A-Bloteh v. Golden Veroleum Liberia, before the Appeals Panel of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil
The Appeals Panel upheld the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) Complaints Panel’s decision dated February 13, 2018, finding that Golden Veroleum Liberia (GVL) had violated many criteria and principles of the RSPO in the process of procuring, cultivating and developing land in Liberia for palm oil production. The Complaints Panel’s February 13, 2018 order had held that GVL had violated local groups’ right to free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC), had used coercion, had not adequately protected the local groups’ right to participate in local mapping, had not converted provisional memorandums of understanding (MOU) into final MOUs, and had continued developing disputed land. The February 13, 2018 decision had also found that GVL had not updated its Standard Operating Procedure regarding FPIC and had not updated or improved the management or administration of the Compensation Development Fund.
The original complaint was filed in October 2012 by Green Advocates on behalf of the Indigenous Butaw Kru Peoples, asserting that GVL: a) had commenced land preparation and other development without providing public notification consistent with the RSPO New Planting Procedures; b) had cleared land without the free, prior and informed consent of the customary land owners through representative organizations of their choice; and c) had not conduct comprehensive, participatory and independent social and environmental impact assessments of the area concerned and incorporated the results into relevant action plans, including by identifying (i) all primary forests; (ii) any area required to maintain or enhance one or more High Conservation Values (HCVs); and (iii) local peoples’ lands.
The complaint was initiated against GVL in October 2012 before the RSPO. The Complaints Panel’s first decision in the case was on December 13, 2012, finding that the complaints had merit and issuing a Stop Order against GVL. Beginning in 2013, GVL was required to file quarterly reports on its activities in Liberia, including its efforts to improve its operations and to comply with later decisions from the RSPO. Because of GVL’s failure to comply, between mid-June 2014 and early September 2015, the Complaints Panel conducted a series of field verification missions to Liberia, a first for the panel since its establishment. This resulted in a decision rendered on September 19, 2015, with GVL filing a response in October 2015. Green Advocates and other nongovernmental organizations protested the Complaints Panel’s September 19, 2015 decision, claiming it was biased and amounted to greenwashing. Under tremendous pressure, the Complaints Panel hired an independent firm to conduct a fact-finding mission to verify GVL compliance of the RSPO decision and its principles and criteria. At the end of the independent firm mission and the submission of its reports, the Complaints Panel on February 13, 2018, issued a final decision maintaining the Stop Order. In April 2018, GVL filed a notice of appeal. On July 13, 2018, the Appeals Panel upheld the Complaints Panel’s decision and its Stop Order.
The Appeals Panel found that GVL’s argument that it was subjected to double jeopardy in the February 13, 2018 decision was unfounded because the panel had retained jurisdiction over the case and had the ability to require progress reports through paragraph eleven of the 2015 order. The Appeals Panel also determined that the complaints process was designed to monitor situations, such as the one in Liberia with GVL, and to ensure compliance with RSPO principles and criteria and therefore follow up to the 2015 order was warranted.
The Appeals Panel also held that GVL was sufficiently involved in the second verification process and therefore could not challenge the verifiers’ findings or the 2018 report based on this. The panel also determined that the verifiers’ methodology was sound and that, in contradiction to GVL’s assertion, confidentiality was necessary to preserve the integrity of the verifiers’ report and the 2018 decision.
The panel also determined that GVL was still failing to honor the right to FPIC of the Butaw community because GVL had not engaged the local representative and had used coercive tactics. The panel therefore denied the request to lift the Stop Order.
In relation to the Tarjuowon MOU, the panel upheld the 2018 order requiring mapping of surrounding communities because GVL had not considered towns outside of the immediate area and therefore had not complied with RSPO criteria.
The panel also dismissed GVL’s contention that it had engaged with the Blogbo community because it conflated Blogbo-Teh with the Blogbo community. Furthermore, it determined that GVL had not engaged in the FPIC process and therefore upheld the 2018 decision finding that GVL was developing on disputed land.
On July 20, 2018, GVL announced its withdrawal from the RSPO, but GVL’s parent company, Golden Agri Resources (GAR), remained a member. On August 13, 2018, three nongovernmental organizations lodged a complaint concerning the Golden Agri Resources (GAR) Company, located in Indonesia, and its subsidiary operation, GVL, operating in Liberia, requesting that Golden Agri Resources (GAR) should not be permitted to evade responsibility for their subsidiaries’ abuses just by the suspension of the latter’s RSPO membership. They demanded that: a) the RSPO impose sanctions immediately on GAR for the behavior of its subsidiary; b) that all Certified Sustainable Palm Oil certificates of GAR operations be suspended; and c) that GAR be asked to suspend its membership in the RSPO Board. Further, they asked that GAR, as the majority owner of GVL, also be required to insist that GVL comply with the Complaints Panel’s Stop Order and provide remedy for the violations identified by the Complaints Panel. The complaint was filed on behalf of all those affected by GAR and GVL’s operations. The complaint was not upheld by the Complaints Panel and was closed. However, in a separate determination, the Board said that there was no provision in the Statutes for members to ‘self-suspend,’ and since GVL had not withdrawn from RSPO, it was still a member subject to the RSPO’s jurisdiction and therefore must follow the Complaints Panel’s instructions.
The case is significant because it highlights how strategic community lawyering combined with resilience and resistance of local communities and indigenous peoples, evidence-based research, a coalition of local and international nongovernmental organizations, and a robust media campaign can hold a certification body accountable to obtaining ecological and human rights outcomes. This decision is important because it represents the power of certification and how it can contribute to the protection of forest ecosystems and securing land rights for indigenous peoples. It represents a major step in protecting local communities’ rights, conserving pristine tropical forests, and securing the unprecedented appointment of an external verifier after a vigorous campaign to prevent the greenwashing of the local communities’ and indigenous peoples’ complaints by the RSPO Complaints Panel.
For their contributions to the summary, special thanks to ESCR-Net members: Green Advocates and the Program on Human Rights and the Global Economy (PHRGE) at Northeastern University.
Updated June 1, 2020