- Rainforest Action Network attacked Harita’s palm operations this month but their key criticism was of its forestry operations
- RAN is funded by wealthy US foundations such as the Packard Foundation
- US foundations have earmarked more than USD 4million for anti-palm campaigns
- Key Point: Why is this needed? Indonesian deforestation rates are at an all-time low. This is ultimately about the West retaining control, rather than more nation-building.
Rainforest Action Network (RAN) launched a report this week that called on Procter and Gamble and Mondelez, among others, to cut all ties with the Harita Group, and specifically their joint venture in Indonesian known as Bumitama, and halt sourcing palm oil from Bumitama operations.
But RAN’s principal complaint has absolutely nothing to do with palm oil – it’s actually about timber. RAN has drawn a tenuous line that connects Harita’s timber operations and their forestry operation certification with their palm oil operations.
What’s the problem with the timber operations? According to certifying body Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), Harita’s company, PT RMTK, has infringed upon the rights of local communities.
Unsurprisingly, this is a land dispute concerning the drawing of boundaries around local villages and community forests – dating back to 2011. The most recent dispute appears to have been sparked by a dispute between communities. This isn’t an unusual occurrence in the Indonesian context.
But the question remains: what would RAN try to leverage a timber dispute that has tenuous links to a palm oil company to subsequently attack US consumer goods companies?
The answer is simple: funding.
Rainforest Action Network has, and continues to receive, significant funding from US foundations, in particular via the Climate and Land Use Alliance, which is now headed by RAN’s former executive director.
RAN’s grants have principally involved campaigning against US consumer goods companies and financial institutions, encouraging them to implement policies that require adherence to RSPO standards, or join alliances such as the High Carbon Stock Approach.
Maintaining these grants from foundations requires NGOs to demonstrate a level of ‘success’, which often revolves around awareness, i.e. media hits.
But what happens in the US market, when the main users of palm oil are already aligned with all the ‘right’ palm oil policies? The answer: come up with new and more absurd demands that have literally nothing to do with the companies they are targeting.
However, this is no reason for the industry to be complacent.
There’s a vast amount of NGO funding coming the industry’s way in 2023. Last year, CLUA funded USD2.5 million in projects directed at Indonesia, and around USD20 million for their global projects, which will undoubtedly aim significant funds at palm oil. Packard Foundation alone has set aside nearly USD4 million for projects revolving around palm oil. This includes around USD600,000 for Greenpeace, and another USD400,000 for the Tides Foundation – some of which will likely go through to RAN.
The question at this point though is what some of this funding will actually achieve.
Deforestation rates in Indonesia have hit a historic low, and as much as NGOs and foundations might like to take credit for this, the fact is that it has been domestic Indonesian policy that has lowered deforestation. Campaigners and foundations often forget that majority of the palm oil in Indonesia isn’t exported – it’s consumed domestically, and it’s the domestic policies in a country of more than 270 million people that matter.
Our suggestion? If foundations want to make a difference, put more funding towards implementation, not campaigning.
Smallholders need help implementing Indonesian palm oil certifications such as ISPO. As much as RSPO has tried, it simply has not been able to bridge the gap between its standards and the majority of smallholders. ISPO is a standard developed by Indonesians, for Indonesians, with the input of the country’s smallholder groups. It is surely the best hope for anyone who wants to see truly broad coverage of sustainable palm oil cultivation across Indonesia.
What foundations may not understand is that for most Indonesians, the idea of wealthy Western elites telling them how to run their country is abhorrent. It’s time the foundations checked their privilege.