Earlier this year the WWF announced that Nutella, the chocolate spread, would soon be produced only from sustainable palm oil. This sounds like good news. Millions of hectares of rainforest have been cleared to make way for palm plantations. In Borneo and Sumatra, this could soon mean the extinction of the orangutan. The smog that recently enveloped Singapore was caused by fires used to clear forests.
Sustainability is vetted by a body called the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), supported by the WWF and other conservation NGOs. Sainsbury’s, Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts are among the firms that use its certificates. But ‘sustainable’ palm oil may still come from farms that have displaced tropical forests. Last year 200 scientists wrote to the RSPO urging it to adopt stricter standards. In April they got their reply when the RSPO’s latest standards merely ‘encouraged’ growers to avoid forest clearance. The WWF admitted that RSPO-certified palm oil is not necessarily sustainable, but refused to pull the plug, saying it would be voting for the revised standards within RSPO as the best compromise available.
Last week, the RSPO held its fourth Latin American sustainable palm oil conference in Honduras. Alongside the WWF and other proponents of sustainability, a prominent organiser and exhibitor was the local palm oil company Dinant, currently seeking RSPO certification. The company is led by Miguel Facussé, the largest landowner in Honduras.
He’s also been called the ‘oil palm grower of death’. Much of the palm oil development is taking place in the lower Aguán valley where there is a worsening conflict between large landowners and thousands of landless peasants. In the 1990s, Dinant and other landowners ‘used a combination of fraud, coercion and violence’ to take land given to peasant farmers under agrarian reform laws. Farmers’ organisations are demanding that these ‘sales’ be declared void. They are under constant threat. At least 80 people have been killed.
Evidence against Dinant has mounted up. Rights Action is protesting to the World Bank about the large loans it has made to Dinant for biofuel development. In 2011, DEG, the German development bank, faced with evidence of human rights abuses, cancelled a $20 million loan to Dinant. In May 2012, a public hearing on the human rights situation in Bajo Aguán said the violence against peasants was the worst in Central America in 15 years.
At the beginning of August four organisations wrote to the WWF and other NGOs asking them to withdraw from the RSPO conference. They refused. The joint reply from Michaelyn Baur of the Solidaridad Network said that the involvement of WWF and others ‘does not imply… endorsement of any other participants or organizers’ and that it is justified to ‘raise awareness about sustainability standards’. Immediately after the conference, one of the peasant organisations said that several of its members were made to take part in the event ‘under duress’ (‘bajo camisa de fuerza’) because otherwise RSPO would not certify local products. There has been no response to this by Solidaridad, the WWF or other NGOs.
Original post and comments: London Review of Books