Improving the performance of the Roundtable on sustainable palm oil for nature conservation

Laurance, William F., Koh, Lian P., Butler, Rhett, Sodhi, Navjot S., Bradshaw, Corey J.A., Neidel, J. David, Consunji, Hazel, and Vega, Javier Mateo (2010) Improving the performance of the Roundtable on sustainable palm oil for nature conservation. Conservation Biology, 24 (2). pp. 377-381.

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Oil palm (Elaeis spp.) is one of the world’s most rapidly expanding crops. Especially prevalent in Malaysia and Indonesia, oil-palm plantations are also increasing rapidly across tropical regions as diverse as New Guinea, Equatorial Africa, Central America, and the Amazon (Butler & Laurance 2009; Koh & Wilcove 2009). Oil palm is an important driver of tropical deforestation, in part, because plantation owners often use timber revenues from old-growth forests to subsidize the initial costs of plantation establishment and maintenance (Fitzherbert et al. 2008). Expansion of oil palm imperils both lowland rainforests and peat-swamp forests, which are, respectively, among the biologically richest and most carbon-dense ecosystems on Earth (Butler & Laurance 2009; Koh et al. 2009a). The rapid expansion of oil palm seems likely to continue for many years because of its high profitability and the growing global demands for edible oils and biofuel feedstocks. Proponents of palm oil emphasize that its main alternatives, including soy, sunflower, and canola (rapeseed) oils, have production efficiencies just 10–20% as high as palm oil on a per-hectare basis and would therefore require much larger areas of cultivated land to have a similar benefit (Basiron 2009). Nevertheless, from climate-change and biodiversity perspectives, the advantages of palm-oil production are greatly diminished when it contributes either directly or indirectly to deforestation (Gibbs et al. 2008; Danielsen et al. 2009).

Growing concerns about the environmental impacts of palm oil helped initiate the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a nonprofit, industry-led trade organization whose stated mission is to “provide RSPO-certified palm oil to the market in a clear and transparent manner” and to “promote the growth and use of sustainable palm oil” ( As implied by the word roundtable, the RSPO professes to advocate a balanced, multistakeholder approach, with considerable emphasis on environmental sustainability. According to the RSPO, this is evidenced by the fact that four of the 16 members of its executive board are from conservation or social-developmental organizations. The RSPO also takes pains to draw a distinction between itself and industry-advocacy groups, such as the Malaysian Palm Oil Council and Indonesian Palm Oil Producers Association, by emphasizing its efforts to improve the industry’s sustainability and transparency (V. Rao, personal communication). The RSPO has considerable potential to improve the environmental performance of producers and users of palm oil. Although established only in 2004, it is strategically positioned within the palm-oil industry and is particularly influential in Malaysia. The growing membership of RSPO already accounts for approximately 35% of the global production of palm oil, although only about one tenth of this oil is currently certified as sustainable (RSPO 2008). To define sustainability in the oil-palm sector, the RSPO has developed 39 sustainability criteria, organized under eight general principles, which are designed to limit environmental impacts of growing and processing palm oil. These criteria focus on issues, such as reducing herbicide impacts, air pollution, and losses of biodiversity as well as on social and legal concerns (RSPO 2006). Nevertheless, some environmental organizations have repeatedly criticized the RSPO and its members, particularly for enabling tropical deforestation and atmospheric carbon emissions under the guise of stated, but unfulfilled, sustainability criteria (e.g., Down to Earth 2004; Greenpeace 2008; Maitar 2009). Here, we critique the RSPO from an environmental perspective and identify some specific ways it can become more effective in reducing threats to tropical ecosystems.

Item ID: 10619
Item Type: Article (Research - C1)
ISSN: 1523-1739
Keywords: tropical biology; biodiversity; conservation; deforestation; palm oil; RSPO; tropical forests
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Date Deposited: 03 Aug 2010 03:21
FoR Codes: 05 ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCES > 0502 Environmental Science and Management > 050202 Conservation and Biodiversity @ 100%
SEO Codes: 96 ENVIRONMENT > 9608 Flora, Fauna and Biodiversity > 960899 Flora, Fauna and Biodiversity of Environments not elsewhere classified @ 100%
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