Enjoy your Nutella

John Perry

Earlier this year the WWF announced that Nutella, the chocolate spread, would soon be produced only from sustainable palm oil. This sounds like good news. Millions of hectares of rainforest have been cleared to make way for palm plantations. In Borneo and Sumatra, this could soon mean the extinction of the orangutan. The smog that recently enveloped Singapore was caused by fires used to clear forests.

Sustainability is vetted by a body called the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), supported by the WWF and other conservation NGOs. Sainsbury's, Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts are among the firms that use its certificates. But ‘sustainable’ palm oil may still come from farms that have displaced tropical forests. Last year 200 scientists wrote to the RSPO urging it to adopt stricter standards. In April they got their reply when the RSPO’s latest standards merely ‘encouraged’ growers to avoid forest clearance. The WWF admitted that RSPO-certified palm oil is not necessarily sustainable, but refused to pull the plug, saying it would be voting for the revised standards within RSPO as the best compromise available.

Last week, the RSPO held its fourth Latin American sustainable palm oil conference in Honduras. Alongside the WWF and other proponents of sustainability, a prominent organiser and exhibitor was the local palm oil company Dinant, currently seeking RSPO certification. The company is led by Miguel Facussé, the largest landowner in Honduras.

He’s also been called the 'oil palm grower of death'. Much of the palm oil development is taking place in the lower Aguán valley where there is a worsening conflict between large landowners and thousands of landless peasants. In the 1990s, Dinant and other landowners 'used a combination of fraud, coercion and violence' to take land given to peasant farmers under agrarian reform laws. Farmers’ organisations are demanding that these 'sales' be declared void. They are under constant threat. At least 80 people have been killed.

Evidence against Dinant has mounted up. Rights Action is protesting to the World Bank about the large loans it has made to Dinant for biofuel development. In 2011, DEG, the German development bank, faced with evidence of human rights abuses, cancelled a $20 million loan to Dinant. In May 2012, a public hearing on the human rights situation in Bajo Aguán said the violence against peasants was the worst in Central America in 15 years.

At the beginning of August four organisations wrote to the WWF and other NGOs asking them to withdraw from the RSPO conference. They refused. The joint reply from Michaelyn Baur of the Solidaridad Network said that the involvement of WWF and others ‘does not imply... endorsement of any other participants or organizers’ and that it is justified to ‘raise awareness about sustainability standards’. Immediately after the conference, one of the peasant organisations said that several of its members were made to take part in the event 'under duress' ('bajo camisa de fuerza') because otherwise RSPO would not certify local products. There has been no response to this by Solidaridad, the WWF or other NGOs.


  • 13 August 2013 at 8:34pm
    Babette37 says:
    I'd like to thank LRB and John Perry for this article. I was in the Aguan area of Honduras last year, and saw mile after mile of palm plantations. I also met with peasants in the area who were being pushed off their land to make room for plantations. Some had taken back some of the land and were fearing they would be pushed off again. We stayed with them a while to try to assure that would not happen. We saw armed vigilante type guards circling the property. The peasants said they were from Facusse's Dinant. The day after we left the area, we received a call saying that the armed vigilantes had moved in forcing the peasant community out. Some of their members were missing at the time and they weren't sure what was going to happen. We sent the info to other groups internationally to protest and inquire about the safety of the missing members of the community. I don't believe they ever got their land back.

  • 15 August 2013 at 9:07am
    Em Kay Dee says:
    'I have to confess I had no opinions on this topic but a road trip on the East side of Sabah, East Malaysia (formerly British North Borneo)has shocked me. Once over the Crocker Range From Sandakan to Semporna we drove through miles an miles of palm oil plantations to get to our coastal destination Semporna. Old trucks belching thick black smoke collect the nuts and take them to points where they are turned into oil, which is then sent by container lorries also belching thick black smoke, to the coast. These plantations have names like 'eco ..... 'green' etc. ere is nothing green about these they are just silent ghostly factories, denuded of people and wildlife. The entire area east of the Crocker Range appears to have virtually no secondary let alone primary forest left.
    On the return journey we decided to take a little used route around the Maliau Basin conservation area. This area is primary rain forest and apparently it is illegal to log there. The road through the area is little used. The only traffic apart form ourselves was an endless procession of logging lorries. In the space of 5 hours we must have passed or seen at least thirty each stacked with ten or fifteen enormous old tree trunks. Imagine this, seven days a week etc. Having witnessed the entire cycle it seems that the logging operations though lucrative, perform a secondary function in that once an area is cleared then the real long term profits from oil palm production can happen. In perhaps less than ten years Sabah will be left with two pockets of conservation areas Danum Valley and Maliau set in a sea of oil palm estates.

  • 22 August 2013 at 8:56pm
    vcervantes says:
    I was very glad to see an article about the RSPO conference and the situation in Honduras. I have traveled in Honduras in the palm growing region over the past 14 years and just spent 3 weeks in the country this summer with human rights observers. I have seen two trends in the Honduran countryside which have intensified since the 2009 coup: a marked increase in the amount of land planted with African palm and an increase in violence against the small and landless campesinos in the palm growing centers. The statement by peasant organizations that Perry mentions was made by the Agrarian Platform of the Aguan in which the organizations of small producers of palm and other crops are gathered. Their statement also declared that they recognize that the RSPO is being used as a mechanism by the biggest palm growers to increase the concentration of land in the hands of the few big landowners (“terratenientes”).