By Curtis Abraham
Oil-palm cultivation has wrecked habitats in South-East Asia. We must avoid a rerun if the crop takes off in its native Africa
It's beginning to feel like déjà vu. With global demand for cosmetics, soap, biodiesel and vegetable cooking oil ever on the rise, the African oil palm (Elaeis guineensis) has been a boon, providing the essential ingredient for all these. So much so, that it is now widely cultivated beyond its native range, notably in South-East Asia, where the creation of vast oil-palm estates has caused massive deforestation and the local extinction of some species.
Anthropologist Joshua Linder at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, called it" private-enterprise-driven tropical deforestation from agriculture".
Now the prodigal plant is coming home. The boom in South-East Asian oil-palm cultivation has hit a stumbling block owing to a diminishing supply of new agricultural land. This, combined with economic incentives such as cheap labour, attractive land acquisition terms and low taxes, has seen foreign agribusinesses converting large tracts of land in west and central Africa to grow oil palm.
We can safely assume that the high levels of deforestation, forest fragmentation and biodiversity loss that industrial oil-palm cultivation has caused in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Peruvian Amazon and Colombia will in time occur in Africa, too.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that globally, new acreage given over to oil-palm cultivation quadrupled between 1961 and 2007, when it reached 154,000 square kilometres. Much of this was in South-East Asia, which accounts for more than 80 per cent of the world's palm-oil production, but sub-Saharan Africa's contribution wasn't insignificant. According to a report published in 2012 by the environmental group Greenpeace, 26,000 square kilometres there have either come under oil palm in recent years or are earmarked for planting.
Historically, the loss of rainforest in Africa stemmed from the expansion of subsistence and smallholder farming. The increasing use of palm oil in food and cooking is now causing a noticeable shift in the causes of deforestation in tropical Africa. Large-scale forest clearing for oil palm will be accompanied by a surge in bushmeat hunting as the influx of plantation workers seek to feed themselves and supplement their incomes. That could be a disaster for Africa's lowland primates and for conservation generally.
Contentious cases include that of Herakles Farms, an agribusiness corporation based in New York City. In 2009, its affiliate Sithe Global Sustainable Oils Cameroon signed a 99-year lease on a concession of 730 square kilometres – nearly nine times the area of Manhattan.
But this proposed plantation in the west of Cameroon quickly became a bone of contention. The firm pointed to a report by the Ghana Wildlife Society that stated that the areas affected "... consist primarily of fragmented and degraded landscape devoid of any large tracts of the original moist evergreen lowland forest with its characteristic dense and continuous closed canopy". The firm's critics said that satellite and aerial surveys revealed the majority of the area to be dense forest.
A local and international campaign sprang up to try to halt the scheme. The company later withdrew from the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, a joint project between industry and conservation groups with the aim of promoting and certifying sustainable palm-oil production.
The concession is surrounded by the Korup National Park, the Rumpi hills, the Bayang-Mbo Wildlife Sanctuary, the Bakossi mountains and the Nta Ali Forest Reserve. All are of high conservation value, and critics claimed that if Herakles Farms's project had gone ahead it would have seriously threatened a fragile ecosystem. The company has reportedly agreed to scale down its plantation to 20,000 hectares.
Other proposed African plantations are also attracting the attention of environmentalists. They include ATAMA Plantations in the Republic of the Congo, which will occupy an area of dense forest inhabited by western lowland gorillas and chimpanzees. In Liberia, the Malaysian conglomerate Sime Darby is accused of harming biodiversity and the livelihoods of local farmers. Both companies point to promised economic benefits and insist they are environmentally responsible.
All is not doom and gloom. Palm oil can be produced in a more sustainable and responsible manner, one which poses a minimal threat to biodiversity, forest and existing livelihoods.
To help ensure this happens, no new oil-palm concessions should be awarded until environmentally and socially responsible policies are in place. Failing this, governments should stop any expansion of plantations into areas inhabited by endangered primates and other zones of high biodiversity.
There is also an urgent need to clarify what constitutes a "degraded habitat", a label often used to justify land being converted into plantations. Simply describing land as degraded may fail to recognise its biological and socio-economic importance, so any definition should be nuanced and consider different degrees and types of degradation.
Primatologists can also influence the movement for responsible palm-oil production. With their knowledge of the likely ecological impact of new plantations, they should be more proactive in policy formation and in campaigns to protect ecosystems and promote transparency in land acquisition.
One can only hope that past lessons and the attention being focused on the expansion of palm-oil production in Africa might be enough to avoid a walk down a deforested path that feels all too familiar.
This article appeared in print under the headline "Palm before the storm"