Ending years of solitude?

The Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil and access to land in Colombia
13 October 2017

The issue of land access is at the heart of the more than a half-century long conflict in Colombia. The post-conflict era and article 1 of the peace agreement dedicated to integral rural reform are nurturing hope for more democratic land distribution.

At the same time, the government sees peace as an opportunity for economic development through large-scale monoculture such as palm oil, and cases of land grabbing for its production have been reported. In view of this tension, it is relevant to ask how meaningful certifications such as the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) ones are to ensuring democratic access to land. The certification establishes criteria that palm oil production has to fulfil in order to be labelled sustainable, but that may also impact local populations’ access to land. While the critical literature on certification initiatives highlight their flaws in terms of legitimacy, monitoring and auditing, few authors have focused on their limits from a land access perspective, thus ignoring the land grabbing context in which the RSPO is used. We argue that despite member companies resorting to the certification to counter accusations of land grabbing, the RSPO is unable to ensure democratic access to land because it does not sufficiently take into consideration local practices. Using Pouliot’s practice tracing, i.e., a “bottom-up” mechanism, which investigates how practices at the local level generate outcomes at the macro level, we shed light on the disjunction between local practices and the RSPO’s principles and criteria. These local practices, observed during field investigation in Colombia, are discussed through two main dimensions: 1) the tensions between land rights and the human right to land, and 2) contract farming. As a result, we will demonstrate that the RSPO does not permit local populations to challenge unequal land distribution in Colombia.