In terms of breadth and scale, perhaps the grandest of all the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)’s efforts in the interest of sustainable agriculture has been in the promotion and production of palm oil, a substance used in a variety of processed foods, as well as non-edible products and, to a lesser extent, as a source of biofuel. Of the countries involved in the palm oil industry, Indonesia heads the list as the top exporter, followed by Malaysia; together, the two countries produce 80% of all the world’s palm oil.  Elsewhere, the FAO has managed to introduce a more cold-resistant hybrid of palm tree to be grown in Kenya, which has seen encouraging results: “The potential of the hybrids is considerable,” the project’s website states. “Fruit can be harvested from three-year-old palms, and the palms reach maturity at about six years, if well tended. Mature palms yield about 20 tonnes of fresh fruit bunches per hectare a year, or 4 tonnes of oil. The palms’ productive life is about 25 years.” Moreover, we are told, the cultivation of palm oil is of ecological benefit: “Oil palm is environment-friendly,” according to one of the project’s “key technical officers,” Peter Griffee. “It doesn’t compete with native vegetation or food crops in western Kenya. There’s no need to turn the soil over every year, so there’s less erosion and soil compaction.”  But wherever it is grown, the cultivation of palm oil has been frequently touted by the FAO and others as a means of combating poverty, either by providing employment on large plantations to locals whom are needed for the labour intensive task of land-clearing and harvesting, or by its use as a cash crop for smaller, typically family-run farms.  In this respect, the enterprise might not sound like such a bad idea – so, where’s the catch?
Unfortunately, in the years since the aforementioned project, perspectives on the environmental-friendliness of palm oil production have shifted massively in the opposing direction. Writes Natasha Gilbert for Nature, “Palm oil was once touted as a social and environmental panacea — a sustainable food crop, a biofuel that could help to cut greenhouse-gas emissions and a route out of poverty for small-scale farmers.” However, more recent research would suggest that not only does large-scale production of the crop lead to “damaging deforestation” in the countries concerned, “the oil’s use as a biofuel offers only marginal benefits for mitigating climate change” — in fact, according to tests conducted by the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the use of biofuel emits just 11-17% less greenhouse gas emissions than diesel over an entire ‘life-cycle’ of use.  By all appearances, the environmental movement’s honeymoon with palm oil would seem to be over — within the industry itself, however, not everyone seems willing to let go.
The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a lobby group composed of various corporate stakeholders in the palm oil industry, seeks to “transform markets” and “make sustainable palm oil the norm” by leading the charge on standard-setting and monitoring of sustainable production practices within the industry. At the time of writing, the RSPO’s board of governors includes representatives of palm oil production and processing companies, in addition to those from the manufacturing and retail sectors, companies such as Unilever and Procter & Gamble, and other non-profit organizations like the WWF and the World Resources Institute (WRI). 
At any rate, they certainly have their work cut out for them. As alluded to previously, a great deal of the controversy that has emerged over the cultivation of palm oil trees has to do with the large amounts of natural forest that need to be cleared in order to make way for the plantations. This has consequences both for the ecological stability of an area as well as for its animal inhabitants, such as orangutans and other endangered species resident in Southeast Asia, where most of the world’s palm oil is produced. Furthermore, resident respondents in one survey of an oil-producing region in Malaysia expressed concerns that the processing mills in the area were polluting the local water supply, in addition to noting the loss of the natural forest as a valuable resource for hunting game and gathering wild fruits.  This latter development is of particular concern to the many households who did not own the land they customarily used for subsistence agriculture; due to the nature of Malaysian property laws, these families did not need to be consulted regarding the conversion of this land into plantations — indeed, as the researchers note, seventy-seven percent of the respondents were not given any advance warning, with the remainder being notified of the change by village authorities. As such, these households were now forced to rely much more on hunting and gathering within the shrinking forests as a main food source.  With all of this in mind, the picture becomes more complicated: is it possible to change the inner workings of the industry in a manner that reduces the negative effects of palm oil cultivation, as outlined above, while still retaining the positive benefits to local communities?
A cursory review of the RSPO’s “Principles and Criteria for Certification” for large-scale producers appears promising: contained therein are guidelines and indicators not only for ensuring better environmental practices, but as well for taking into consideration those households and communities that may be negatively affected by plantation activities, such as including them in consultations despite a legal lack of land ownership. On the other hand, and despite the RSPO having been founded in 2004, there are presently no similar standards or guidelines in place for smaller-scale operations — this is certainly problematic, considering that these ‘smallholder’ palm oil producers make up between 35-40% of the total plantation land in Indonesia and Malaysia alone.  Nevertheless, the mere existence of industry standards is surely a step in the right direction. Now, the question is whether or not these standards are being reliably enforced and upheld.
In November of 2012, the International Labour Rights Forum (ILRF), alongside the local NGO Sawit Watch, visited three RSPO-certified plantations in Indonesia with the hope of finding out just that. At all three locations, the field researchers spoke with workers who shared their experiences, from which many frightening commonalities began to emerge: low compensation for the amount and intensity of labour provided; parents having to bring their children with them to work on plantations in order to meet the set harvesting quotas; little or no job security or employee benefits in any respect; and overall poor and/or hazardous working conditions, including frequent exposure to corrosive chemicals without proper protective gear or, when needed, even basic medical care. One worker describes being lured to his place of employment with promises of a good salary and paid accommodation, only to discover on arrival that he would receive no housing, no food, and be paid considerably less than promised for work performed in extremely poor conditions — now, being unable to cover his family’s expenses and forced into taking on debt with the plantation’s on-site commissary, the man has no choice but to continue working there in order to pay it off. At a different site, a ‘casual’ worker (in essence, a labourer who is paid less than a permanent worker, receives no benefits, works unstable hours and may be fired at any time) claims that some of her fellow workers will attempt to bribe the site’s foreman with food and cigarettes in hopes that they will be selected to work a particular shift. 
At the time of writing, only some of the abuses observed by Salit Watch and the ILRF appear to have been dealt with by the RSPO in any meaningful manner. Among the parent companies of the three plantations visited — Wilmar International, Socfin, and Salim Ivomas Pratama Tbk (SIMP) — only SIMP no longer appears on the RSPO’s roster of members. In this case, the ILRF and two other NGOs eventually filed a formal complaint with the RSPO over conditions discovered during yet another visit of the PT Lonsum plantation, one of the three investigated previously by the ILRF and Sawit Watch; a subsequent RSPO-led investigation of the site later confirmed their findings. Following the SIMP’s failure to meet the conditions of the decision rendered by the Complaints Panel, the RSPO terminated the company’s membership and nullified their certification in February 2019.  As for Socfin, at the time of writing there appear to have been no formal complaints lodged with the RSPO (according to their database) regarding labour practices on their plantations to date. 
Meanwhile, Wilmar International, one of the largest shareholders in the global palm oil industry, has continued to generate controversy in more recent years: a 2016 investigation by Amnesty International (AI) uncovered multiple instances of children on Wilmar-owned plantations engaged in labour contrary to both Indonesian and international law; this, too, seems to have resulted from the children’s parents being unable to meet their harvesting quotas without their assistance, which for some of the workers could mean a reduction in their pay, irrespective of the actual hours worked. As the report explains:
The targets that workers have to achieve are set by individual companies, and appear to be set arbitrarily to meet companies’ needs rather than being based on a realistic calculation of how much workers can do in their working hours. [ … ] Workers can face deductions of their salary for failing to meet their targets, in some cases leading to their salaries falling below the minimum wage, or lose out on ‘bonus’ payments despite working long hours in excess of the working hours limit. Workers are rarely paid overtime for extra hours worked. 
Some of the children interviewed claimed to have begun working on the plantations at as young as eight years old.  In a statement responding to the findings presented to them by AI, Wilmar claims to have taken all of the necessary steps to remind parents not to bring their children to work with them, and to conduct regular patrols for enforcement — but, as AI points out, this response entirely ignores “the impact of low wages and the use of targets and penalties for certain tasks as causative factors that lead to parents bringing their children to help them with work.”  Just as the previous investigation conducted by the ILRF and Sawit Watch had found, some of the sites surveyed did not bother providing proper training or protective gear to workers handling hazardous chemicals; in one instance, a worker described having been splashed in the eyes with a particularly strong herbicide, “leading to severe damage in her eye and optic nerve.” 
Not only is Wilmar still a member of the RSPO, a number of Wilmar’s customers are as well — two of them, Unilever and Procter & Gamble, as mentioned previously, sit on the RSPO’s board of directors. With this in mind, it seems quite unlikely that the RSPO’s internal governance is completely unaware of the multiple allegations of this nature that have been levied against Wilmar. What kind of implications do such revelations have, not only for the palm oil industry, but for the very notion of ‘sustainable agriculture’ more generally? The entire, central idea behind the group’s existence has been, ostensibly, to establish standards for sustainable business practices within the industry, and to certify those who have been deemed to meet them: if consumers are to willingly go out and purchase products stamped with the RSPO’s seal, they are doing so with the belief that nowhere along the production chain was the palm oil within the product produced in a manner that violates the sustainability mantra – which, we may reasonably assume, includes respect for labour laws and regulations, at the very least. As it presently stands, it appears that all such a seal provides is the justification for charging a higher price for the end-product — done properly, it is generally more expensive to manufacture products in a non-abusive (regarding both workers and the environment) manner, but this is of course hard for one to verify on the spot when considering whether or not to make a purchase; hence, the alleged point of RSPO certification to start with. With no enforcement of their own standards, however, consumers might well be better off purchasing an uncertified product at a lower price — if they’re being produced in the same, ‘unsustainable’ manner, what’s the point in paying more?
We might wonder how the UN feels about its sustainability ‘branding’ being appropriated by the RSPO for such dishonest and, frankly, downright abusive practices. Well, in 2014, the UNEP nevertheless signed a memorandum of understanding with the RSPO, aiming to “raise the global awareness of sustainable palm oil and generate market demand for an important commodity that has the potential to play a key role in preserving the Earth’s biodiversity.” Said the former Executive Director of the UNEP, Achim Steiner, in a press release, “The RSPO deserves our support in their commitment to produce palm oil sustainably.”  But if RSPO-certified companies continue to benefit directly from the exploitation of these workers, such an ‘understanding’ is effectively meaningless: all they are doing is trying to “generate market demand” for a phony product. Even if it were the case that every other RSPO-certified company adheres faithfully to the organization’s standards, this failure to adequately address the severe infractions committed by one of its most prominent members — Wilmar International — completely discredits the supposed value that such certification purports to generate. The sustainability brand, at least as far as the RSPO is concerned, appears to be just another form of marketing: a means of tricking consumers into purchasing products they believe to be more ethically produced, when it is in reality the exact same product in fancier, ‘sustainable’ packaging.
Notes & References
 Sonja Vermeulen and Nathalie Goad, Towards Better Practice in Smallholder Palm Oil Production, Natural Resource Issues Series No. 5 (London: International Institute for Environment and Development, 2006), 4.
 Teresa Buerkle, “Hybrid oil palms bear fruit in western Kenya,” FAO Newsroom, November 24, 2003, http://www.fao.org/english/newsroom/field/2003/1103_oilpalm.htm (accessed August 21, 2019).
 Vermeulen and Goad, Towards Better Practice, 10.
 Natasha Gilbert, “Palm-oil boom raises conservation concerns,” Nature 487, no. 7405 (July 5, 2012): 14-15.
 “Our Organization,” Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, n.d., https://www.rspo.org/about/our-organisation (accessed August 21, 2019).
 A. A. B. Dayang Norwana, R. Kunjappan, M. Chin, G. Schoneveld, L. Potter and R. Andriani, The local impact of oil palm expansion in Malaysia: An assessment based on a case study in Sabah State, Working Paper 78 (Bogor, Indonesia: Center for International Forestry Research, 2011), 8.
 Ibid., 12-13.
 Vermeulen and Goad, Towards Better Practice, 8.
 International Labour Rights Forum and Sawit Watch, Empty Assurances (Washington, D.C.: ILRF, 2013).
 “RSPO Secretariat’s Statement on Complaints Panel Decision Regarding PT Salim Ivomas Pratama Tbk,” Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, March 1, 2019, https://www.rspo.org/news-and-events/news/rspo-secretariats-statement-on-complaints-panel-decision-regarding-pt-salim-ivomas-pratama-tbk (accessed August 22, 2019).
 That said, according to American policy think tank The Oakland Institute, Socfin’s land-leasing practices have come under fire from locals in Sierra Leone. See: The Oakland Institute, Understanding Land Investment Deals in Africa: Socfin Land Investment in Sierra Leone (Oakland: The Oakland Institute, 2012).
 Amnesty International, The Great Palm Oil Scandal: Labour Abuses Behind Big Brand Names — Executive Summary (London: Amnesty International, 2016), 5.
 Ibid., 6.
 Ibid., 8.
 “UNEP and Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil Sign New Agreement,” United Nations Environment Programme, November 14, 2014, https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/press-release/unep-and-roundtable-sustainable-palm-oil-sign-new-agreement (accessed August 22, 2019).