For many, palm oil has become synonymous with environmental devastation in Southeast Asia. Can palm oil production in Africa follow a more sustainable path forward?
March 26, 2019 — For many consumers, palm oil has become synonymous with environmental devastation in Southeast Asia. The industry has brought mass deforestation to the region, shrunk orangutan habitat beyond recognition and compromised local livelihoods. Indonesia, in the process, rose to become the third-largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a partnership between stakeholders in the palm oil industry, such as producers, retailers and NGOs, was created over a decade ago to make the industry more environmentally and socially responsible. It helped, but critics argue the industry is still a long way from sustainable.
“In #Liberia #DRC #Congo #Africa, an estimated 3 million ha rainforest traditionally used or lived in by locals has been acquired by #palmoil companies” putting at risk hundreds of #animal species #extinctionrebellion #Boycott4WildlifeTweet
Meanwhile, the palm oil industry has grown in other parts of the globe. Latin America, for example, has seen an uptick in palm production. And over the past decade or so, large-scale palm oil production has expanded into West and Central Africa. While some people have welcomed this in hopes it will bring economic opportunity, a number of communities are trying to resist — either the presence of the industry itself or the way individual companies operate in their countries. How these efforts play out could determine whether the industry can find a way to be more sustainable in Africa, and also the fate of communities across the continent, not to mention that of nonhuman primates.
“Palm oil companies will not just displace [people in affected communities], but their culture, their history, their value, their traditional institutions, will all be completely altered,” says Alfred Brownell, founder of the Liberian lawyers network Green Advocates and currently a distinguished scholar in residence at Northeastern University School of Law in Boston. He lives in the U.S. in exile out of fear for his life, after he says he was threatened by private security guards protecting land being cleared of sacred sites to make way for palm oil development in Liberia. But he has represented indigenous communities in Liberia’s Sinoe County, where residents say that since the palm oil company Golden Veroleum Liberia (GVL) arrived in 2010, crops have been destroyed, shrines desecrated, burial grounds and grave sites denigrated, rivers diverted or dammed, and precious wetland areas polluted.
“It was a fertile ground for growing vegetables and other food staples to complement our local food basket,” Brownell wrote in a letter to RSPO on behalf of residents. “All of these are no more. All of the swamps within our communities have been filled in to make way for oil palm.”
Liberia is home to the largest remaining tract of West Africa’s Upper Guinean forest, which has some of the richest biodiversity in the world. In addition to wetlands and farmland that communities depend on, the forest is threatened by expanding palm oil production, among other commercial activities. If it disappears, Brownell says, so too does the spiritual connection that many indigenous communities have with it. “That’s why we took this complaint before the roundtable,” he says.
Rising Demand, Growing Industry
Palm oil production continues to grow steadily throughout the world. “Production has been doubling worldwide every 10 years during the past 40 years,” says Thomas Mielke, CEO of the market analysis firm Oil World. “Palm oil has become the most important vegetable oil worldwide.”
That’s because it’s cheap, and there are more uses for it all the time. It’s in all kinds of packaged food, from crackers to ice cream to instant noodles, and the rapidly growing consumption of processed foods globally is a big reason for the exploding demand. It’s also used in soap and cosmetics, in biodiesel, and as a mineral oil replacement. And because it is a very productive crop, impacts on land use could be even greater if the world were to try to replace palm with a different vegetable oil.
In Africa, an estimated 3 million hectares (almost 7.5 million acres) of land “traditionally used or inhabited by local communities,” covering both forest and farmland, have been acquired by palm oil companies, according to Devlin Kuyek, a researcher with GRAIN, a nonprofit that supports small farmers. That’s in line with reporting from The Economist in 2014, when the magazine reported, “In the past decade, politicians in west Africa and countries of the Congo basin have leased out around 1.8m hectares [4.5 million acres] of land for palm-oil plantations, according to Hardman, a London-based research company. Another 1.4m hectares [3.5 million acres] is being sought. Foreign companies sniffing around include groups such as Wilmar, Olam, Sime Darby, Golden Veroleum and Equatorial Palm Oil.” Meanwhile, pointing to statistics from the nonprofit Proforest, The Guardian reported in 2016 that “[a]s much as 22m hectares (54m acres) of land in west and central Africa could be converted to palm plantations over the next five years.”
While exact numbers on future large-scale expansion are difficult to predict, the industry is undoubtedly growing. “Despite having little plantation area currently, some countries in Latin America and Africa experienced greater percent growth during [2003–13] than did either Indonesia or Malaysia,” researchers wrote in PLOS One in 2016. “If these growth rates continue, oil palm plantation expansion in these countries will likely have increased impacts.”
From Liberia to the Democratic Republic of Congo, a battle has been emerging in recent years over where and how palm oil should be developed. There are concerns about impacts on local water supplies, wildlife populations, biodiversity and climate change. But the heart of the matter, what’s making communities speak out en masse, is control over land. To expand their palm oil production, a number of companies have relied on what critics describe as land grabs.
Communities aren’t opposed to growing oil palm. Unlike in Indonesia and Latin America, oil palm is native to West Africa, and an important traditional crop with a variety of uses. But in the past it has grown wild or been integrated into fields with other crops. The large global producers rely on monoculture plantations.
The RSPO was established in 2004 to create environmental and social standards for the palm oil industry. A number of environmentalists and human rights groups, however, have criticized it as ineffective or not effective enough. One study that evaluated a set of sustainability metrics on palm oil plantations in Indonesia found no difference between plantations that were RSPO-certified and those that were not. Another found that certification was sometimes associated with lower rates of deforestation, but many plantations were in areas where much of the forest had already been destroyed.
In Africa, the very certification that’s supposed to ensure sustainability is actually responsible for communities losing more land than what will even be used for production, according to Kuyek. The RSPO, he says, incentivizes companies to include more land in their contracts than they will convert to plantations, so they can say they are setting aside a certain amount for protection. “In a kind of sinister way,” he says, “it actually encourages a larger land grab.” Asked if he sees any validity to the land protection statute along the lines of ecological conservation, Kuyek wrote in an email, “I’m afraid I don’t. There can be no meaningful programme for ecological conservation embedded in a fundamentally, destructive model of plantation agriculture.”