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A Tale of Two Cases: Using Multi-Stakeholder Initiatives in Advocacy

Case Study 1: Golden Veroleum Liberia

One example where community advocates were able to successfully use a multi-stakeholder initiative to support community goals is in the case of Golden Veroleum Liberia (GVL). GVL is one of the world’s largest palm oil companies. In 2010, GVL signed a 65-year lease for 543,600 acres of forestland to develop palm oil plantations in Liberia. To make room for these operations, GVL cleared land that was home to community forests and sacred sites. They also destroyed farmlands and polluted local water sources, threatening the local communities’ health, livelihood and culture. Local residents who spoke out about these abuses were harassed, threatened and arrested without charge.

Community advocates turned first to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), the multi-stakeholder sustainability initiative and certification scheme in the palm oil industry. GVL was a certified member of the RSPO. In 2012, Liberian organizations filed a complaint to RSPO’s grievance mechanism to challenge the company’s certification and membership in the initiative. RSPO certification was very important to GVL, because many of the company’s major customers, such as Unilever and Cargill, commit to only purchasing RSPO certified palm oil. In response to the complaint, RSPO gave a “stop work” order to GVL, preventing the company from further expanding its palm oil plantation, protecting 513,500 acres (about 94% of the lease) of forest from deforestation. GVL appealed the stop work order, and in 2018 RSPO rejected GVL’s appeal, reiterating the finding that GVL failed to comply with the free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) standards in RSPO’s Principles and Criteria. In response, GVL quit the certification scheme.

All told, the complaint and appeal process took nearly seven years. Throughout those seven years of pending decisions, investigations, and appeals by the company, the local NGOs kept up the public pressure through complementary advocacy like media outreach and engagement with buyers. This kept GVL under scrutiny by its customers and peers in the industry, which ultimately contributed to the success of the case. It also kept the pressure on RSPO. By making the case a very high-profile test of RSPO’s credibility, it created an incentive for the initiative to handle the case effectively.

In 2018, the same year that GVL quit RSPO, a group of NGOs Friends of the Earth U.S., Milieudefensie (FOE Netherlands) and Sustainable Development Institute (SDI) of Liberia engaged a second multi-stakeholder initiative over GVL: the High Carbon Stock Approach (HCSA). HCSA was created to ensure palm oil companies comply with their “no deforestation” commitments and respect the rights and livelihoods of local people. After several years, HCSA agreed to create an independent grievance panel and conduct an investigation into GVL. In 2021 the HCSA released its final report on GVL, which concluded that GVL had cleared protected forest and violated the communities’ right to FPIC. In response, the company suspended further land development until it created a sustainability plan to be reviewed by HCSA.

Similar to RSPO, the HCSA case took nearly four years to complete. Throughout the process, the NGOs who brought the complaint engaged in sustained public advocacy around the process. For instance, the same month they filed the complaint to the HCSA, the NGOs released a report that outlined the environmental and human rights abuses by GVL while highlighting all the major actors (financiers, investors and customers) linked to their palm oil production. They advocated for these financiers, shareholders and buyers to use their leverage to create change within GVL. They also launched a strategic media campaign calling out the company and its investors, financiers and buyers; and sent several public letters asking investment and supply chain actors to cut financial ties with the company. There is no doubt that these strategies contributed to the positive outcome of the complaint process.

While these two complaint processes were by no means perfect and at times felt long, ineffective and hopeless for the complainants, the NGOs worked strategically to obtain a favorable outcome. These two case studies demonstrate how multi-stakeholder initiative grievance processes can serve as one helpful piece of a larger puzzle of complementary advocacy, and how civil society groups can mobilize around the complaint process to maintain pressure on both the multi-stakeholder initiative and the company.

Unfortunately, these two successful examples are the exception, rather than the rule. See Case Study 2 for an example of an ineffectively handled complaint by a different multi-stakeholder initiative.

Case Study 2: Mitr Phol in Cambodia

This second case study provides a less positive example, in which a multi-stakeholder initiative mishandled a complaint and opted to protect business interests rather than promote genuine sustainable practice among its member company.

The case involves Thai sugar company Mitr Phol. In 2008 and 2009, more than 2,000 families across 26 villages in Cambodia were violently evicted to make way for the company’s sugar plantations. The worst of these impacts occurred in one village called O’Bat Moan, where about 100 homes were burned to the ground, leaving many families homeless.

Months after the forced evictions took place, and while the hundreds of families remained displaced and impoverished, Mitr Phol was admitted as a member of the multi-stakeholder initiative for the sugar industry, now known as Bonsucro. The initiative claims to be dedicated to reducing the environmental and social impacts of sugarcane production through their standard, which addresses things like biodiversity impacts and human rights. Bonsucro has a grievance mechanism to address complaints against the initiative’s members.

In 2011, Cambodian civil society groups representing the affected communities brought a complaint against Mitr Phol to the Bonsucro mechanism and it was accepted. Instead of cooperating, though, Mitr Phol withdrew its membership in the initiative. When this happened, Bonsucro said that if Mitr Phol wanted to re-join the initiative, it would have to re-engage in the complaint resolution process. However, when Mitr Phol re-applied for membership again in 2015, the company was accepted by Bonsucro, now with new personnel, without any requirement to cooperate and resolve the complainants’ grievances. The complainants and their civil society supporters fought back, and filed another complaint in 2016. Two years later, Bonsucro’s board dismissed the case with a short statement citing a lack of evidence that Mitr Phol breached Bonsucro’s Code of Conduct.

In this case, Bonsucro failed to handle the complaint appropriately and ensure its member company, Mitr Phol, remediated past and ongoing human rights abuses.

Alongside the complaint, civil society advocates including Inclusive Development International published the issue by launching a public campaign aimed at Mitr Phol’s major buyers, Coca Cola, Mars Wrigley, Nestle, Corbion and Pepsi. The NGOs spoke out publicly against Bonsucro’s handling of the complaint, including by publishing blogs and garnering significant media coverage. Ultimately, the civil society organizations filed a complaint with the U.K. National Contact Point against Bonsucro itself for failing to respect its own human rights responsibilities in its mishandling of the Mitr Phol case and providing cover for an important company member.