Mongabay | 29 March 2023
RSPO suspension of Brazil palm oil exporter tied to Mongabay land-grabbing report
by Karla Mendes
Agropalma, the only Brazilian company with the sustainability certificate issued by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) — a members organization including palm oil growers, traders, manufacturers, retailers, banks, investors and others — has had its certificate “temporarily suspended” since February.
In December 2022, Mongabay published a yearlong investigation revealing that more than half of the 107,000 hectares (264,000 acres) registered by Agropalma in northern Pará state derived from fraudulent land titles and even the creation of a fake land registration bureau. Part of the area overlaps ancestral land claimed by Indigenous peoples and Quilombolas — descendants of Afro-Brazilian runaway slaves — including two cemeteries, which is at the center of a seven-year legal battle led by state prosecutors and public defenders.
Just a few weeks after the publication of the investigation, representatives from the certifiers contacted Quilombola leaders “to understand the denouncements” published by the report, they went to the region and carried out audits in all affected communities; soon after, IBD Certifications Ltd. suspended Agropalma’s RSPO certificate.
Assurance Services International (ASI), which evaluates the work of certifiers, confirmed that “the report was a reason for ASI to conduct a compliance assessment to IBD, the certifier of Agropalma, at the Certificate Holder’s premises.” University professors hired by ASI as local experts also cited the Mongabay investigation and this reporter when they contacted other key sources quoted in the report, as shown in email correspondence seen by Mongabay.
A Mongabay investigation into land-grabbing in the Brazilian Amazon has led to the suspension of the sustainability certificate of the country’s second top palm oil exporter, as shown in email correspondence seen by this reporter, in addition to key sources of the case.
Agropalma, the only Brazilian company with the sustainability certificate issued by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) — a members organization including palm oil growers, traders, manufacturers, retailers, banks, investors and others — has had its certificate “temporarily suspended” since February, the RSPO secretariat confirmed to Mongabay in an emailed statement.
In mid-December 2022, Mongabay published a yearlong investigation revealing that more than half of the 107,000 hectares (264,000 acres) registered by Agropalma in northern Pará state derived from fraudulent land titles and even the creation of a fake land registration bureau, which is at the center of a seven-year legal battle led by state prosecutors and public defenders.
Part of the area overlaps ancestral land claimed by Indigenous peoples and Quilombolas — descendants of Afro-Brazilian runaway slaves — including two cemeteries visited by Mongabay. In the Livramento Cemetery, residents claim that just one-quarter of it remains and that the company planted palm trees on top of the graves. Quilombolas also accuse Agropalma of polluting the water of the river they depend on to live. The company denies the accusations.
Just a few weeks after the publication of the investigation, representatives from Assurance Services International (ASI) — the organization that evaluates the work of certifiers and, consequently, whether companies are complying with RSPO rules — and Brazil-based IBD Certifications Ltd. contacted Joaquim dos Santos Pimenta, a Quilombola who leads the Acará Valley’s Quilombola Association ARQVA, in early January “to understand the denouncements” published by the report, he told Mongabay.
“They told me about your article, that this article really hit the certification issue very hard and the company itself,” Pimenta told Mongabay in a phone interview, adding that the investigation was also “an important instrument due to the fact that it was published in English and Portuguese.”
Following the first contacts, Pimenta said, a group of experts from ASI and IBD came to the Alto Acará region and carried out audits in all affected communities. After hearing their claims and seeing several documents, he added, “they left the communities with the decision to cancel the certification. And then they went to Agropalma, gathered all the documents and canceled its certification.”
In an emailed statement to Mongabay, ASI confirmed that “the report was a reason for ASI to conduct a compliance assessment to IBD, the certifier of Agropalma, at the Certificate Holder’s premises.” It added that Agropalma’s certificate suspension “was a decision taken by IBD.”
University professors from the Federal University of Viçosa hired as local experts by ASI also cited the Mongabay investigation and this reporter when they contacted other key sources quoted in the report. An email seen by Mongabay sent to researcher Elielson Pereira da Silva, who has conducted research in the area since 2019 for the Federal University of Pará (UFPA), said: “We got information about your work in the region thanks to Karla Mendes’ report in Mongabay magazine. The volume of criticism against the company Agropalma has prompted ASI to establish a due diligence to verify the situation on site.” The letter explained that the experts would be in Tailândia, Acará and Tomé-Açu in the end of January “to visit the company and communities listed in the Mongabay report.”
Silva said he received emails from two people who introduced themselves as consultants from ASI, both quoting Mongabay. “They said that the report published by Mongabay was fundamental for the decision to come to Pará to verify in loco this issue of violations,” he told Mongabay in an audio message. “The publication of Mongabay’s report contributed greatly to the fact that the repercussions of these conflicts and violations could gain international scale because of the relevance of this type of approach, of the theme and the respect that Mongabay has internationally.”
State prosecutor Ione Nakamura said she was also interviewed by the auditors, highlighting the importance of the denouncements the Mongabay investigation made public. “The role of the report was very important to give visibility to this problem and call the authorities’ attention,” Nakamura told Mongabay in a voice message. “The suspension of the RSPO seal confirms the irregularities that have been pointed out by the communities and that have been investigated by the [Pará] State Public Ministry.”
Correction actions required
RSPO and IBD didn’t disclose the details about the suspension of Agropalma’s certificate but they highlighted issues to be corrected.
“Agropalma will be required to address the non-conformities and provide proposed corrective actions to which the IBD will further verify the implementation of agreed actions,” RSPO wrote without disclosing which inconsistencies led to the suspension. “To lift the suspension, the non-conformities must be corrected and closed.”
In an emailed statement, IBD confirmed the suspension, adding that the company could appeal or “present an action plan to meet the indicators in question.” However, it declined to provide further information, claiming that “all client information is confidential.”
In an emailed statement, Agropalma said IBD had “temporarily suspended” the RSPO certification of its plantations in February, but it appealed for disagreeing with the points flagged in the certifier’s report. “The assessment was inadequate, since it does not reflect the reality and the RSPO rules.”
However, Agropalma said the RSPO certificates of its refineries in Pará’s capital Belém and in Limeira, in São Paulo state, “remain valid and there is no impact on the delivery of orders,” adding that “since our first certification in 2011, we have demonstrated total commitment and solid evidence of compliance with the RSPO principles and criteria.”
Two lawsuits filed by state prosecutors in Pará in 2018 and 2020 canceled more than half of Agropalma’s land property titles. Despite admitting the deeds were counterfeited, the company claims it was not involved in the scheme and it’s seeking to repurchase the land from Pará state. Prosecutors have sought the withdrawal of Agropalma’s RSPO certificate since then. They also charged IBD in the lawsuits with requests to suspend the certificate, but the judge denied the requests at the time, as reported by Mongabay in December 2022.
In June 2022, IBD’s scope of RSPO Principles & Criteria worldwide was suspended due to “failure to implement effective corrections and/or corrective actions, thereby not allowing ASI to close a major NC [non-conformity] within the specified deadlines,” ASI published on its website.
IBD’s suspension was lifted on Feb. 4 by ASI, just four days before Agropalma’s RSPO certification was suspended. IBD did not specifically address Mongabay’s requests for comment about its previous suspension or the state prosecutor’s lawsuits; it just responded saying that it “strictly follows RSPO standards and all questions, doubts, are discussed with client, RSPO or ASI accreditor.”
Mongabay reached some of Agropalma’s key multinational buyers, including Unilever Brasil, Cargill and General Mills, to verify the status of their commercial relation in the aftermath of the RSPO suspension.
In an emailed statement, Unilever Brasil said it is “following the unfolding of all the issues involving Agropalma with extreme caution and seriousness, as the matter requires,” adding that it “does not tolerate and does not condone violations of human rights or the law.” Unilever said the palm oil it uses is certified by RSPO, adding that it has checked with the RSPO itself and “Agropalma’s certification is still valid” but it asked for further clarification.
Cargill said in an emailed it has received the information about the suspension of Agropalma’s RSPO and is in contact with the supplier “to evaluate possible actions to be taken in accordance with its supplier code of conduct.” It noted that “if a supplier violates our policies and does not want to participate in our engagement process, Cargill will not do business with that supplier.”
In an emailed statement, General Mills said it’s “aware of and actively follows up on complaints involving Agropalma,” which can be seen in its palm oil chain tracker.
The Hershey Company said in an emailed statement it has indirect links to Agropalma through its direct suppliers Cargill and AAK, adding that it was aware of the allegations against the company and followed up its direct suppliers through a grievance investigation process, as shared in the Palm Oil Grievance Log, which cites the Mongabay investigation. Hershey said it is also aware of Agropalma’s RSPO certification suspension and is monitoring developments in this case through Cargill.
Purchases suspended amid “palm oil war”
Beyond Agropalma, the country’s top palm oil exporter Brasil BioFuels S.A. (BBF) is also troubled with conflicts in Pará, which local communities have dubbed a “palm oil war,” as reported by Mongabay in October 2022, that resulted in the suspension of purchases from some buyers.
In that case, escalating violence was triggered by land disputes between Indigenous Tembé and Turiwara and Quilombola communities and BBF in the region between the municipalities of Tomé-Açu and Acará, an area claimed by the Indigenous peoples as their ancestral land.
In September 2022, community leaders reported the killing of a non-Indigenous person and wounding of two Turiwara Indigenous men and a non-Indigenous by gunfire in Acará. The following morning, the cultural house of an Indigenous village was burned. They attributed the attacks to private security guards hired by BBF, which denied the violence accusations and any overlap of the areas it occupied with Indigenous lands.
Cargill said it had suspended BBF from its palm supply chain as of Oct. 13, 2022, “until we are assured of BBF’s ability to fulfil its obligations as a Cargill supplier, as set out in our supplier code of conduct,” adding that it “constantly monitors its supplier network and has been closely following events in Pará.”
General Mills said it did not make business with BBF anymore because the supplier identified as having a direct purchasing relationship with BBF “has confirmed that it has ceased doing business with BBF,” which was noted in its palm oil chain tracker.
The Hershey Company said it had indirect links to BBF through Cargill but it formally issued a suspension of the company from its supply chain in December 2022 after being aware of the allegations against BBF.
Unilever Brasil said that it is not a client of BBF.
In an emailed statement, BBF said it “does not comment on internal business issues.”
Hope for a definitive decision
The suspension of Agropalma’s RSPO certificate was received by communities, experts and authorities as an important step and positive signal for the Quilombolas’ legal land battle, but they also demand further actions for a definitive solution to the case.
For agrarian public defender Andreia Barreto, who was also contacted by certifier representatives, the suspension of the certification itself is not going to solve the problem but it will have an impact on the negotiations. “This is an important step but I don’t know to what extent the certifier will change its standards, including with Brazil. What I see is that there is a lack of connection [of certifiers] with the land and socio-environmental issues,” she told Mongabay in a phone interview.
However, she noted that there was “still a long way to go” as Pará state recognized so far only one of the Quilombola claimed areas, the Gonçalves Territory, which overlaps Agropalma’s “legal reserve”— a classification that obliges private property owners to preserve a portion of their land for native vegetation — but it was still uncertain how the situation would be resolved.
Silva, the UFPA researcher, said the RSPO withdrawal, despite being temporary, was an important step “in the sense of recognizing the existence of a set of rights violations, whether they be territorial, ethnic, human, social” that have been “systematically violated” for more than four decades for Quilombola and Indigenous communities. For him, the most effective measure would be the definitive suspension of this certification “since it is characterized in practice as a greenwashing strategy.”
Since last year, Tembé Indigenous from Alto Acará united the Quilombola’s fight against Agropalma. In December 2022, a poster posted on one of the gates placed by Agropalma to hamper the community’s access to the Our Lady of Battle Cemetery, located inside its legal reserve, said, “Indigenous Territory: These lands belong to the Indigenous and Quilombola [peoples].”
In September 2022, a group of some 60 Indigenous Tembé sent a self-declaration document to the Indigenous affairs agency, Funai, calling for the demarcation of their ancestral land from where they argue they were “violently expelled” in the 1970s, when large oil palm plantations were set up in the region. The claimed area overlaps part of Agropalma’s area — where its palm crops engulf the Livramento Cemetery — up to an area called Cachoeira (waterfall).
Sipriano dos Santos Campos, a Tembé Indigenous chief, or cacique, told Mongabay that three Funai representatives went to the area on March 20 to talk to the Indigenous community and visited all claimed areas during three days. According to him, another group of Funai officials is yet to come to conduct anthropological surveys where his ancestors lived.
They created the Alto Acará’s Ita Pewa Indigenous Association, which now has 150 members, the cacique said. “We are in a hurry to get to our territory,” the Indigenous leader told Mongabay by phone. “Hopefully you can give us a hand too.”
Funai did not respond to requests for comment.
Pimenta, the Quilombola leader, was hopeful to finally get justice for the communities. “What the IBD told me was the following: Their [Agropalma] certification will only be updated again when it solves the problem, resolves the issues with the community, gives back the community’s territory and resolves the titling issue of the areas that it supposedly says it owns.”
He said the Quilombola residents really appreciated the Mongabay investigation, and even more, “the day the people from the certifiers arrived here” as it was the first time they were heard by national and international institutions evaluating Agropalma, despite several years of denouncements.
According to him, the certifier’s move “to come here to the bush to be able to see the community is because the financial interest is big.” And to make this happen, he said, it required “something much bigger” that came through “a very well-done report [with] very strong charges to be able to force them to come here … and listen to the community.”
Right after the publication of the investigation, state prosecutor Nakamura said in order “to support future lawsuits,” she included the Mongabay investigation in the legal proceedings surrounding the conflicts between Quilombola communities seeking recognition of their territory and areas occupied by Agropalma. Nakamura said she also sent the investigation to be added by other prosecutors investigating the environmental impacts caused by pesticide use in oil palm plantations.
Barreto also said she will include the Mongabay investigation in the Public Defender’s Office lawsuits as soon as she receives the procedures back.
Last year, an 18-month investigation into palm oil contamination in Pará helped federal prosecutors obtain a court decision to scrutinize the environmental impacts of pesticide use by BBF in oil palm plantations on Indigenous communities and the environment in the state. This investigation won second prize in the Society of Environmental Journalists Awards for Outstanding Investigative Reporting and third prize in the Fetisov Awards for Excellence in Environmental Reporting.
Karla Mendes is a staff features writer and investigative reporter for Mongabay in Brazil. Read her stories published on Mongabay here. Find her on Twitter: @karlamendes