The sustainability scam: “certified” palm oil from Brazil

Two women behind a high barred gate are being checked by a guard. Inscription on the sign: Agropalma. Access control for Nossa Senhora da Batalha cemetery. Private property Local people cannot visit their own cemetery without dealing with Agropalma’s fences and guard posts (© Avispa Mídia)

Mar 27, 2024

International food companies such as Danone, Ferrero and Kellogg’s use the RSPO sustainability label to justify their use of palm oil. But the serious land conflicts and ongoing violence at RSPO-certified Agropalma in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest show that things are not going according to plan.

The Agropalma Group, which describes itself as the largest producer of sustainable palm oil in Latin America and whose website prominently displays the slogan “We bring to the world our products, respect towards people and the environment”, has once again had its “Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil” (RSPO) certification revoked.

Upon repeated request, the RSPO Secretariat confirmed by email on March 20, 2024, that Agropalma’s certification has been suspended since December 2023 following an annual monitoring assessment by the certification body SCS Global Services (SCS).

According to RSPO’s response, the suspension of the seal appears to be related to allegations against Agropalma regarding violations of land rights, customary rights and water pollution from wastewater.

For years, environmental and human rights organizations have denounced Agropalma’s land conflicts and violence against communities in the Amazon rainforest of the Brazilian state of Pará. Several tens of thousands of hectares of Agropalma land have now been declared illegal by local courts.

In late 2022, Rainforest Rescue launched the petition “Brazil: Stop land grabbing and violence for “fair and sustainable” palm oil”, which has already been signed by 77,000 people. We also analyzed the responses from Agropalma’s certifiers and palm oil customers.

More than 20 well-known international food companies – including Alnatura, Danone, Ferrero, Kellogg’s, Mars, Mondelez, Nestlé, PepsiCo, Unilever and Upfield – buy certified palm oil from Agropalma.

A quagmire of incompetence or corruption?

SCS is a US company accredited by the RSPO sustainability label that issues certificates to the palm oil industry and its customers for supposedly sustainably produced palm oil. But it is not only Agropalma that appears to have committed serious violations, but also its former certifier, the Brazilian company IBD.

As we reported in 2023, the conditions at Agropalma have also brought the certifier IBD under fire. Due to obvious irregularities between June 2022 and February 2023, IBD was also suspended from its activities for the RSPO. This was done by the Bonn-based organization Assurance Services International (ASI), which monitors the work of certification companies.

Only just reinstated, IBD suspended the RSPO certification of Agropalma’s oil palm plantations in February 2023 due to public pressure. Why IBD then lifted the suspension of the palm oil plantations a few months later in June 2023 was not disclosed and remained completely unclear.

The RSPO certification system is completely opaque

However, according to the RSPO response, ASI’s investigation of IBD was apparently not complete: “ASI has confirmed the allegations against IBD and has identified a number of deficiencies that need to be addressed by IBD”. The organization was apparently unable to do so, which is why, according to the RSPO response, ASI withdrew IBD’s authorization to conduct certifications for the RSPO on August 14, 2023.

The allegations against Agropalma’s now re-certified oil palm plantations continued and the violent conflicts intensified. In November 2023, a group of Indigenous people on an Agropalma plantation were reportedly fired on by company security guards. An Indigenous Turiwara was killed and two companions were injured, and other serious allegations were made against the palm oil company, including failure to provide assistance, deprivation of liberty, robbery, and destruction of private property.

In the meantime, Agropalma has found a new certifier, the aforementioned US company SCS. The RSPO website currently lists 26 approved certification bodies, including IBD. And in December 2023, SCS again suspended Agropalma’s RSPO certification for its oil palm plantations.

Agropalma can still sell RSPO-certified palm oil

However, the suspension of the RSPO label apparently only applies to Agropalma’s 39,000 hectares of oil palm plantations. According to Agropalma, these were cleared in the Amazon rainforest in the state of Pará between 1982 and 2002. Why monocultures created in this way are allowed to carry the label is one of the RSPO’s many secrets.

But that’s not all: In the RSPO database and on the Agropalma website, there are still six RSPO certificates issued in October 2023 and valid until October 2026 or 2028. These seem to cover the so-called supply chain and allow Agropalma to continue to store, process, sell or trade certified palm oil.

What this means for Agropalma’s customers is unclear. Further inquiries by Rainforest Rescue to the RSPO and the certifier SCS remained unanswered. Environmental, social and human rights organizations around the world, including Rainforest Rescue, have rejected the RSPO label for many years as fraudulent and greenwashing.

In August 2023, Rainforest Rescue activists visited the area of Agropalma’s oil palm plantations and oil mills in the state of Pará and agreed to support the affected people. It was also very important to the local communities that we report internationally about the situation on the ground and the machinations of the palm oil industry and its clients.

  1. environmental and human rights organizations have denounced Agropalma’s land conflicts and violence

    Global Witness, Sept. 2022. AMAZON PALM: Major international brands sourcing palm oil from Brazilian plantations linked to violence, torture and land fraud:

    WRM, Feb. 26, 2024. The struggle for land in the Brazilian Amazon region against palm oil and mining corporations:

  2. analyzed the responses from Agropalma’s certifiers and palm oil customersRainforest Rescue, May 18, 2023. Responses to our petition on certified palm oil from Brazil:

    Rainforest Rescue, Mar. 24, 2023. Brazil: Agropalma’s “certified palm oil” seals under fire:

  3. The RSPO website currently lists 26 approved certification bodiesRSPO, website visited on Mar. 27, 2024. CERTIFICATION BODIES. All RSPO certification bodies (CBs) are accredited by the Assurance Services International (ASI):

  4. RSPO databaseRSPO, website visited on Mar. 20, 2024. SUPPLY CHAIN CERTIFICATE HOLDERS. Keyword Agropalma, Land Brazil:

  5. Agropalma website

    Agropalma, Oct 5, 2023. Agropalma Group – Companhia Refinadora da Amazônia (CRA):

    Agropalma, Oct. 16, 2023. Agropalma Group – Indústrias Xhara:

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