Caution: Greenwash!

Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO)

This initiative was developed during a small meeting in London in September 2002 between palm oil producers, traders and distributors who set themselves the task first of defining sustainable palm oil and then supplying it to global markets.

The main palm oil producer countries are Indonesia and Malaysia, but increasingly also Colombia, Ecuador and African states, such as Ghana. Palm oil is a raw material which can be used almost anywhere and is thus one of the most popular agricultural commodity. From washing liquids and soap to margarine and cosmetics: everything contains palm oil. It is therefore hardly surprising that the President of the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil, Jan-Kees Vis, works for Unilever. Unilever is a British-Dutch corporation which invests mainly in the food industry, perfumes and cosmetics and textile care products.

Recently, the demand for palm oil has grown, largely due to the biofuel boom in the EU. Thanks to the demand for the so-called 'green fuel' for our mobility craze, the remaining rain forests of South-east Asia have been going up in smoke at an ever faster pace. Once the land has been cleared by fires, oil palm plantations are planted. Since oil palms are trees which carry out photosynthesis and store carbon dioxide, they are classed as ‘climate neutral' and can be traded as carbon sinks under the Kyoto Protocol. The fact that a rain forest stores far more carbon dioxide than a plantation is ignored as are the gigantic CO2-emissions during the fires. The emission of greenhouse gases from the burning of South-east Asia's forests accounts for up to 15% of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. According to the German NGO Retttet den Regenwald, Indonesia lost 5 million hectares of rain forest through conversion to oil palm plantations. In Malaysia, such plantations have been responsible for 87% of deforestation since 1985. Biodiesel thus has nothing to do with 'bio' (life), but means death and destruction. We will not save the earth through deforestation diesel.

The Roundtable is dominated by multinational corporations and so the criteria for 'sustainable' production are accordingly weak. Use of the highly toxic ‘total herbicide' Paraquat, made by Syngenta, continues to be permissible under the Principles and Criteria of the RSPO . The NGO 'Erklaerung von Bern' wrote in November 2005: "It is very surprising that the palm oil criteria do not reflect the concern about Paraquat. No other criteria for pesticide use are as weak as those for palm oil. One possible reason might be the link between the RSPO and the pesticide industry. The Swiss company Syngenta, the main producer of Paraquat, sponsored the official evening dinner during an RSPO meeting in Singapore. It's not good manners, as we know, to bite the hand that feeds, but the participants of the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil need to make a decision: Either they serve the interests of the pesticide industry, or that of the palm oil workers, for whom only Paraquat-free production is sustainable".

Human rights violations linked to the expansion of oil palm plantations should also demonstrate that, sustainable production cannot be possible under those circumstances, because palm oil expansion is synonymous with rainforest destruction, eviction of smallholders and indigenous peoples, murder, torture and poisoning of natural resources. The publication 'Regenwald Report 3/2006' therefore takes a stance against any sustainability certification of biodiesel from palm oil: "Instead of giving palm oil a green coat via certification, we need EU legislation to ban energy production from tropical biomass in Europe".

Roundtable for Responsible Soy (RTRS)

The first meeting of the Soy Roundtable took place in Foz de Igazu, Brazil, in March 2005, when it was still called ‘Roundtable for Sustainable Soy'. At the same time, the local Movement of Landless Laborers, MST, held a counter-meeting in a school and settlement and took part in a protest by environmental and social peasant movements, outside the hotel where the Roundtable met. In May 2006, a very critical article was published in the Swiss newspaper Wochenzeitung about this WWF-soy, which took apart the sustainability claim. Following this article, the Roundtable changed its title from 'sustainable' to 'responsible'. The main emphasis of this initiative is the prevention of destroying primary vegetation for soy production. Existing cropland is to be used more efficiently. Yet according to Brazilian law, unproductive agrarian land should actually have been distributed to landless families. This initiative therefore positions itself against the mass movements of campesinas and sintierras (peasants and landless laborers) and runs the risk of presenting them as the main drivers of deforestation, as happened in the Swiss documentary film “Christine and the Rainforest".

Christine and her husband moved from Berne to Paraguay in 1978, which was in the darkest years of a dictatorship. In the mid-1970s, the Ligas Agrarias, which had been inspired by liberation theology, had been smashed and Stroessner systematically attracted foreign settlers and distributed land to them from which peasants had previously been evicted. The Swiss couple, however, bought about 300 hectares of forest and converted most of it to cropland. Today they fly in a light plane, financed by WWF, over the national park Parque San Rafael, in order to detect hot spots of land-clearance fires or illegal settlements. It is true that there are landless people in this zone. Denouncing them as the biggest destroyers of the forest, however, means that victims are presented as perpetrators. In Paraguay, soy is grown on over 2 million hectares, most of it genetically modified. One million hectares of soy are on land supposed to be destined for redistribution under ‘land reform’ but which corrupt civil servants handed to large landowners and agribusinesses. On the other hand, there are almost half a million landless people, out of a total population of six million. In order to survive, some of them go into the forest in order to sustain themselves. The basic problem is the occupation of Paraguay's agricultural land by soy, destined for export to Europe and China in order to produce meat in livestock factories. This problem is precisely what is not addressed by the Roundtable. They want to solve problems, by trying to unite all interest groups (multi stakeholder process) through market mechanisms.

Very few participants in the Round Tables are interested in questioning the model of industrial livestock production in Europe. As long as we eat lots of cheap poultry and pork in Europe, without producing our own feed for this industry, the pressure on South America's agricultural lands will be kept up. Expanding sugar cane production pushes soy further west and into the Amazon. Deforestation rates rise accordingly. The biggest private soy producer worldwide is Blairo Maggi who is also governor of the Brazilian province Mato Grosso. His nickname is `Soy King'. His kingdom is responsible for almost half of the annual Amazon deforestation (12.546 square kilometres in 2004, 48% of the total forest loss in the Amazon rain forest). It goes without saying that Grupo Maggi is a member of the Roundtable. Logically, such people have a huge interest in blaming social groups which threaten their personal economic interests when speaking to Western NGOs.

We in the global North have to ask ourselves what a sustainable system of agriculture would look like, one that could be sustained without soy imports from Latin America. We will have to eat less poultry and pork, direct competitors with humans for grain. The livestock industry should take a step back. Today's high-performing breeds can be compared to athletes whose performance can collapse from the slightest imbalance. Our dairy cows are so over-bred and have a genetically determined potential which requires them to eat highly concentrated feed in order not to become ill. Instead of grass and clover they mainly eat corn and soy. As consumers we should therefore make sure that we buy dairy and meat products from pasture. This is what is special about ruminants: they are able to produce meat and milk from grass. [note from the editor: or just don't buy dairy and meat.]

The massive rise in demand for protein-rich animal feeds in Europe is due to the prohibition of animal meal in 2000. Instead of using dead livestock for fertilizers or animal feed, they now have to be burnt as toxic waste in cement factories. Feeding them to chickens or pigs would not raise health problems, but instead of choosing that direction, the new prohibition on feeding animal remains in the EU has been adopted by Switzerland through a bilateral agreement. This prohibition will lead to further increases in animal feed imports. As long as we prefer to destroy our resources rather than using them, other people elsewhere on the planet will pay the cost.

Full tank and empty bellies

In conjunction with the boom in biofuels, a worldwide acrimonious competition between fuel and food production is looming. In fact, it's not just threatening, it's already there. In Mexico, the corn price shot up within a short time to 400%. This became known as the tortilla crisis, and was caused when the US stopped exporting their corn because they needed it in order to produce bio-ethanol to power cars. The worldwide stock of grain is lower than ever and prices are rising accordingly. One doesn't need to be prophet to predict what's going to happen, regarding the laws of the market. The grain goes to those who can afford a higher price. And these are quite simply the 'environmentally conscious' car drivers of the North, who have a much higher buying power than tricontinental underclasses. We can only hope for a turnaround in agricultural policies in the global South towards food sovereignty. This will be discussed at the summit for sovereignty of food, at the end of February 2008 in Mali. Besides peasant grassroots organizations, fishermen, NGOs and government representatives will be strongly represented. In Mali, Senegal and Cameroon, concrete political steps have been undertaken to regain control over food supply and to prevent cheap imports of food, that are ruining peasants’ livelihoods and forcing people on fishing boats out towards the Canaries.

Nepal adopted the principle of sovereignty of food to its constitution and also Hugo Chavez works intensively with Via Campesina in this direction. We can best usefully support the struggle of people in the South for territorial control and self-determined use of natural resources (land, water, mineral resources etc.) by radically questioning our own living standards and consumption of resources and energy. Imported 'green' resources for the production of fuel won't ever be sustainable under prevalent conditions. That's why we definitely have to decline all certifications of diverse environmental NGOs. It should also be forbidden to talk of 'bio'-energy and 'green' resources if GMOs, artificial fertilizer and pesticides are used to produce them.

Another greenwash-story

To conclude, let's look at another model sustainability certification, taking the example of the FSC-label. FSC stands for Forest Stewardship Council and is supposed to label the sustainability of forestry products. But the label is tilting more and more. This first occured in the mid-nineties in Chile, when Mapuche-Indigenas were protesting against international wood combines that planted huge mono cultures in their traditional living space getting sustainability certificates. As often the people in the South are being factored out by an eurocentrist and colonial perspective and are only there to meet the needs of the financially strong customers in the North. Customers are deceiving the consequences of their consumption, using questionable labels to clear their conscience so they can carry on with their self-righteous lives. FSC itself used to run a campaign with the title: “FSC guarantees peace of mind to consumers“. But the most recent FSC-scandal shows that consumers must not lean back and take such slogans for granted. The Swiss forestry company Prime Forestry Group PFG from Zurich operated in Panama on teak plantations and offered supposedly profitable partnerships for trees. The director of the company reassured investors that they would be making a valuable contribution to the protection of environment (FSC-certificate) and an above average income return according his philosophy “Business and Nature in Harmony”. Until summer 2005 around 3.500 investors had placed 63 milion francs (39 mil. euro), which for the most part went to a company network in the Caribbean. State attorney Martin Grob estimates that investors have been cheated out of about 16 milion francs (10 mil. euro).

But the other side of the scandal is the support from Carol Franklin Engler, former director of WWF Swiss, who acted as vice-chairman of the board of directors. However, making a pact with Big Business is not going to put an end to deforestation or make the world better place to live. The only alternative is that people stop buying tropical wood. What stays is the certainty that only grass-roots democratic processes from below can bring sustainable change for our situation in the long run. That means also that we have to learn to live on our own resources instead of plundering from all around the globe.

Reto Sonderegger, september 2007