Protected forests to grow under new rules, says palm oil watchdog

(This July 16 story corrects after RSPO changes protected hectares total in paragraph four.)

KUALA LUMPUR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Protected forest areas will grow by up to 10% under new rules to stop deforestation, the palm oil industry watchdog said on Tuesday, which is working to make the edible oil greener.

Under pressure to tighten standards, the 4,300-member Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), introduced tougher rules late last year to include a ban on cutting down forests or converting peatlands for oil palm plantations.

“We will see an increase in the amount of areas set aside for conservation,” said Darrel Webber, chief executive of the Kuala Lumpur-based RSPO, which includes producers, traders, buyers and green groups in about 90 countries.

“We expect a 5% to 10% increase,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone, adding that members had already protected and managed about 263,177 hectares (650,324 acres) of forests under their old green standards for planting.

Palm oil is the world’s most widely used edible oil, found in everything from margarine to biscuits, and soap to soups.

But the industry has come under scrutiny in recent years from green activists and consumers, who have blamed it for forest loss and fires, as well as exploitation of workers.

The world’s largest consumer brands pledged in 2010 to eliminate deforestation by 2020, but grains trader Cargill said last month that the food industry will not meet this goal.

Since 2015, the RSPO has been working on pilot projects in Malaysia, Indonesia and Ecuador to help authorities to back and promote sustainable palm oil.

The body has also linked up with Britain’s Chester Zoo to raise awareness on sustainable palm oil, which led to the city being named a Sustainable Palm Oil City earlier this year.

As part of this, more than 50 organizations - including businesses, restaurants and schools - in Chester changed their supply chains and pledged to source sustainable palm oil.

The RSPO has broadened its focus from working with palm oil companies and green groups to a “jurisdictional approach”, where sustainable growers and buyers can work with local and national governments.

“We have set aside a lot of forests but if we’re not careful we will end up with islands of conservation,” said Webber, whose organization is seeking to expand its membership in countries like Japan, China and India.

“If you work at a landscape level - you will better be able to plan conservation areas.”

Webber said that the palm oil industry was being unfairly targeted given that pulp, beef and soy producers had made little progress tackling deforestation.

“(Palm) is probably the most vilified commodity on the planet,” he said.

“Stakeholders should be concerned that (other) commodities that contribute the most to deforestation are still so far away from cleaning up the supply chain.”

Reporting by Michael Taylor @MickSTaylor; Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit