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***Press Information for Immediate Release: 11th November 2015***
Human Rights groups call for palm oil moratorium in Palawan, Philippines: End land grabs and forest destruction now!
Puerto Princesa: 11th November 2015
A recent fact-finding mission by regional human rights groups in the south-western island of Palawan, the last ecological frontier of the Philippines, has revealed a pattern of land grabs and forest destruction by palm oil companies, partly owned by Malaysian and Singaporean investors.
Motalib Kimel, Chairman of the local Coalition Against Land Grabbing (CALG) and himself a Taganua leader from Palawan, said:
'The palm oil company AGUMIL is taking over our indigenous peoples' lands through forced and fraudulent land sales. It is quite contrary to national laws. We are losing our lands and our livelihoods. We are calling on the Philippines Government to uphold our rights.'
The appeal was taken up by a regional team of human rights experts, attending the 5th South East Asian Regional Conference on Human Rights and Agribusiness, some of whom visited the affected villages and heard testimony from the farmers and indigenous peoples.
Josie Rodriguez, Regional Coordinator of the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples said:
'The company has been taking land without the mandatory Free, Prior and Informed Consent of the indigenous peoples and without our involvement as required by law. In view of these violations NCIP has the power to issue a restraining order upon filing of complaints by indigenous impacted communities, in order to halt the company's operations while the case is dealt with by the courts.'
The fact-finding team found that AGUMIL, and other oil palm companies, have been acquiring lands contrary to community wishes and in violation of their rights, with the alleged complicity of local government officials. The land grabs are depriving the indigenous communities of their food security, dislocating them from their culture, and driving them into further poverty.
John Mart Salunday, a board member of CALG and President of NATRIPAL, the federation of indigenous peoples in Palwan, said:
'It is like people in the impacted oil palm communities are dying little by little because they no longer have the plants needed to cure themselves. Before they only walked half an hour to get the raw material for building their houses, for their artifacts and medicinal plants. Now they have to walk half a day to the other side of the mountain before they can find the plants they need.'
Forests are being cleared contrary to law. In some areas, AGUMIL's managed cooperatives have imposed unexplained and heavy debts on communities and these debts are being maintained in ways resembling debt slavery. Welly Mandi, CALG's secretary, says:
'We are being strangled by huge debts with both Agumil and the LandBank [the key financier of oil palm development], and our land titles are being withheld by the bank as collateral.'
Moreover, AGUMIL and other oil palm enterprises have bypassed with impunity regulations of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and those relating to Strategic Environment Plans (SEP), and have only obtained environmental clearance for their seedling nursery and oil mill area but not for the 7,000 hectares so far converted into oil palm plantations.
Marcus Colchester, Senior Policy Advisor of the Forest Peoples Programme which co-convened the conference along with CALG and the Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines noted:
'Having reviewed some of the available documents and official maps, it seems clear that local officials of the DENR are implicated in this process. Tragically we find such cases all through South East Asia where oil palm expansion is occurring. The Philippines has some of the best laws in the region that protect indigenous peoples' rights but they are being ignored by local officials.'
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A new report by the Environmental Investigation Agency and Grassroots exposes serious problems in the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil's certification system. Auditing firms that are supposed to monitor palm oil companies' operations are colluding with the companies to hide violations.
The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was set up in 2004 following a series of meetings between WWF and palm oil companies. According to WWF, "One of the huge successes of the Rountable is the development of a certification system for sustainable palm oil."
On its website about the RSPO, WWF has a promotional video for the RSPO. It doesn't show any of the destruction caused by oil palm, or the abuses of indigenous and community rights. There's no mention of the fires that engulf Indonesia every dry season. There are no interviews with workers forced to work in conditions of modern-day slavery.
Instead, we watch a series of graphics, with WWF's voice-over telling us that RSPO's certification system helps to protect nature and people. It guarantees fair working conditions. It upholds indigenous peoples' rights to their land. Clearing rainforest is forbidden. Areas rich in biodiversity and endangered species are protected.
WWF explains that "qualified independent certifiers inspect each plantation to ensure that they meet these standards." Anyone who feels there has been a violation of RSPO's standards can file a complaint.
If WWF's version of events sounds too good to be true, that's because it is.
The new report by EIA and Grassroots finds that,
Auditing firms are fundamentally failing to identify and mitigate unsustainable practices by oil palm firms. Not only are they conducting woefully substandard assessments but the evidence indicates that in some cases they are colluding with plantation companies to disguise violations of the RSPO Standard. The systems put in place to monitor these auditors have utterly failed.
The report is titled, "Who watches the watchmen? Auditors and the breakdown of oversight in the RSPO," and includes a series of case studies that highlight the failures in the RSPO system.
The case studies identify the following problems:
These bear more than a passing resemblance to the problems that have plagued the Forest Stewardship Council – particularly the conflicts of interest between palm oil companies and their auditors.
EIA and Grassroots found that oversight of the RSPO system is not carried out by auditors or the RSPO, but by NGOs and communities. There are currently 52 complaints in the RSPO system, but as the report points out this is likely to be the tip of the iceberg. The palm oil sectors covers millions of hectares of land across three continents, and NGOs work on limited budgets.
The way RSPO deals with complaints is not reassuring:
There is a wealth of evidence to show the complaints process has failed to provide acceptable outcomes to complainants or has held errant members to account. There are concerns with conflicts of interest, with companies that have been subject to complaints joining the Complaints Panel even while the problems raised remain unresolved. Some complaints have dragged on for five or more years without resolution.
The report notes that auditors have made matters worse through further substandard assessments and conflicts of interest.
In October 2012, EIA made a formal complaint against a subsidiary of RSPO member First Resources Ltd. The subsidiary, PT Borneo Surya Mining Jaya, was clearing land belonging to the community of Muara Tae in East Kalimantan. The conflict between the palm oil company and the villagers has still not been resolved.
RSPO's Complaints Panel commissioned a field review that confirmed EIA's allegations. But until the Complaints Panel had upheld EIA's complaint, PT BSMJ continued clearing forests and encroaching on community territories. Meanwhile, the head of sustainability at First Resources has been allowed to become a member of the RSPO Complaints Panel.
EIA Forest Campaigner Tomasz Johnson says:
"The RSPO stands or falls on the credibility of its auditing process but in far too many instances auditors are greenwashing unsustainable practices and even environmental crimes.
"Many major consumer goods firms now delegate responsibility for their sourcing policies to the RSPO and, by extension, to these auditors. If the auditors are engaging in box-ticking and even colluding to cover up unsustainable practices, then products will get to the supermarket shelves that are tainted with human trafficking, rights abuses and the destruction of biodiversity."