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RSPO – How Round is your Roundtable?

RSPO palm oil


How Round is your Roundtable? That’s one of the questions I hope to answer over the coming week at the RT13 – Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) annual conference here in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

The idea of a roundtable is, after all, based on equity via inclusion—but do palm oil giants like Wilmar and Sime Darby, consumer product leviathans Nestlé and Colgate-Palmolive, international NGOs and governments all share equitably in RSPO? And what of smaller players, are they even here? Do they all share the idea of sustainability? Or even in what it means?  Is the roundtable a metaphorical hope, or something more concrete? Definitely a week worth of questions.

Roundtables are an old idea, but one of mixed results. The dream of complete inclusion got its start nine centuries ago with King Arthur. Arthur was searching for a way to level the power playing field. The roundtable signaled to his congregation of knights that their words and roles were valued with equal weight; no one person or collective would be seen to control the conversation or outcome. A friend told me once the trick to getting anything accomplished (regarding large groups like an RSPO) was to get them to leave their egos and logos at the door; Arthur hoped the roundtable could be a first step in that direction.

I don’t expect a roundtable to be awaiting my arrival at the Shangi-la hotel as the conference kicks off on Tuesday. Nor do I expect to see a collection of logos and egos piled neatly at the conference room door.  However, for the fate of great apes, and apes like us, I hope to see the kind of deliberate, industry-wide thinking that prevailed at the recent Conflict-Free Sourcing minerals conference I attended in San Jose, California. But then again their collective actions were not first debated around a table, but imposed through the financial fear of non-compliance with Section 1502 of the U.S. Dodd-Frank Act. A decade-old criticism of RSPO is lack of teeth: no financial fear, no judicial jeopardy. Only recently has coordinated public backlash generated reaction, and then not by RSPO, but independently by members like Wilmar and Nestlé, seeking to stem the negative tide.

What does sustainability look like as it circulates the roundtable?

I have, from the beginning, found the ‘SPO’ part oddly out of step with the roundtable inclusivity concept — clever marketing by WWF and others have persuaded the palm oil industry to approach the table, but they never left egos and logos, nor financial agendas, at the door.  The sustainability of palm oil has never been the issue; Does anyone honestly believe the palm oil industry has feared unsustainability? As the last two decades have clearly illustrated, rainforests and palm oil plantations are on decidedly opposite sustainability trajectories.

What I’m curious to discover this week is how salient do RSPO members see their actions to the survival of great apes, and the forests they call home? After all, in a perfect world non-human great apes would have their own representative sitting at the roundtable, so too forests and peatlands, and local land owners. Without their voices there, do RSPO members truly understand apes cling to the sustainability promise with their very lives? Or that zero-deforestation and zero-peatland loss cannot be just commitments on some vague future timeline, but must be concrete, implementing immediate actions. Time is critical. As we have just seen with the out-of–control inferno in Indonesia orangutans don’t have until 2030, or other distant deadlines.

The palm oil producing and delivery members of the RSPO serve much of the over 3.7 billion plus people that consumed palm oil daily—the most consumed non-petroleum oil on Earth. Most frightening is consumption is set to nearly double in the coming decades. So where will that oil come from? Current oil fields cannot meet that demand. Then what? Are zero-deforestation and zero-peatland loss a long-term reality or just placating marketing phrases to spin around the table?

I was once told humans react out of fear, faith and finance — nothing was ever mentioned about the shape of a table.


Notes & Resources



2015-2016 Global research and reporting on great apes made possible in part through the generous financial support of the Philadelphia Zoo


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