RSPO - Background



In Asia, the use of synthetic pesticides, many of them classed as "highly hazardous pesticides (HHPs)" and banned in developed countries, has increased exponentially. In fact, older products and those that failed to meet international standards are being dumped in Asia.1 Increasingly, Asia has become the largest agricultural pesticide consumer accounts for over 30 percent of overall consumption in the world.2


Safe use of HHPs is not possible. In developing countries with poor regulatory structures and legal systems, weak implementation of regulations and very limited resources, pesticide workers are exposed to hazards far exceeding the laboratory conditions under which the pesticides were initially tested and approved.


Hot, humid conditions characteristic of oil palm-producing countries make wearing personal protective equipment nearly impossible. Many sprayers are weighed down by the equipment, facing injury and risk of illness daily as they become soaked in toxic chemicals.3 Plantation labour is generally poorly paid, highly dependent on the employer and regularly exposed to danger and unhealthy working practices. Inequities between various types of labour (day labour vs. permanent workers, men vs. women) are widely reported.4


Women and children are most at risk. As reported by Tenaganita - or Women's Force - women make up the majority of pesticide and fertilizer sprayers. Currently, there are over 30,000 women working on the plantations as sprayers in Malaysia, most of them Malaysian Indians. Plantation work is poorly paid and heavily dependent on labour; indeed most women live on the plantations, raising their families and Paraquat, widely used in oil palm plantations and currently allowed under the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) Principles and Criteria, is responsible for devastating health effects among sprayers in the industry.


Vegetable oil production around the world totals 95 million tones per year, of which over 28 million tones are produced by the oil palm, the world's second largest oil crop after soy oil.5 Oil palm, due to its scale, may be the most polluting rural industry in Southeast Asia,6 and it is in the plantations that the cases of poisonings are most frequently encountered.7




The international community is gradually gaining awareness of the hazardous effects of pesticide use. In November 2006, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization discussed and endorsed SAICM - the Strategic Approach to International Chemical Safety. One of the key recommendations suggested by the Council to the FAO was risk reduction, including the progressive ban on highly hazardous pesticides. Based on this recommendation, the FAO Committee on Agriculture developed a list of criteria to identify highly hazardous pesticides (HHPs).


While PAN AP strongly welcomes these decisions, we are of the opinion that the list of indicators has some important shortcomings - in particular, pesticides with endocrine disrupting potencies, eco-toxilogical properties, or inhalative toxicity have not been taken into account. Because of these shortcomings, PAN International developed a more comprehensive set of indicators along with a list of HHPs based on these criteria.


As the international community moves to progressively ban HHPs, the RSPO must amend its Principles and Criteria in order to remain progressive. In addition to an immediate ban on WHO Class 1 pesticides and paraquat, PAN AP calls on the RSPO to implement a progressive ban on HHPs, based on the PAN International criteria, to be put in place over the next 5 years.




PAN AP believes that the following actions are necessary to prevent adverse health impacts and protect environmental sustainability:


  • For the RSPO to be seen as a world leader in sustainable palm oil production, it must:
    • Advocate chemical-free cultivation and stop allowing HHPs to be used on certified plantations
    • Amend Criterion 4.6 on Agrochemicals to include an immediate ban on Class 1A and 1B chemicals and paraquat and a 5 year progressive ban on HHPs.
  • It is imperative that activities to implement the progressive ban on HHPs are developed globally, as well as at the national and local levels, by governments, standard setting organisations, food corporations, the pesticide industry, worker unions, and NGOs/CSOs.
  • HHPs must be eliminated, not replaced with chemicals that are only marginally less toxic. As alternatives, the RSPO should insist that plantations demonstrate that they are working towards strategies such as alternative weed management and organic cultivation, and that this will be achieved within a reasonable time frame.




1Nair, Prabakhar (2008). 'The Politics of Hunger: When Policies and Markets Fail the Poor." Pesticide Action Network Asia and the Pacific, Penang.

2Watts, Dr. Meriel (2007). 'Pesticides and Breast Cancer: A Wake Up Call." Pesticide Action Network Asia and the Pacific, Penang.

3Fernandez, J. and Rash Behari (2006). 'The Politics of Paraquat.' Tenaganita and Pesticide Action Network Asia and the Pacific, Penang.

4Friends of the Earth (2004). 'Greasy Palms: The social and ecological impacts of large-scale oil palm plantation development in Southeast Asia.' Found at:

5RSPO website. Found at:

6FOE 2004

7Invisible Workers. The Politics of Paraquat