Responses to our petition on certified palm oil from Brazil
May 18, 2023
Rainforest Rescue has written to the seal organizations, certifiers and buyers of palm oil in connection with our petition against the scam involving certified palm oil from the Agropalma group in Brazil. Here are their responses and our analysis.
The petition “Brazil: Stop land grabbing and violence for “fair and sustainable” palm oil!” exposed conditions at Brazilian palm oil company Agropalma that show that “certified” palm oil is fraudulent labeling. Despite years of court rulings invalidating more than half of Agropalma's land holdings due to illegal land deals and complaints from local people about land grabbing, violence, human rights violations and poor working conditions, Agropalma continues to sell “certified” palm oil. The RSPO certificates of the palm oil refineries in Belém (Pará) and Limeira (São Paulo) “remain valid and do not affect the delivery of orders,” says Agropalma.
We wrote to the seal organizations, certification companies and palm oil buyers. Here are their replies and our analysis.
1. Palm oil seals
a. Palm Oil Innovation Group (POIG)
What surprised us most was the response from the Palm Oil Innovation Group (POIG), the seal that claims to have the world's highest social and ecological standards for palm oil. Only after six weeks and repeated requests did the organization disclaim responsibility with a single sentence:
“Since the POIG is in the process of dissolution and the Agropalma case is currently in court, we will not comment on the details of the case”.
The organization did not provide any information about the reasons for its failure. We were told that “the decision to end the work of the POIG has nothing to do with the Agropalma case.”
POIG was founded in 2013 with the goal of revolutionizing the palm oil industry. Founding members of the label include organizations such as Greenpeace, Rainforest Action Network, WWF and supposedly exemplary palm oil companies such as Agropalma in Brazil. Later, food and consumer goods companies such as Danone, Ferrero and L'Oreal joined as additional members and purchasers of certified palm oil.
At the time, Greenpeace described POIG as a “leap forward” in efforts to transform the palm oil industry. POIG “has released a new, robust and field-tested set of verification indicators that will drive much-needed change in the industry … to break the link between palm oil, the destruction of forests and peatlands, and the violation of human and labour rights.”
After ten years, the POIG has in fact failed, despite its claims of a better and more sustainable future. In the meantime, many more millions of hectares of land have been converted into oil palm plantations, and people have been displaced and enslaved. The palm oil industry is and will remain a destructive business.
b. Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO)
The Round Table for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) responded: “Human rights violations in the palm oil sector remain a challenge. … The RSPO is currently working closely with the certification body IBD and the partner and accreditation body Assurance Services International (ASI) to understand and verify the allegations against Agropalma.”
And further: “On February 8, 2023, IBD temporarily suspended Agropalma's RSPO certificate. On February 13, 2023, Agropalma filed an appeal against the suspension of the certificate, which the IBD is currently reviewing. Agropalma is invited to remedy the non-conformities and to submit proposals for corrective actions, on the basis of which the IBD will further review the implementation of the agreed measures.”
Unfortunately, the process initiated by the RSPO and IBD is completely opaque. It is not clear which specific cases of human rights violations are involved and how they will be resolved and remedied. The core of the problem lies in Agropalma's numerous land conflicts. Brazilian courts have already annulled 58,000 hectares of Agropalma land - more than half of its RSPO-certified area – for illegal land trading and falsification of documents. Other official investigations and proceedings are ongoing.
It is difficult to see how this situation can be resolved. It is also completely incomprehensible how Agropalma's palm oil refineries in Belém, Pará, and Limeira, São Paulo, can apparently continue to sell certified palm oil despite the suspension of the certificate.
c. Organic seals: EU Organic Regulation, USDA Organic, JAS
Organic seals only certify that agricultural products are produced without the use of pesticides, mineral fertilizers and genetic engineering. They do not exclude rainforest clearing, nor do they guarantee social criteria such as decent working conditions or fair wages. The certifiers have no mandate from the seal organizations to go beyond the requirements, even if they encounter serious problems such as child labor. However, the certified land must be legally owned by the respective producer, which is disputed in the case of Agropalma.
2. Certifiers of Agropalma
d. Certifier IBD
Brazilian certifier IBD, which has awarded Agropalma six of its labels, including POIG and RSPO, took almost two months to provide a brief response to our inquiries: “Agropalma's certificate has been suspended since February 2023, but the company's information or the reasons for the suspension are confidential. According to the IBD procedures, the company can appeal or present an action plan to address the indicators in question. We monitor the company's actions together with the RSPO and ASI. As with the other protocols, the information is also confidential.”
In other words, palm oil consumers and the public must blindly trust that the certifier IBD, which is paid directly by Agropalma for its services, is verifying and ensuring compliance with the standards.
German certifier Ceres GmbH, which certified Agropalma according to the Japanese organic standard JAS, replied that “this information is completely new to us” and that they “have asked Agropalma to provide evidence that legal land titles still exist for the areas certified by CERES”. In another message, Ceres confirmed our request: “Agropalma has sent proof that these (and other) areas have become their legal property. There are corresponding confirmations from the administrations of Tailandia and Moju from 2018.”
Ceres does not conduct its own research and continues to rely on the information provided by Agropalma, despite the annulment of land titles by Brazilian courts, the proven fraud and the falsification of documents. However, due to the rulings, the 2018 certifications are highly questionable and may no longer be valid.
3. Food and consumer goods manufacturers
German organic producer Alnatura writes:
“Currently, 80 percent of our production partners source palm oil from Colombia, with Ecuador and Brazil being other sources. … We do not have a direct business relationship with Agropalma. However, we are trying to get as much information as possible about the allegations against Agropalma so that we can act accordingly if necessary.”
However, the information is contradictory, as some Alnatura products appear to contain palm oil from Agropalma. To cover this up, Alnatura has since deleted an entire paragraph from the palm oil FAQ on its website.
As archive.org shows, the question “Where do the manufacturers of Alnatura products get their palm oil from?” was still online until at least March 31, 2023, with the answer: “There are two main organic palm oil producers worldwide that supply the organic sector with sufficient and constant quantities: Agropalma of Brazil and Daabon Organic of Colombia. Most of our manufacturing partners use palm fat from Daabon Organic. … ”.
US candy company Hershey responds:
“The Hershey Company takes all allegations of human rights and labor rights violations as well as violations of the NDPE (No Deforestation, No Peat and No Exploitation) policy very seriously. We have indirect connections to Agropalma through our direct supplier Cargill. We are aware of the allegations against Agropalma and the suspension of RSPO certification. We are monitoring developments in this case through Cargill and the RSPO.”
Swiss food multinational Nestle responds:
“We have worked with Agropalma, including through action plans and training, to help them address gaps and identify opportunities for improvement. In particular, Agropalma is currently undergoing training to further strengthen its NPDE policy, especially in the areas of human rights protection and conflict resolution with local communities. We will continue to monitor the situation closely, including the ongoing mediation process, for which a mediator chosen by the local communities has been appointed.”
Rainforest Rescue demands that the ongoing mediation process be open, transparent and fair, involving all stakeholders and free from any intimidation or threats, which will be a real challenge due to the violence in the region.
Swedish palm oil trader AKK writes us that “they will look at the information” and “unfortunately it is not possible to answer our questions within the given time.”
ADM, Bunge, Cargill, Danone, Ferrero, General Mills, Kellogg Company, Mars, Mondelez, Olenex, PepsiCo, Pz Cussons, Unilever and Upfield did not respond to our request. For the companies, the countless statements and brochures on corporate social responsibility, human rights and the environment published on their websites are obviously just PR.
The company' responses and the end of POIG show that industry seals and voluntary business initiatives cannot solve the problems of the palm oil industry. They support longstanding calls of environmental and human rights organizations around the world to end label fraud and greenwashing with voluntary seals. Instead, we call for legally binding standards, verification of compliance, and strong penalties for violations.
GreenpeaceGreenpeace 2016. A ‘leap forward’ in efforts to transform the Palm Oil Industry: https://www.greenpeace.org/southeastasia/press/772/leap-forward-in-efforts-to-transform-the-palm-oil-industry/
Assurance Services International (ASI)ASI Assurance Services International GmbH (ASI) from Germany says it has audited the Brazilian certifier IBD, which awarded the RSPO label to Agropalma, and suspended it worldwide for certification with the RSPO palm oil label on June 8, 2022. ASI published this six months later (see ASI 2022. ASI suspends IBD Certifications Ltd. for RSPO P&C: https://www.asi-assurance.org/s/post/a1J5c00000UCFmHEAX/p0980. Unfortunately, the reasons for the suspension of IBD are completely unclear to the public, as is the reinstatement of IBD on February 4, 2023 by ASI (see ASI 2023. Suspension lifted for IBD Certifications Ltd. for RSPO P&C accreditation: https://www.asi-assurance.org/s/post/a1J5c00000WmVqYEAV/p1056.
Alnatura without date. Fragen und Antworten zu Palmöl: https://www.alnatura.de/de-de/magazin/palmoel-faq/