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Rowing against the tide: Friends of the Earth's update on Wilmar and its sustainability policy

Posted May. 8, 2014 / Posted by: Jeff Conant

Campaigners from Friends of the Earth U.S., Friends of the Earth Europe and NAPE-Friends of the Earth Uganda are in Indonesia this week for strategy meetings with Walhi-Friends of the Earth Indonesia and a closed-door discussion with palm oil giant Wilmar International to make the company aware of ongoing problems in its operations and to ask about implementation of its much-talked-about “No Deforestation, No Peat, No Exploitation” policy.

Friends of the Earth groups have been campaigning for years to pressure Wilmar, one of the world’s largest palm oil traders, to end its abusive practices of forest destruction and land grabbing. Time and again, because of large discrepancies between Friends of the Earth’s allegations and Wilmar’s public communication on specific cases of land grabbing, the company’s financiers are placed in a role of arbiter in an apparently endless game of he-said, she-said. Despite Wilmar having published its ‘No Deforestation, No Peat, No Exploitation’ policy on December 5, 2013, Friends of the Earth has continued to receive reports of ongoing problems with Wilmar’s palm oil operations from groups in Liberia, Nigeria, Uganda and Indonesia. It's high time, then, to confront the company about this double-discourse directly and talk about the ongoing cases.

Friends of the Earth’s meeting with Wilmar to discuss the policy coincides with the publication this week of a scathing article on Wilmar in the German magazine Der Spiegel, a second piece from Germany roundly criticizing the ability of voluntary initiatives to bring about the needed transformations in saving forests from the axe, and a short editorial in The New York Times acknowledging the need to rein in the palm oil sector.

In Friends of the Earth’s meeting with Wilmar -- attended by Anne van Schaik of Friends of the Earth Europe, David Kureeba of Friends of the Earth Uganda, Jeff Conant of Friends of the Earth US, along with Nur Hidayata, Anton Widjaya, Kurniawan Sabar, Arie Rompas and Sri Ranti of Walhi-Friends of the Earth Indonesia -- we were disappointed to learn that company representatives and their consultants The Forest Trust had failed to review reports of cases that Friends of the Earth has been working on for years, raising serious questions about Wilmar’s seriousness. While we had low expectations entering the meeting, the company’s oft-repeated mantra to the effect of “things take time,” and the failure of company representatives to take our concerns at face value made clear that, even as Wilmar earns points with financiers for its policy commitment, communities left landless and forests razed for palm oil can wait.

The challenges, particularly in Indonesia, are enormous. Nur Hidayata, known as Yaya, campaign director for Walhi-Friends of the Earth Indonesia: “In Indonesia already 12 million hectares are developed as palm oil plantations, and the government has made a firm commitment to have 26 million hectares in total developed by 2020.”

Walhi is working on multi-pronged strategy to stop this, which consists on one hand of exposing and resisting land grabbing companies. On the other, it supports communities’ efforts to demarcate their customary lands, develop diversified agro-forestry systems, and take control over palm oil production in independent smallholder operations that do not run the ecological risks of globalized industrial scale plantations. In the fall of this year, Walhi will bring more than 140 rural villagers to Jakarta to tell the newly-elected president and members of parliament their vision towards sustainable economies through agro-ecology and local food sovereignty.

David Kureeba, forest and biodiversity campaigner with Friends of the Earth Uganda, where a palm oil project by Wilmar started in 2004, states: “Wilmar’s palm oil project has caused the destruction of forests, has confiscated public land and evicted community members from that land.”

Friends of the Earth groups have been campaigning since 2011 to bring international attention to the Uganda case, alerting both Wilmar and its financiers in Europe and the U.S. David is optimistic about the results: “This palm oil project will not benefit the local farmers. Most people do not want this project, we do not use to have palm oil and it is not a native crop. Excessive use of pesticides is polluting Lake Victoria, further endangering the livelihoods of fisher community. Community resistance is growing, after NAPE and other local groups gave them training on their land rights. Also thanks to the international advocacy work by Friends of the Earth groups in Europe and U.S., Wilmar will most likely find difficulties to find land to expand, thereby endangering the project altogether.”

While a spate of policy commitments from Wilmar and other palm oil traders, as well as promises of “zero deforestation” by an ever-expanding list of consumer companies gives reason for hope -- and reason to believe our campaigns are having effect -- Friends of the Earth has no illusions that the voluntary transformation of the industry’s largest and most historically destructive players will resolve the ecological onslaught brought on by palm oil.

Indeed, our meeting with Wilmar this week makes clear that while the company may have plans to improve its sustainability profile, it has thus far failed to resolve our immediate concerns. Wilmar’s sustainability policy may impact its future operations, but regarding the years of deforestation, a company representative told us, “You can’t bring a dead fish back to life by throwing it in the river.” Wilmar is aware of the need to address numerous ongoing  land conflicts and has contracted TFT to develop an action plan; for its part, TFT is developing a comprehensive strategy but has thus far failed to contact important stakeholders in Uganda and Nigeria.

According to Walhi’s figures, 85 percent of Indonesia’s forest area is under the control of companies. Of 130 million hectares of forest area in this vast island nation, 57 million hectares are already licensed to timber, pulp and paper and palm oil companies. Walhi’s mandate to halt the expansion of palm oil and to give community land back to communities will only be met by deep structural changes in the way the country manages its land and resources, and a profound shift in the rules governing finance and trade that directly shifts the balance from profit to people.

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