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RSPO audit failings, “zero vs. “net” deforestation, and much more. Q&A with Jago Wadley at EIA

Jago Wadley is a senior forest campaigner at the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA).

I recently sent him some questions about the work of EIA this year and last, their concerns about audit integrity, certification, company progress, governance and legality in forestry.

I also asked him whether the role of campaign groups like EIA is changing today. His responses are below, and well worth a read.

TW: Your recent report “who watches the watchmen” reported that “Auditing firms are fundamentally failing to identify and mitigate unsustainable practices by oil palm firms. Not only are they conducting woefully substandard assessments but the evidence indicates that in some cases they are colluding with plantation companies to disguise violations of the RSPO Standard. The systems put in place to monitor these auditors have utterly failed.” 

So what is it that you would like auditing firms to do, that’s not currently happening?


A child is dwarfed by the roots of a tree felled on his land by RSPO member Noble Group. Photo: EIA

JW: “At a minimum, EIA wants auditors to identify the risks of non-compliance with the RSPO Standard, as they are required to by the RSPO.

We want them to carry out thorough, unbiased field assessments and produce reports that allow certification bodies, the RSPO, communities, observers and interested parties alike to make informed, objective judgments about whether company operations are compliant with the RSPO standard.

Currently, many auditing firms are demonstrably failing to do that. They are carrying out methodologically flawed fieldwork and producing substandard, biased reports that omit or disguise serious flaws in the operations of plantation companies.

It’s not just about what auditing firms can do, however. The RSPO itself needs to provide them with clear, mandatory, and enforceable guidelines that will help auditors to do a better job. It also needs to create a better oversight regime that will identify and penalize bad practice.

EIA is hopeful that the Task Force established by the RSPO Board in response to EIA’s Watchmen report will ensure that Resolution 6h on “Ensuring Quality, Oversight and Credibility of RSPO Assessments,” and passed on 19th November 2015, is credibly and fully implemented.”

TW: Are the causes of this financial conflicts of interest, and what are your suggested solutions here, both by oil palm firms and by the RSPO?

JW: “Conflict of interest is certainly a factor, but there are several factors. One of the key issues is that there is a lack of clear mandatory guidance over what auditors are required to do.

For example, the guidance around minimum standards for HCV assessments is weak; the guidance around determining whether an FPIC process is in place is weak. This creates huge grey areas within which auditors operate.

If an HCV assessor wants to do a good job, there’s nothing stopping them from doing it. However, if an HCV assessor wants to do a shoddy job or even a fraudulent job, the current regime will not prevent them from doing so.

The shoddy HCV assessors tend to be cheaper than the good ones. So plantation companies have a choice: opt for the cheap auditor who will sanction the use of 90% of your concession, or the expensive auditor who will tell you can use 50% of it.

Companies often opt for the cheapest audit enabling the most profitable outcomes. Creating escrow accounts and removing the ability of companies to choose their own auditors will be a simple solution to this and level the playing field.

Our recommendation to oil palm growers would be to use good assessors and get things right at the outset of their operations, to avoid creating problems that can plague the next 25 years of production and exclude their product from markets.

We have made a range of other recommendations to the RSPO, its members and board both through our report and in person, to address the multitude of other issues around the regulatory regime and governance within the RSPO.”

TW: Where are you on the “zero deforestation vs. zero net deforestation” debate?

JW: “If Forest A in Concession A is converted into Industrial Timber Plantation A and a “zero-net deforestation” claim is made, EIA will consider it Grade A Greenwash. If “net” means that planting a monoculture then justifies clearing natural forest habitat, we are all best not getting caught up in it.

Companies, and even more so, industry associations, like the CGF, may want to look at these things at Group or Association level. They may say “Group Company A deforested Concession A, but Group Company B reforested Concession B, so the Group is “Zero-net”.

The fact will remain that Group Company A deforested Concession A, and no amount of accountancy talk can change that. Reforested Concession B will likely merely be a clear-cut “temporarily re-stocked” every growth cycle, so on a carbon level alone it needs to offset itself, not Concession A.

If companies ensure their gross operations are free from deforestation, they would have put the ball in the back of the net. That’s how goals are scored.”


Logs from the clearance of PT Kahayan Agro Plantation in Central Kalimantan. Photo: EIA

TW: You’ve said that “EIA wants to support the implementation of corporate policies through information provision, in ways that we hope will help future-proof these policies”. How does this change your role as a campaign group?

JW: “It doesn’t. EIA’s role has always been collecting pertinent information on legal, social or environmental non-compliances during commodities production and trade, and submitting it to those in a position to use it to optimize implementation and enforcement.

The information EIA collects in support of progressive corporate oil palm policy implementation is the same kind of information we collect when reporting illegal loggers or illegal plantations operators to governments.

It is all the same process of reporting non-compliances with set standards – it is just the standards and standard-setters that are changing. Rather than focusing narrowly on legal non-compliances, EIA’s work also highlights non-compliance with corporate polices too.

Both governments and corporates need information to implement the standards codified in their respective laws and polices. Both tend to implement them better when independent actors such as EIA are providing useful information, and are closely watching how effectively it is used.”

TW: 2016 predictions: What do you see happening this year on the campaigner side of things when it comes to big companies and sustainable supply chains?

JW: “The non-existent “crystal ball” suggests some progressive big companies will in places struggle to meet their own policy commitments. We anticipate wavering appetite and resolve as tensions between limited “compliant” supply and operational needs arise. Campaigners will need to provide both incentives and disincentives in response, as appropriate, and monitoring will need to be a major part of that.

EIA also anticipates corporate resistance to initiatives to transpose progressive company policies into climate and forest-smart government regulations governing the supply chains feeding major consumer markets.

While appreciating the essence or substance of many voluntary polices underpinning the “Zero-deforestation” movement have gone further than government requirements, EIA and other organisations are keen to see crucial elements of them codified into legal requirements governing all actors offering up commodities and related consumer goods in major markets.

EIA anticipates a couple of years or so of structural corporate antipathy to regulating best practice, before consensus is reached that regulation will consolidate gains made, level the playing field in favour of best practice, and help deliver political commitments on forests, climate, and consumption.”

TW: Finally, do you see lower soft commodity prices as being helpful to sustainability progress, or a challenge?

JW: “Prices fluctuate. Sensible businesses know this, and develop and implement their policies with the long-term in mind. While low prices may disproportionately impact the bottom lines of responsible operators when compared to irresponsible competitors, so too do they betray a misbalance between supply and demand (oversupply) that could equally discourage the kind of new entrants to commodities production that may not practice sustainability. One might balance out the other.

Indeed, it could be argued that low commodity prices are a result of unsustainable practices of the past, where destructive production expansion at the expense of forests, the climate and people has resulted in the very oversupply that has suppressed prices.

Yet all of this is likely unverifiable speculation. The most important factor will be ensuring progressive company policies deliver the commitments made to their consumers (and to the people of the world), by excluding unsustainable production practices from their supply chains, and that government regulations then help universalize those values across entire sectors.”

More on EIA’s work can be found at:

EIA regularly take part in Innovation Forum’s “How business can prevent deforestation” conferences around the world.

The next one is on April 6-7 in Washington D.C. 200 execs from big companies, NGOs and others will meet in an off-the-record forum.

Details can be found at:

Other sustainable business events coming up soon from Innovation Forum include:


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