Unions, NGOs call for Changes to Industry-Sponsored Criteria for Sustainable Palm Oil Authorizing Highly Toxic Pesticides

Geneva/Berna, 17.11.2005 - The IUF 1) and the Berne Declaration 2) are calling for fundamental changes to proposed «Principles and Criteria for Sustainable Palm Oil Production» which permit the use of highly toxic pesticides that are extremely harmful to human health and the environment. In their current form, the criteria ensure the interests of the pesticide industry – co-sponsors of the initiative - rather than the health of palm oil plantation workers. They will not encourage sustainable production and must therefore be revised.

Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), initiated by WWF and supported by several producers, retailers and other stakeholders, is set to discuss criteria for sustainable palm oil production at a meeting in Singapore later this month. But the draft proposal, while requiring producers to look for alternatives to pesticides designated as class-1-toxins, ultimately does not ban the use of these substances. In its current form, the proposal also permits the continued use of paraquat, a full-range herbicide widely used on palm oil plantations and known to poison thousands of plantation workers and small farmers every year. Paraquat is responsible for a substantial number of the tens of thousands of annual pesticide-related deaths. Once absorbed through the skin or lungs or orally ingested, its effects are irreversible. Several countries have already banned the substance, with the latest ban set to take effect in Malaysia in 2007.

Agricultural workers’ unions across the world, headed by the International Union of Food and Agricultural Workers (IUF), have been calling for a paraquat ban for years. «There is no room for Paraquat in a socially and environmentally sustainable agriculture», declared IUF- General Secretary Ron Oswald. All known labels and criteria in the agricultural sector that certify sustainable production are taking the concerns of workers more seriously and have explicitly ruled out the use of the most highly toxic pesticides including paraquat. The Fair Trade Labelling Organisation (FLO), the Rainforest Alliance (which certifies Chiquita Brands), the Forest Steward Ship Council, and the recently launched Common Code for the Coffee Community have all concluded that the use of paraquat is incompatible with sustainable production.

Yet the criteria for sustainable palm oil do not reflect these concerns about paraquat in any way. No other label is as weak on pesticide criteria as the new Palm Oil Principles and Criteria. One reason for this might be RSPO’s link to the agro-chemical industry. After all, the official dinner at the RSPO-meeting in Singapore is sponsored by none other than the Syngenta Corporation, the world’s leading manufacturer of paraquat. While it may be bad manners to bite the hand that feeds you, the participants of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil must decide whose interests they are going to serve: those of the pesticide industry or those of the plantation workers for whom only a paraquat-free production is truly sustainable.1) The International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers' Associations (IUF) is an international trade union federation composed of 353 trade unions in 125 countries with an affiliated membership of over 2.7 million members. It is based in Geneva, Switzerland. Address: 8 Rampe du Pont Rouge, Petit Lancy, CH-1213 Geneva2) The Berne Declaration is a Swiss non-governmental organization with 19'000 members. Through research, public education and advocacy work, it has promoted more equitable, sustainable and democratic North-South relations since 1968. Address: Quellenstrasse 25, po box, CH-8031 Zürich