Af­ter Asia, palm oil faces back­lash in Africa

Kuwait Times - - HEALTH & SCIENCE -

Its lower cost has made it pop­u­lar in com­mer­cial food pro­duc­tion, but af­ter be­ing blamed for de­for­esta­tion in Asia, palm oil plan­ta­tions are now get­ting a sim­i­lar rap in Africa. The sheer scale of land re­quired is hav­ing an im­pact in Gabon, Cameroon and the Congo Basin, en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists say. With fi­nanc­ing com­ing from Amer­i­can, Euro­pean and Asian agri-busi­nesses, palm bunches are cul­ti­vated then cut from trees and sent to fac­to­ries where oil is ex­tracted by hot press­ing.

But the pro­duc­tion process ac­cel­er­ates de­for­esta­tion, con­trib­utes to cli­mate change and threat­ens fauna and flora in vul­ner­a­ble ar­eas, op­po­nents ar­gue. How­ever the com­pa­nies say that palm oil is not only less ex­pen­sive than soya or sun­flower oil but re­quires much less land to pro­duce and pro­vides much-needed jobs. Gabon-where for­est cov­ers 80 per­cent of the ter­ri­tory-is feel­ing the brunt. Brain­for­est and Mighty, two en­vi­ron­men­tal groups, in­ves­ti­gated the ac­tiv­i­ties of Olam, an agri-busi­ness from Sin­ga­pore, which said it has planted 58,000 hectares of palm trees in Gabon.

“It is es­ti­mated that Olam has de­for­ested 20,000 hectares in its Gabonese con­ces­sions of Awala et Mouila since 2012,” the groups said in a re­port re­leased in mid-De­cem­ber. “In­ves­ti­ga­tors on the scene wit­nessed and filmed bull­doz­ers knock­ing down huge trees en masse.” Olam said palm trees had been planted on 25,000 hectares of land which had pre­vi­ously been forested, but that this had been “highly logged and de­graded sec­ondary for­est” and rep­re­sented just 0.1 per­cent of Gabon’s forests. In re­sponse to the re­port Olam pub­lished ad­ver­tise­ments tout­ing the al­most 11,000 jobs it has cre­ated, the 1,100 hectares of food crops planted and 251 kilome­ters of roads built.

A wider im­pact

But the im­pact ap­pears wider. In their re­port, the en­vi­ron­men­tal groups ex­pressed fears that the Congo Basin, con­sid­ered the lung of Africa, could go the same way as forests in Su­ma­tra, In­done­sia and on Bor­neo. “A few decades ago, th­ese places were al­most en­tirely cov­ered with forests, a par­adise for orang­utans, rhi­nos, ele­phants and ex­otic birds. To­day, only 20-30 per­cent of the for­est cover ex­ists.” The re­port was re­leased in Libreville when an en­vi­ron­men­tal film fes­ti­val hon­oured the French doc­u­men­tary “Et Main­tenant Nos Ter­res” (And Now Our Land). Its di­rec­tors, Julien Le Net and Ben­jamin Polle, chron­i­cled how vil­lages in Cameroon and Sene­gal were be­ing af­fected by what they called “land grabs” by multi­na­tional com­pa­nies.

In south­west Cameroon 244 farm­ers have filed a tres­pass­ing com­plaint against a com­pany that in­tends to plant 20,000 hectares of palm trees. Hear­ings in the case against Sus­tain­able Oils Cameroon, for­merly a sub­sidiary of Amer­i­can com­pany Her­ak­les Farms, were post­poned af­ter re­ports of un­rest in the area in Novem­ber. Green­peace has asked Cameroon not to re­new the com­pany’s con­ces­sion which ex­pired at the end of Novem­ber, and it cited “six years of il­le­gal forest­ing, tram­pling of lo­cals’ rights, un­ful­filled in­vest­ments and de­struc­tion of for­est”.

A pe­ti­tion signed by 180,000 peo­ple against re­newal of the con­tract was sent last week to Cameroon Pres­i­dent Paul Biya, Green­peace said. The gov­ern­ment has not yet made a de­ci­sion but Green­peace said it hoped it would hear the voices of “thou­sands of Cameroo­ni­ans.” Mean­while the plan­ta­tions of So­ca­palm, a sub­sidiary of the Lux­em­bourg com­pany Socfin in which the fam­ily firm of French busi­ness­man Vin­cent Bol­lore owns a large mi­nor­ity stake, were tar­geted by protests in Novem­ber.

“No to pol­lu­tion and mas­sive en­vi­ron­men­tal de­struc­tion” read one ban­ner, while another urged the com­pany to open a di­a­logue with res­i­dents. “More than 5,000 hectares has been used,” a res­i­dent called Ebe­neser Ekango said at the time, com­plain­ing there wasn’t enough land to plant the sta­ple crop cas­sava. —

UGANDA: This file photo shows fields con­verted to oil palm crop in Kango, 60km from Libreville.

— AFP Pho­tos

UGANDA: This file photo shows a man and his child walk­ing through a palm tree plan­ta­tion in Bu­manji, in the dis­trict of Kalan­gala, Uganda.

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