LONDON—On the 12th of October, and just days before the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil’s (RSPO) complaints panel was supposed to issue a final judgment on the complaint filed against them by the community of Santa Clara de Uchunya, Plantaciones de Pucallpa (PdP) withdrew from the RSPO.

In its letter to the RSPO the company which is one of at least 25 companies operating as part of the Melka commercial group in Peru, claim “PdP has divested all its palm oil estates, land, related activities and equipment and PdP has no involvement in the Palm oil industry…and withdraws and terminates its membership with the RSPO with immediate effect

The Complaint was filed by the community in conjunction with FECONAU, IDL and FPP (the Complainants) in December 2015 showing that the company had acted illegally by clearing more than 5000 hectares of forest to establish their plantations in lands traditionally owned by the Shipibo indigenous community. The Complaint highlighted that this was in violation of Peruvian and applicable international laws to respect the traditional lands of indigenous peoples and their right to Free, Prior and Informed Consent as well to enforce restrictions against unauthorized deforestation . This meant that it was in violation of numerous Principles and Criteria of the RSPO. Furthermore, the company had never given public notification of its plans to clear forests, as required by the Roundtable on Palm Oil’s ‘New Planting Procedure’.

The RSPO secretariat informed the Complainants of this latest development explaining that the complaint process would now be closed and a final report issued. Complainants, however, have maintained that this is unacceptable and in a letter to the Complaints Panel have insisted that it: “…must publish its final resolution on this case. This is the first case of its kind in Peru and effectively a test case. Plantaciones de Pucallpa’s withdrawal is an act of contempt of the RSPO and this position risks being endorsed if the RSPO cannot pronounce on the substance of the case thereby undermining the credibility of the RSPO and its accountability mechanism.”

Carlos Soria, president of the community responded: “We are deeply frustrated by the very long delays that RSPO’s Complaints Panel has taken to rule on these very obvious violations of our rights. Our land has been stolen and our forests and rivers destroyed all perpetrated in the name of sustainable palm oil and now there is no justice.”

Robert Guimaraes, President of FECONAU, the indigenous federation representing Santa Clara stated: “this is just another sign of impunity of these palm oil companies and the toothlessness of both the RSPO and the Peruvian government. It seems that this company can do what it likes. It was ordered by the government and the RSPO to suspend its operations and yet nothing has changed. This is only one of numerous similar cases in Peru and exposes the gaping holes in the country’s ability to govern its forests and enforce its own laws to protect indigenous peoples’ lands and prevent unauthorized deforestation. Given there are no effective controls against palm oil expansion in Peru’s forests, the pledges of the government and its international backers to reduce net deforestation to zero by 2020 risk being empty promises. Our communities will continue to struggle for our lands and rights over our ancestral forests even if the Peruvian government and the RSPO are unable or unwilling to do so.”

Juan Carlos Ruiz Molleda of the Institute of Legal Defense (IDL) stated that: “We had great hope for the first RSPO complaint in Peru, but we are now deeply frustrated. What kind of accountability mechanism is this that a company can pick and choose when a complaint is dropped. If the RSPO fails to make a statement about this it just effectively endorses the bad faith approach of this company. All this undermines and weakens the credibility of the RSPO which is only just beginning to be implemented in Peru. This establishes a dangerous precedent which will undermine the credibility of the RSPO trademark and no doubt this lack of confidence in palm oil certification will spread across Latin America.

Over the course of the complaint which is documented in RSPO’s case tracker Plantaciones de Pucallpa repeatedly tried to argue that indigenous communities in Peru do not have any land rights outside of formal land titles, that they had cleared no forests and that all their activities had been authorized by the Peruvian government. These false claims, and their denials of, and failure to conduct effective due diligence on community land rights which resulted in violations of their rights were systematically exposed by further submissions by the Complainants. These included high resolution satellite evidence which showed incontrovertibly that over 5000 ha of forests had been cleared since Plantaciones de Pucallpa assumed ownership . When this did not work the company engaged in personal and defamatory attacks on the complainants and tried to overwhelm and confuse the Complaints Panel with irrelevant and spurious documentation.

Tom Griffiths of the Forest peoples Programme commented that “Resigning from RSPO membership at this conspicuous moment is effectively an admission of guilt by Plantaciones de Pucallpa. The company’s violations of RSPO rules have been clearly proven by the Complainants. It appears that once they realized that they couldn’t maintain these fictions the company have decided to withdraw from the RSPO and transfer their assets to a related company in order to evade sanctions. This is common practice by companies like those belonging to the Melka group and comes as no surprise to FPP. However, the credibility of the RSPO is now on the line. People are asking: are RSPO companies truly accountable? What is the genuine value of this industry standard if members can just pull out whenever they fear the complaints panel will rule against them? If the RSPO does not take some concerted action in light of a company’s very transparent effort to avoid being held to account, it risks rendering itself irrelevant.”