Agriculture and Human Values

, Volume 31, Issue 3, pp 469–480 | Cite as

Multi-stakeholder initiative governance as assemblage: Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil as a political resource in land conflicts related to oil palm plantations



Multi-stakeholder initiatives (MSI) claim to make production of commodities more socially and environmentally sustainable by regulating their members and through systems of certification. These claims, however, are highly contested. In this article, I examine how actors use MSI regulation with regard to land conflicts with a focus on the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). MSIs are a resource that actors in land conflicts can use to generate evidence that gives them leverage in their negotiations. To do so, actors employ the interrelations between two kinds of land conflict: localized land conflicts between local land users, and disputes between more distant actors over aggregated land-use related to the sustainability of palm oil production. To demonstrate this, I use the notion of assemblage in two case studies from Sumatra, Indonesia. Thinking in terms of assemblage allows the contradictory but interrelated practices that shape MSIs to be understood. In distinct locally embedded processes, actors enact MSIs in contexts of unequal power relations, from which MSI governance emerges. The way in which access to an MSI is distributed among contending actors shapes MSI enactments and thus its governance. The unequal distribution of access to the RSPO results in a governance that favors companies over communities.


Multi-stakeholder initiative Governance Assemblage Land conflict Access 



Multi-stakeholder initiative


Non-governmental organization


Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil


The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is a multi-stakeholder initiative (MSI) that claims to make palm oil production more sustainable through its regulation of members and system of certification. RSPO regulation deals with a number of environmental issues, such as biodiversity loss, greenhouse gas emissions and water pollution, as well as social issues, such as labor relations and land conflict. However, whether this MSI governance actually makes oil palm plantations more sustainable is highly contested. In this article, I examine how MSI regulation is made to work with regard to one of these issues: land conflicts. I focus on how parties involved in land conflicts employ the RSPO to (re)gain access to their land.

I argue that MSIs embody a resource for actors in land disputes because they may refer to them in order to strengthen their negotiation positions. They do so by employing interrelations between two kinds of land dispute: land conflicts between local land users about access to land, and disputes between interested parties distant from the actual land involved, over the aggregated social and environmental sustainability of oil palm production. MSIs can be used as a resource because they enable the disputing parties to generate evidence on the land conflict, thereby providing them with leverage in their negotiations. To demonstrate this, I use two case studies on palm oil related land conflicts in Sumatra, Indonesia.

In my analysis, I use the notion of assemblage. This concept refers to how a variety of contradictory practices together make up an institutional arrangement. It explains how actors embedded in local contexts of unequal power relations enact contradictory practices which together shape MSIs. From the variety of these enactments emerges an MSI, not as a system of governance that is internally coherent or consistently planned, but rather heterogeneous and contradictory. MSIs are the product of local enactments embedded in power relations. An inequality in power relations affects actors’ abilities to employ MSIs and thus its enactments. Hence, the notion of assemblage explains how power relations in local enactments affect an MSI’s contribution to the governance of land conflicts. It emphasizes that an MSI policy does not work in a linear fashion, starting from policy making and ending with its implementation, but instead is co-produced at different places at the same time.

With regard to the RSPO, I conclude that the weak negotiating position of local communities in land conflicts is hardly strengthened by their ability to employ the RSPO. Their ability to employ the RSPO depends on too many factors and it yields too little benefit. In contrast, the RSPO does strengthen the position of companies when negotiating their position regarding the sustainability of their aggregated land-use. Inequality in access to the RSPO shapes its local enactments, the evidence produced in these practices, and thus the RSPO’s usefulness to the disputing parties and its consequences for the sustainability of palm oil production.

The RSPO as contradictory heterogeneity

Many of the problems with palm oil production are related to land. Oil palm expansion triggers land-use change over vast areas. Primary forests are cut down and transformed into plantations, leading to a loss of biodiversity and of forest-based livelihoods, and an increase in greenhouse gas emissions, soil degradation, and water pollution (Danielsen et al. 2009; Fitzherbert et al. 2008; Gibbs et al. 2010; Obidzinski et al. 2012). The livelihoods of local communities are also affected when rubber and rattan agroforestry and food cropping are converted into oil palm plantations (Belcher et al. 2004; Feintrenie and Levang 2009; McCarthy 2010; Rist et al. 2010). Whether the lives of local people improve or worsen depends on whether they are able to benefit from the new developments (McCarthy 2010).

Plantation expansion leads to many disputes between plantation companies and communities. These disputes are often caused by the vast expansion of palm oil plantation areas, in combination with a disregard of local communities’ interests (Colchester et al. 2007b; Gillespie 2012; McCarthy 2010; Sirait 2009). Power inequalities in the negotiation of access to land often favor the companies’ interests, resulting in communities losing access to land that they considered theirs, often for generations (Colchester et al. 2007b; Ngidang 2002; Sirait 2009). Very often, ownership of land in rural communities is not formalized by means of land titles and registration, and if it is, land registrations often do not match actual land distribution within a community (Colchester et al. 2007b; Hall 2011; Obidzinski et al. 2012). This frailty of land registration, together with legal pluralist complexities in which both indigenous and state law govern land issues, results in a lack of clarity, which can easily be exploited by powerful coalitions of authorities and companies to acquire land for oil palm while denying communities’ rights with regard to the land or compensation for its loss (Colchester and Chao 2011; Obidzinski et al. 2012; Rist et al. 2010).

The RSPO is an MSI created in 2004 in response to social and environmental concern about palm oil production, and promotes the production and use of sustainable palm oil. Palm oil producers, processing companies, and social and environmental NGOs negotiated an institutional arrangement of membership, decision-making procedures and rules and regulations for its members, as well as a system of certification. Among the rules are rules on land conflicts, arguably the most important of which is that member growers should be able to demonstrate not only that they have the right to use the land, but also that the land is not legitimately contested by local communities with demonstrable legal or customary rights. This means that when the company’s rights to land are contested, it has the obligation to prove that necessary action has been taken to resolve the conflict. These rules apply to both certified and non-certified land of RSPO members. The latter accounts for by far the largest proportion of RSPO members’ land. Although the RSPO has not provided figures, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), a prominent member of the RSPO represented on its board, has published some estimates. According to these, in 2012, one third of the RSPO growers reported that one third of their land was certified (WWF 2013).

Silva-Castañeda (2012) already demonstrated how RSPO is of very limited use to improve communities’ access to land as far as its certification process is concerned. Also, others have questioned the ability of MSI regulation to deal with the asymmetries of power in land relations (Johnson 2012; Solomon et al. 2014). In this article, I will contribute to this discussion by focusing on actors’ use of the RSPO as a resource independent of certification. Actors involved in land conflicts with RSPO members, whether certified or not, may use these provisions as a resource in the negotiations about these conflicts. One option available to these actors is to submit a written complaint to the RSPO’s Grievance Panel, which is a delegation of its Executive Board, mandated to deal with the complaints from members or non-members relating to the behavior of RSPO members.

In order to understand the significance of MSI regulation for local production practices in relation to land conflicts, this article focuses on how local actors use the RSPO as a resource in conflicts over access to land. This paper contributes to a growing body of literature on MSIs, which mostly focuses either on the process of the making of its institutions or on its implementation. Institutional issues include questions such as the legitimacy of MSI decision-making through transparency and representativeness, its relationship to other institutional settings, such as competing schemes and public regulators, and its market share and marketing (Fransen and Kolk 2007; Kefasi et al. 2011; Mena and Palazzo 2010; Pattberg 2005; Raynolds et al. 2007; Schouten and Glasbergen 2011; Wiersum et al. 2011). Research on the implementation of MSIs has so far focused on the effects of compliance with MSI regulations on the certified producer and his contexts, that is, on examining how effective MSIs are at achieving their stated policy goals. However, researchers have also examined a variety of other consequences, ranging from land-use change to changes in local power relationships and changes in peoples’ livelihoods and distribution of wealth (Foley 2012; Getz and Shreck 2006; Méndez et al. 2010; Ponte 2012).

Literature on MSIs and the question of local communities’ rights or access to land is still scarce and often addresses the potential implications of a standard, rather than how it is enacted in concrete conflicts (Colchester et al. 2012a; German and Schoneveld 2012; Goetz 2013). This is also because most standards dealing with land rights are relatively recent, such as the Bonsucro standard for sugarcane biofuels, certification of which only started in 2011 (Selfa et al. this issue). In their effort to support communities who lose their land due to companies’ plantation expansion, NGOs have produced several research reports, often focusing on how smallholders’ or communities’ land rights are violated despite MSI regulation (Chao 2012; Chao et al. 2012; Colchester et al. 2007a, b, 2012b; Colchester and Chao 2011; Lomax 2012).

I build on this implementation research in that I also relate the MSI to what happens in terms of land conflicts in locations of production. However, in my analysis of how the implementation of MSI rules affects land conflicts, I emphasize how their negotiation implies both the use of the MSI and its constitution. In common with some other researchers of MSI implementation, my starting point is the idea that the local significance of MSIs depends on how local actors may derive benefits from them. Previous authors have tended to focus on how other actors in the production chain, such as certifying bodies, traders, cooperatives, and the processing industries perceive benefits from MSIs and make choices that reflect these perceptions. However, actors that do not participate in the production chain are also relevant in order to understand MSI governance.

These other actors enter the picture because MSI rules that regulate social and environmental concerns also regulate the relationships between companies and communities that live on or around the land planned or used for plantations. This means that in order to pursue access to land, communities may try to appeal to the RSPO or to others that have an interest in its rules being complied with, such as buyers. In addition, both member and non-member NGOs pursuing environmental or social concerns may also call on RSPO institutions, on buyers, or on the general public through media attention if they find that companies are not complying with the RSPO. Furthermore, state administrations may refer to an MSI in their policy making.

Practices that constitute MSIs thus involve a variety of actors of diverse character and power involved in a variety of interrelated practices that take place in a variety of sites. Of course, this is true for many types of regulation. However, in the type of regulation that is discussed in this article, the social distance between different actors and practices that use the regulation is particularly large. The range is from impoverished communities, via local and national elites, to Western consumers, and from small companies, via huge holding companies and multi-national processing companies, to large and small NGOs, and EU policy-making on biofuels.

However, it is not only the range of actors that may employ RSPO for their cause that is highly differentiated; the various parts of the RSPO that they use are also highly differential. They range from specific rules for local production that can be used in local conflicts, to general decision-making processes that can be used to shape official RSPO discourses in the annual conferences, to RSPO’s image of sustainability that can be used to legitimize production practices and government policies.

My research framework focuses on the actual use of an MSI. This involves a theoretical challenge: how to conceptualize the heterogeneity in “uses of an MSI”? What exactly is ‘it’ that actors use if ‘it’ is so different in different sites? This question involves three main difficulties.

First, an MSI embodies many different things, practices and actors, and is internally contradictory. Actors do not really use the MSI as such, but only those parts that are useful for their practice. What is useful, and therefore also how it is used, differs from practice to practice and from context to context. The way RSPO regulation is used by smallholders or community leaders in a given land dispute differs from how the discourse on the MSI is used by large companies in national or global debates on sustainability.

Second, it is the actual use of an MSI by actors which makes it socially relevant. Local negotiations produce the particular enactments of an MSI in specific localities and forge connections between them. For the RSPO, it is these practices together, and the connections between them, that make up its social significance as a whole.

Third, actors make an MSI socially relevant despite the contradictions and variations, by referring to and exploring the interrelations between its various constituent parts. It is thus socially constructed as a unity, albeit a contested one. For example, as we will see, actors involved in land conflicts refer to the RSPO to team up with actors in parallel struggles and because reference to RSPO enables them to produce useful evidence about their case.

The notion of assemblage is particularly helpful when dealing with these three difficulties.

Theoretical framework: assemblage and access

The notion of assemblage deals with how institutional arrangements hold together in practice despite being made up of heterogeneous sets of actors active in a variety of practices in a variety of places and using a variety of things to serve a variety of interests and goals (Allen 2011). The notion of assemblage is used by actor-network theorists, human geographers and anthropologists to explain how, for example, although a city or a policy is composed of many different contradictory practices, actors, and places, it at the same time makes up a single institutional arrangement (Gorur 2011; Koyama and Varenne 2012; Li 2007; McFarlane 2011).

The notion of assemblage is particularly useful to study MSI governance as a multi-sited phenomenon, because it facilitates an understanding of how contradictory practices in different sites together produce MSI governance. It links actors’ local contextual struggles to MSI governance by understanding local uses of an MSI as its enactment. That is, from heterogeneous practices, an assemblage emerges as a unity because actors attribute meaning to it and use it in their practices. Both this attribution of meaning and use of an assemblage simultaneously constitute enactments of the assemblage, because these produce its social significance.

By using an MSI, actors play a role in its governance and this constitutes the MSI as an institutional arrangement. In day-to-day practices, actors produce interrelations between sites and attribute consequential meaning to the translocal assemblage resulting from these practices. Because actors modify their choices in light of this meaning, the assemblage acquires social significance and produces MSI governance.

The notion of assemblage emphasizes emergence and process, rather than ready-made formation (McFarlane 2009, 2011). An MSI assemblage is constantly in the making in many different places at the same time. It is the interplay of forces between the different parts that produces its overall governance. The enactments, which may involve very different, seemingly unrelated and even contradictory practices, together make up the assemblage. The notion of assemblage emphasizes that an institutional arrangement results not from design but from many different, contradictory, enactments: “assemblage implies heterogeneous, contingent, unstable, partial and situated” (Ong and Collier 2005, p. 12). This is why enactments of an MSI not only include MSI members who review their production practices to comply with MSI regulations, but also very different practices, such as street protests against a company or an MSI. Enactments of an MSI also involve communities who claim their rights to land when they call for a company to comply with MSI regulations. The same is true for state officials who adjust their policies in light of MSI regulations. All these, partly contradictory, practices together shape the MSI assemblage, because together they constitute its social significance.

In spite of its contradictions, instability, and situatedness, an assemblage holds as an institutional unity because different actors use the institution as a whole, pursuing the various interrelations between its encompassing practices for their diverging interests. As Allen (2011, p. 155) describes in his conceptual paper on power relations in assemblages “[An assemblage] hangs together institutionally (…) through the tangled and cross-cutting political relationships between actors engaged in a complex set of political mobilizations to secure, modify or translate their goals and interests”.

To understand the role of an MSI in land conflicts, I focus on the relationships between localized land conflicts and disputes between interested parties who are distant from the actual land involved, but involved in disputes over the aggregated social and environmental sustainability of oil palm production. MSI discourses and policies are translated back and forth between these. The notion of assemblage describes the relations between traveling policies and their localized substantiations, “to frame the travel, translation, struggle, and connections that are brought together to constitute” the assemblage (McFarlane 2011, p. 207). It elucidates this process of translation as a two-way non-linear process. That is, there is no single starting point. An MSI does not start with policy making and end with policy implementation, but instead is co-produced at different places at the same time and thus never had one meaning that was translated later. An MSI has several meanings from the outset, produced by the actors concerned in specific places and contexts.

Although the assemblage literature is quite clear on the importance of these interrelations, it is much less clear on what actually constitutes the relationships between the different sites. In this article, I will demonstrate how the production of evidence is a key trait of the interrelations that produce the RSPO as a whole. Actors produce evidence to strengthen their negotiation position. To do so, they partner up with actors at other sites. The meanings produced in these different sites mutually affect each other, as they are a mixture of evidence about what happens in a local practice and about the MSI assemblage as a whole.

There is some earlier research on MSIs from an assemblage perspective, in which authors emphasize how parallel strategies or understandings in different sites produce MSI assemblages. Eden examines how Forest Stewardship Council knowledge is co-produced in many different field sites as an explicit Forest Stewardship Council strategy (Eden 2008). Bush focuses on how interaction along the production chain is facilitated by fish certification because this may contribute to shared understandings among actors (Bush 2010). Konefal and Hatanaka in their study of shrimp certification emphasize a need for commensurability among practices in order for the MSI to succeed in its need for continual enactment (Konefal and Hatanaka 2011). I intend to take a further step by emphasizing how an MSI is co-produced as a contested unity not only in field sites connected to parallel strategies, but also in sites connected through opposing strategies. In this, I follow Allen, who emphasizes how assemblages are the result of actors pulling in different directions and striving for different pursuits in different practices. It “hold(s) together, despite being made up of a co-existence of diverse logics and priorities often pulling in different directions” (Allen 2011, p. 155).

To explain the variety of uses of an MSI, and how this “pulling in different directions” shapes the local constellations of such an assemblage, I will look at how actors strategize to derive benefits from it. Ribot and Peluso (2003) developed their theory of access to analyze how mechanisms of access to natural resources can explain the ways in which these resources are managed. In their approach, access does not refer to mere formal rights of admittance or entrance. Rather, it refers to actors’ actual ability to benefit from something. In this article, I build on their approach. I argue that mechanisms that enable actors to benefit from MSIs shape the use of MSIs, just like mechanisms that enable actors to benefit from natural resources shape the use of natural resources. Different actors can benefit from MSIs in different ways, and their access is constrained and/or enabled by a variety of mechanisms similar to those found in Ribot and Peluso’s theory of access.

These mechanisms of access encompass a variety of factors that determine the ways in which actors can derive benefits from an MSI and give some actors more power to secure these benefits than others. For example, multi-billion dollar companies may have easier access to the RSPO than impoverished communities, in terms of membership, language, fit with other strategies such as corporate social responsibility policies or livelihood plans, and other resources such as time and money. Apart from that, MSIs are more open to negotiations that are based on discourses and evidence familiar to the corporate sector than to those familiar to representatives from local communities (Cheyns 2011; Ponte and Cheyns 2013; Silva-Castañeda 2012). Also, access to RSPO’s certification process is much easier for companies than for communities, as documents are considered the ultimate form of proof in this process. Companies can much more easily produce these than communities (Silva-Castañeda 2012).

How actors’ access to an MSI is constructed delimits how they can actually employ it for their cause. This means that local enactments of an MSI depend on actors’ access to the MSI. Access therefore not only shapes the use actors can make of an MSI, but through this also the significance of the assemblage including its consequences for land conflicts. This means that, when inequalities in access to the RSPO correlate to different or even contradictory interests, the purposes served by the RSPO will depend on the access to this MSI.

My research framework thus combines two concepts. First, the concept of assemblage emphasizes how, by using an MSI in disparate practices, actors produce MSI governance that is heterogeneous. This brings the different relevant sites, and their interrelations that together explain the way an MSI affects land conflicts, into a single research framework. The focus is on what actors do in order to benefit from the MSI and how this in turn shapes the significance of the RSPO for land disputes. Second, the concept of access explains how inequalities in access to an MSI shape how it is locally used. Taken together, the concepts explain how inequalities in the localities where MSIs are used shape the governance of the assemblage as a whole.

In the following case descriptions, I will sort out how access and assemblage together explain MSI governance, by focusing my analysis on three aspects. First, I will analyze how actors make alliances across different RSPO-related sites in order to strengthen their negotiation positions in land conflicts. Second, I will identify how, by using RSPO to create alliances, actors engage in practices that constitute the RSPO. Third, I will show how access to the RSPO and production of meaning in one site affect access and production of meaning in other, related sites.

I will use qualitative field-study data from two cases in which a local community is in conflict with an RSPO member. The first case is concentrated in Batu Kayu in Sumatra, Indonesia, a village where different actors are caught up in a conflict about land. This conflict gravitates around access to a specific piece of land that used to be partly communal village land and partly owned by a large number of families, but has now become part of the oil palm plantation. The second case concentrates on Sungai Putih, a local NGO on Sumatra that works to resolve palm oil disputes in the area. Both cases have been chosen as cases representative of palm oil related land conflict in Indonesia. However, they are two of the less common cases in which the community involved actually achieved at least some benefits by employing the RSPO assemblage. In these cases, I focus on a specific struggle relevant for the assemblage from the perspective of one actor and analyze how that actor’s struggle is affecting other places in the assemblage, and vice versa.

I collected ethnographic data in several locations. Data on Batu Kayu were mainly collected during a two-month stay in this village in 2011 and a return visit in 2012. Interviews were held with relevant community members, and archival documentation on palm oil development was collected in the village head’s office. Participative observation was conducted during discussions on a variety of aspects of palm oil production, and interviews were held with company representatives. Data on Sungai Putih were mainly collected during extended interviews with its staff, from its documentation and by participating in meetings in its offices attended by its staff, visiting community representatives and visiting staff from other NGOs. Data on the RSPO conferences were collected through participation in 2010, 2011, and 2012, in interviews with a number of its members and by participating in several sessions, among which NGO-supported mediation sessions on land conflicts, including the Sungai Putih case. Data on the Batu Kayu case at the RSPO institution level were obtained in interviews with officials from the mother company, with a member of the Grievance Panel, and from media coverage. To protect the identity of the people I interviewed, I have used pseudonyms for the names of people, companies, NGOs, and places.

Case study: alliances and evidence making

Batu Kayu: mediation as enactment of MSI governance

The development of the land conflict in Batu Kayu shows how the usefulness of the RSPO in a land dispute depends on the interrelations between different sites in which it is used. My description starts with the struggle of smallholder farmers trying to safeguard their livelihoods by fighting for access to their land, which has become compromised by palm oil expansion in their area. However, their struggle is related to another dispute that is not about livelihoods, but about larger-scale environmental concerns.

In Batu Kayu, the development of an oil palm plantation led to a conflict between the company and villagers who felt cheated out of their land. Since 2000, when the conflict erupted shortly after the company started to clear the land, villagers have pursued a number of strategies to regain access to village land. Their greatest success so far is that since 2008 they have been managing part of the planted land that they consider to be theirs. Calling this activity “reclaiming”, the villagers announced their intentions to the company and all relevant authorities, before peacefully occupying and subsequently managing and harvesting this part of the plantation.

Since the reclaiming, police have been patrolling the border between the plantation still used by the plantation company and the land now managed by the villagers. In 2011, a discussion between palm oil workers escalated into a shooting, in which several villagers were wounded. This sparked regional, national, and global interest in the case.

The Batu Kayu case is not an isolated one, but should be understood within the global discussion on sustainable palm oil. The plantation company involved is a subsidiary of Sibuf, one of the bigger Indonesian oil palm plantation companies. Sibuf had been accused of environmental abuse by NGOs in such a well-documented way that its RSPO membership had become a liability for the RSPO. In 2008, an international environmental NGO launched a campaign against both Sibuf and the RSPO, which resulted in a series of reports on how the company was in breach of RSPO standards. The reports also stated that the RSPO had not undertaken any action against the company. In 2010, this publicity eventually resulted in two developments. First, the RSPO Grievance Panel wrote a letter to Sibuf, confronting it with the evidence against it and urging it to either refute the evidence or improve its management. Second, a few major buyers suspended their procurement of palm oil from Sibuf, several other buyers suspended their procurement of Sibuf paper products, and a major British bank sold its shares in Sibuf for related reasons.

This buildup of pressure on Sibuf induced the company to submit to a program approved by the RSPO Grievance Panel, which targeted the enforcement of both environmental and social principles by requiring Sibuf to submit quarterly reports of improvements it had introduced. Part of this program was a reconciliation program aimed at bringing the company’s dealings in line with RSPO regulations. Sibuf hired Lesari to deal with this process, which included designing a “Social and Community Engagement Policy” to be piloted in Batu Kayu in 2011. Lesari is a consulting organization that delivers sustainability services to its member companies, which include many timber and palm oil companies.

After the shooting incident of 2011, Lesari representatives paid several visits to Batu Kayu. Lesari convinced the community to accept them as mediator between Sibuf and the community, and subsequently a number of sessions took place in which community and company representatives discussed demands and expectations. This mediation process resulted in an agreement in November 2011. Certain highly disputed points of contention were resolved in this document, in accordance with the original 2000 contract and the community’s demands. The community will regain its land title to part of the plantation and thus the right to manage and harvest this land. With this land title comes the obligation for the community to take over the debt the company incurred for developing the land. The company has pledged to buy the fresh fruit bunches for the going market price, which means that the community will save on transport costs.

This agreement, however, still leaves two essential issues unsolved. First, it is still unclear exactly which land will be returned to the community. This is complicated because at the time of the land development the company and district authorities had together produced very unclear and highly contested land maps and registration documents. These also included a change in administrative boundaries between Batu Kayu and its neighboring village. The transfer of the land title thus depends on new surveys, mappings, and assessments of boundaries—a process that is likely to be protracted. Second, the extent of the debt incurred by the company which is to be transferred to the community with the land, remains unclear. According to the Batu Kayu community, the debt is double the amount permitted by government policy. The amount of the company’s debt to be transferred to the community by the agreement has been left open, for assessment by a financial auditor.

Despite these two pressing concerns at the local level, some influential actors that had previously put pressure on the mother company have started to relinquish their pressure. Shortly after the mediation process started, the RSPO resumed the certification process with regard to other Sibuf plantations, and some major buyers resumed their procurement of palm oil from Sibuf. However, it is difficult to conclude exactly how much influence the seemingly successful mediation process had on these decisions, because in the same period Sibuf could also report improvements in its environmental record for its plantations elsewhere.

For the community of Batu Kayu, access to the RSPO was achieved by a combination of local and global events. What provided the community with access to the assemblage of the RSPO was, on the one hand, the protest against company behavior with regard to environmental concerns by NGOs, buyer companies and the RSPO Grievance Panel, and, on the other hand, the media attention sparked by the violent turn in the land conflict. However, although Sibuf’s need to produce evidence on the Batu Kayu locality initially helped the Batu Kayu community to attain access to the RSPO, this access was lost as soon as Sibuf had accomplished its goals vis-à-vis its global concerns.

Sibuf’s position as a powerful company within the RSPO grants it easy access to various aspects of this assemblage: to its legitimating membership, to evidence production through the quarterly reports and to its certification procedure. In the media, the company has often referred to its RSPO membership to claim legitimacy for its contentious business practices. However, because of all the accusations of non-compliance with the RSPO, this time something more was needed. To claim legitimacy of its business, the company chose to activate relationships between the conflict at their headquarters and the conflict on the Batu Kayu plantation by producing evidence on its dealings with social conflict. The company thus used the quarterly reports imposed on it by the RSPO to claim that it is conforming to norms and is operating sustainably. Because the quarterly reports are produced as fulfillment of RSPO obligations, their legitimacy and strength affect how other RSPO-related actors such as procuring companies and the Executive Board react to them. In their press releases on the resumption of the procurement and the certification, these actors have not mentioned the Grievance Panel procedure or the quarterly reports or Sibuf’s cooperation with the international environmental NGO. However, the RSPO’s decision to resume its certification procedure for Sibuf is certainly related to the new evidence on Sibuf provided by the quarterly reports. In the decision to resume certification the quarterly reports have been crucial. Although this land conflict is only of minor importance to Sibuf’s overall business, the possibility of reporting progress in its social issues surely contributed to the RSPO’s decision to resume certification of other Sibuf plantations.

The ways in which access to the RSPO is forged in this particular case leads to the enactment of RSPO as mediation process. The company is employing the RSPO to produce the very specific knowledge it needs to strengthen its position in discussions on the sustainability of its entire production with its clients, with NGO campaigners, and with the RSPO board. A well-publicized local conflict to be solved without much cost in terms of time, land or money provided the evidence of actual solutions to palm oil related social conflict that the global community required. The company has pledged to report improvements to the RSPO Grievance Panel and is set on delivering, because this will improve its legitimacy in the eyes of its customers. The Grievance Panel wants the mediation to be a success because in order not to lose its legitimacy, the RSPO needs to demonstrate that it enforces its own regulations. The mediator company is a new player in the market for the mediation of land disputes relating to palm oil, and is eager to prove its skill to the large pool of companies involved in local disputes, as they are its potential clients. And the community wants its land back. In this way, different actors pulling in different directions and pursuing contradictory interests produce this specific enactment of the MSI assemblage as a successful mediation.

However, this success story turns out to be controlled by the same power inequalities that have shaped the conflict so far. The mediation process has produced evidence useful for the plantation company and a negotiation in which the community initially seems to have gained some benefit but has reason to fear that it will ultimately lose out.

Sungai Putih: pre-certification and coalition building

Sungai Putih is a small local NGO and member of the RSPO. Its main focus is giving support to communities to enable them to benefit from palm oil production. It does so by helping smallholders who grow oil palm to improve their livelihoods, and giving support to communities engaged in disputes with oil palm plantations. In 2011, one of its main concerns was the conflictive situation at a plantation owned by Petral, one of the largest palm oil plantation companies worldwide. The way in which Sungai Putih negotiates its support to communities in conflict with this plantation demonstrates how the different directions in which actors pull when using the RSPO shape the RSPO’s local enactment. Similar to the Batu Kayu case, it shows how local actors can use the RSPO for their cause by linking up to global players that also use the RSPO for their cause. Furthermore, again similar to the Batu Kayu case, it shows how global actors link up to local players, in order to pursue their cause.

Petral, a Singaporean company, is one of the largest oil palm plantation owners in Indonesia and Malaysia. At different locations on one of its plantations, Petral is in dispute with seven community groups, whose access to their land has become increasingly limited since the former owner of the land started an oil palm plantation in the 1990 s. Complaints of the communities against a former owner of the plantation resulted in a decision by the Bupati (district head) that 1,000 ha of plantation land should be assigned to the indigenous communities. In response, the former owner offered 1,000 ha of palm oil within the main plantation, for these communities to manage as smallholdings. However, shortly after in 2006, Petral bought the land. Petral then changed the offer to 1,000 ha outside its plantation. Although this offer was accepted by one of the groups, this offer is problematic because ownership of the land involved is also claimed by other communities. At the time of my fieldwork in 2011, some of the local people had abandoned their smallholdings on the plantation and were trying to acquire access to the new land; others, however, were still living on the plantation.

Sungai Putih’s support has included activities that have made the RSPO a relevant point of reference in this dispute: notably, Sungai Putih’s reports on the case to the RSPO board in 2011, in complaint letters to Petral starting in 2008 and in several occasions to the media, highlighting the ignoring of RSPO regulations. When it forwards complaints to the company or the authorities, Sungai Putih always copies in the RSPO, acting also on behalf of other local NGOs that are not RSPO members and that operate in the local language, not English, and other members of the wider Petral NGO coalition. This coalition of NGOs is active throughout Indonesia, working on the many disputes between Petral plantations and local communities. Here, I will discuss two events in the land conflicts on this plantation and analyze the role of evidence production in the enactment of the RSPO. In the first event, the company has used RSPO pre-certification to strengthen its claims vis-à-vis one of the communities supported by Sungai Putih. In the second, Sungai Putih has managed to strengthen its support for another community by using the NGO coalition to access the RSPO.

In 2011, Petral hired a consultancy agency to produce a Partial Certification Procedure Assessment Report, a so-called pre-certification. This consultancy agency is accredited by the RSPO to assess plantations’ compliance with RSPO rules and regulations and issue certification documents. However, it is also the agency regularly hired by Petral for a range of consultancies. This pre-certification is a non-public affair that takes place before the official RSPO certification procedure which starts with public notification on the RSPO website. Petral did not publish the document which would have put it up for public scrutiny, but instead shared it with certain other actors such as the RSPO secretariat.

Petral’s document reporting on the pre-certification includes a number of statements about the conflict. For example, it says that the disputing party is not really indigenous but comprises non-indigenous immigrants of unclear lineage. It also states that this group is internally divided, non-cooperative in participatory mapping efforts, dominated by two individuals, and influenced by outsiders to pursue interests that are not in the group’s interest. It contrasts this group with another group that the document claims to be indigenous, homogeneous, of clear lineage, very co-operative, etc. It goes on to state that the first group has rejected solutions accepted by the other group. It states that these solutions are the result of participatory mapping, which has been legalized and approved by the government in order to determine compensation for all the indigenous communities. It also claims that the negotiations between the company and the communities have been well documented, thus implying that the evidence about these negotiations is to be found in the minutes on which the report is based.

Through this document, Petral engendered RSPO-legitimized evidence to strengthen its image in its discussions with its opponents on the sustainability of its aggregated business. First, Petral used the pre-certification to claim that the company had “done its part” by focusing on the compensation agreements that had been established and by concluding that although there were still unresolved disputes with local communities, all of these were being dealt with in accordance with RSPO regulations. Second, by discrediting the integrity of communities that do not wish to accept its conditions and by contesting the legitimacy of their claim, the company implies that it deserves no blame for the remaining unresolved disputes.

In the negotiation of this conflict the RSPO thus became enacted through the appropriation of its certification procedure by the company. This appropriation enabled the company to produce evidence about the sustainability of its business because it provided legitimation to its dealings with the community.

The second event took place in August 2012, when a violent incident occurred on the same plantation. However, this involved another community. It got quite rough: people were shot at, evicted from their homes, and several small settlements were demolished. At this time, Sungai Putih’s involvement in the Petral coalition enabled it to team up with larger international NGOs. A team of representatives from the Petral coalition came to the plantation to investigate this specific case. Their report, which included an explicit analysis of Petral’s infraction (as an RSPO member) of RSPO rules, was presented at a press conference at the annual RSPO conference in Singapore in October 2012. Thanks to financial support from several international NGOs, Sungai Putih was able to attend the conference with a small delegation of the evicted people, to pursue their case at the RSPO institutional level. Petral initially denied everything and declined to comment. However, after pressure had been applied by a coalition of NGOs, the company agreed to new talks, initially at the conference and to be resumed later.

In this case, Sungai Putih representing the community teamed up with other NGOs. This mobilized the funds for airfares and conference fees that enabled Sungai Putih to get the global attention for its case that could be provided by the RSPO assemblage. It allowed the Sungai Putih delegation to attend the RSPO conference, which resulted in the global exposure that provided leverage in the negotiations with the company. The parallel reporting by Sungai Putih and other NGOs on this case and on similar disputes in which communities are at loggerheads with Petral subsidiaries produced evidence about Petral that obliged it to act. Here, negotiations result in an enactment of the RSPO assemblage that enables the community to link their conflict over access to land to discussions on the aggregated social and environmental sustainability of oil palm production.

Conclusion: how power relations shape MSIs

MSI governance is concurrently co-produced at different sites that are, on the one hand, characterized by power inequalities between conflicting actors and that are, on the other hand, interlinked by needs for evidence production. The way in which these inequalities shape actors’ access to an MSI affects how they use the assemblage as a resource for their cause. Because the use of an assemblage is at the same time the constitution of the assemblage, the governance produced by the assemblage is also affected by these inequalities. This means that what shapes the social and environmental significance of MSI governance are not so much its formal policies and instruments, but the unequal power relations in which actors negotiate concrete disputes.

My analysis of two RSPO-related land conflict cases demonstrates how this MSI assemblage is co-constructed through the heterogeneous practices of a variety of actors who aim to use the MSI for their cause. This analysis of an MSI assemblage reveals four aspects of how MSI governance is produced through the manner in which it is used in local conflicts to produce evidence. It also shows how this production of evidence is a driving force in the negotiations that comprise MSIs and thus crucially important for explaining MSI governance.

First, an MSI can be used as a resource in land conflicts because actors can use it to produce evidence that supports their claims about the sustainability or unsustainability of oil palm plantations. This potential benefit to strengthen one’s negotiation position drives actors’ pursuance of access to the MSI assemblage and thus the governance it produces.

Second, MSI governance is produced by actors that choose to use an MSI to strengthen their negotiation positions because of how it enables linkages between otherwise distant practices. It enables actors to link local conflicts to global concerns and vice versa through procedures such as certification and mediation that can be used to produce evidence. Furthermore, it catalyzes interrelations between environmental and social interests. The evidence produced on environmental concerns to negotiate global reputations can thus be used in environmentally less relevant conflicts on the distribution of wealth involved in access to plantation land. It also enables coalitions among local communities and their supporting NGOs that are fighting plantation companies owned by RPSO members. These coalitions provide communities with the knowledge and material basis to pursue their cause through evidence production.

Third, practices in which actors use an MSI in order to produce evidence related to land conflicts result in very specific local enactments of MSIs that vary greatly from context to context. From these enactments emerges an MSI governance that is heterogeneous and contradictory.

Fourth, notwithstanding the heterogeneous and contradictory character of MSI governance, it gets a distinct direction because of how the use of MSIs is shaped by access relations. With regard to the RSPO, inequalities in access to this MSI run parallel to the unequal power relations that are key to explaining the existence of palm-oil-related land conflict. This means that the inequalities that shape the land conflicts also shape the way the MSI is accessed and used and thus its governance.

In my case study on the RSPO, relatively weak communities are struggling against a much stronger adversary. In both cases, the communities have managed to employ interconnections between their own struggles and other related struggles at the more abstract level of conflict on aggregated land-use to gain leverage in their local negotiations. To gain access, communities’ opportunities to team up with local NGOs that in turn team up with national and international NGOs have been crucial. However, in both cases, the powerful opponent of the communities has also used the RSPO to strengthen its position. The companies have used RSPO-legitimized procedures to produce evidence that their activities on their plantations are in line with MSI regulations, thus linking up to MSI claims of sustainability. Both the quarterly reports imposed by the RSPO Grievance Panel and the pre-certification report constitute evidence about local land conflicts that the companies have subsequently used to strengthen their negotiation position in the discussion on the sustainability of their production.

How the RSPO is used, by whom and for what cause, depends on how actors embedded in webs of power relations manage to obtain access to the MSI. We have seen that there are major obstacles to overcome before a community can access the RSPO. To lodge a complaint at the RSPO, only a letter to the RSPO secretariat is required. However, much more is required if a complaint is to bring about a change in plantation practices. In both case studies, we have seen that excessively violent incidents have attracted widespread media attention, plenty of NGO support in terms of funding, time and knowledge, and pressure on the parent company relating to negotiations over aggregated land-use. It is precisely these factors that have provided the communities concerned with some access to the RSPO. However, in 2012 alone there were 591 conflicts between communities and companies (Atep 2012). Such media attention, NGO support and continuing strong links to more abstract negotiations over sustainability will clearly not be available to the great majority of communities involved in land disputes related to palm oil. Furthermore, media attention and links to these more abstract negotiations over sustainability may not endure long enough to bring real relief to the beleaguered communities. Communities’ access to RSPO may stop when the company has accomplished its goals vis-à-vis its global concerns. That means that for the average land conflict, even less can be expected from the RSPO with regard to the protection of communities’ access to land than in the conflicts described in these case studies.

For RSPO member companies on the other hand, RSPO-related legitimization of production practices is readily available. RSPO-related procedure can even be used to legitimize non-sustainable practices without much scrutiny of material realities. Hence the conclusion of this study is that the RSPO assemblage is at this time unable to ameliorate the notorious power inequalities that have so far shaped local palm oil related land conflicts.



I would like to thank Emmanuelle Cheyns, Ernestine Köhne-Hoegen, Florence Palpacuer, Elisabet Rasch, Lone Riisgaard, Dik Roth and Theresa Selfa and for their valuable comments. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the international workshop on Governing Sustainable Agriculture through Multi-Stakeholder Initiatives: Participation, knowledge and networks in action at Cirad, Montpellier, December 2012. Joy Burrough advised on the English of a near-final draft.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Sociology of Development and ChangeWageningen UniversityWageningenThe Netherlands

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