 2013.
"WWF Assessment of RSPO Member Palm Oil Producers 2013." WWF. World Wildlife Fund, n.d. Web. 06 Dec. 2013.
We thank Robert Hii for helpful feedback on this blog post. The opinions expressed in this post, and any errors that remain, are solely ours (POAI).
I am a recovering Oreo addict.
There, I said it.
Every day for lunch I used to go to the University of Arizona Medical Center hospital cafeteria and get a package of Oreos. I would eat them with lunch, savoring every bite of their sugary, creamy goodness. And then one day I turned the package over and saw the words "palm oil" staring back at me in bright white, bold letters.
Ugh, I thought, I really shouldn’t be eating these.
But I continued to eat them because they were just so dang good. That is until I took School of Anthropology faculty member Stacey Tecot’s "Primate Sexuality" course in the spring of 2012. One day during lecture in answering a student’s question about how she came to study lemurs, Tecot told us how there were plenty of other species she could have considered, like orangutans. However, because Tecot knew she wanted to study field primatology, not captive animals, that left species like wild orangutans out, especially given the likelihood they will be extinct in our life time due to rapid deforestation and habitat destruction.
Tecot went on to explain how orangutans’ rainforest habitat in Indonesia – the only habitat left for them in the world – is being destroyed to expand palm oil plantations. These plantations sell palm oil to large global corporations for their products: household cleaners, toiletries, snack food products and more. Recent estimates suggest that as many as 50 orangutans per week are dying as a direct result of this industry.
With only about 60,600 orangutans left in the world, they are quickly heading towards extinction, largely due to the conversion of their habitat to oil palm plantations. At this current pace, it is estimated that wild orangutans will be extinct in 3-12 years. My face turned red, and I sank down in my chair, embarrassed to be faced squarely with the reality that the Oreos I had eaten right before class and myself, sitting at the UA, all these miles away from the Borneon and Sumatran rainforests, were in fact a very real part of the orangutan’s demise.
That day, I went home and scoured the Internet for information about palm oil to better understand the problem. In hindsight, I admit I was really searching for a way to continue justifying eating my beloved Oreos. But what I found shocked and horrified me. Groups like the Rain Forest Action Network and The Orangutan Tropical Peatland Project described not only the environmental degradation of some of the world’s most biodiverse areas in order to develop palm oil plantations, but also human rights abuses of palm oil plantation workers and health issues that can arise from eating too much palm oil, which is high in saturated fats
As these animals’ habitats are being wiped out, they are forced to seek food and shelter elsewhere, becoming nuisances to local farmers and plantation owners. As a result they are targeted and killed. Perhaps most importantly, however, I also learned that Americans are playing an alarmingly large role in the extinction of these animals, because we are the world’s largest importer of palm oil. Found in almost every American home and in 50 percent of the products on American grocery store shelves, palm oil has become a way of life for the public.
While it is true that we are a major part of the problem, this also means that we can, in very real and tangible ways, become part of the solution.
When I approached my desire to study and or engage this issue on a deeper level, perhaps as a post-graduate or post-doctoral research project in Indonesia, Tecot noted that after she raises this issue in class, some students have gotten involved on a local level. For example, one student convinced a local Tucson restaurant to stop using palm oil in their food. Some have delved more deeply into the issue for research papers or in projects at other universities to which they've transferred. Others have described how they’ve changed their shopping habits because of what they’ve learned about the issue.
Realizing the enormity of this issue, our shared passion to do more about it than just lament its sad reality, and wanting to do something now rather than wait until after I graduate with my doctoral degree, Tecot and I decided to join forces to see what we could do in our own community here at the UA and in Tucson. Although it has only been a few short months, with the help of some deeply committed and passionate undergraduate and graduate students, we have founded the UA's Palm Oil Awareness Initiative and are working to become an officially recognized UA student organization.
In October we participated in the UA Campus Health’s Food Day. Our group is going strong and is currently planning our next steps which include exploring the possibilities of getting palm oil listed and/or included in the Smart Moves labeling initiative.
Kimberly Kelly is a doctoral student and senior research specialist in the UA School of Anthropology. Contacts: Kimberly Kelly at email@example.com or Stacey Tecot firstname.lastname@example.org.
We, the University of Arizona's Palm Oil Awareness Initiative, participated in UA Food Day on October 23rd. The UA's Food Day is a yearly national event to bring awareness and access to healthy, sustainable, affordable food. The Palm Oil Initiative had a table providing information on palm oil, taste tests of foods that do and do not have palm oil in them, and informational games. We can happily say that the event was a success! New members joined, and we received a positive reaction for our wallet card prototype, which offers information regarding what companies use palm oil and what companies may be good alternatives. We ran out of wallet cards (newer version to come) and best of all, had an opportunity to inform the public! Our participation in the UA Food Day event was supported by the UA Student/Faculty Interaction Grant 2014-039-S.
The University of Arizona's online news blog, UANews Blog, featured our group this week, and we were the Editor's Pick! Read about how our group got started and where we're headed.
The Palm Oil Initiative is a group of students and faculty united under the drive to educate the public on palm oil, an ingredient found in a significant portion of food and toiletry items which carries with it a slew of personal health, human rights, and environmental costs. Food Day at the University of Arizona offers an opportunity to ask students questions about what they’re eating. We will be offering information regarding foods that contain palm oil, some alternative food items, as well as interactive games that will allow consumers to be aware. Informational posters will be provided including topics such as endangered species, human rights, personal health, and climate change!
Come join us at the UA Food Day on Wednesday, October 23rd from 10am-2pm on the University of Arizona's Mall near the student union!!