Industrial palm oil expansion in Africa: not to be at the cost of forests and people

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Feature story - August 24, 2012
Industrial scale palm oil plantation is rapidly expanding in Africa. After a first expansion of palm oil in West Africa, major palm oil companies are now investing in Central Africa, in Cameroon in particular, a country considered as a model by the other Congo Basin countries.

The allocation of large-scale concessions is decided without prior identification of the natural forests, which need to be preserved, and without consultation with local communities.  This generates the destruction of the forest and has a negative impact in many communities who dependent on it for their livelihood.

The expansion of the plantations intensifies deforestation, food insecurity and rural poverty.

The destruction and degradation of forests systems is driving climate change in two ways. First, the clearing and burning of forests releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and second, the area of forest that absorbs carbon dioxide is reduced. Their role in regulating the climate is so crucial that if we destroy the last forests, we will likely lose the battle against climate change. Forests are home to much of the earth's terrestrial biodiversity – millions of unique plants and animals. Furthermore, hundreds of millions of indigenous or forest-dependent people globally rely on them for their livelihood.

There are local solutions in the oil palm sector that protect the forest and provide good socio-economic benefits. Local communities can provide an example of how growing oil palms with greater local control can provide benefits to communities and environmental outcomes including reduced greenhouse gas emissions.  The challenge is to develop these local solutions in Africa.

The Indonesia example

24 August 2012 Small-holder Oil Palm Nursery in Sumatra

A palm oil nursery near Dosan Village. Oil palm plantations have expanded rapidly over the past two decades in Indonesia, clearing large swathes of natural forest and critical peatland areas. © Greenpeace / John Novis

Oil palm plantations have expanded rapidly over the past decades in Indonesia, clearing large swathes of natural forest and critical peatland areas.

Promises of economic development and jobs to local communities have not come true for many. However, Greenpeace has documented an innovative, independent smallholder approach that has delivered social and economic benefits for the community while protecting the remaining forest. 

“What is being done by the independent farmers of Dosan village is a solution for both the community, as well as for the protection of the forest against deforestation. They are making improvements to plantation management and are doing so though responsible and sustainable practices. Furthermore, they have a commitment not to convert any more forestland to plantations,” said Greenpeace campaigner Rusmadya Maharuddin from Greenpeace Indonesia.

In the early 2000s, the Siak District Government, along with a state-owned plantation company, set up an oil palm smallholder scheme that resulted in the developed plantation being handed over to local community cooperatives.

Since 2008 the Dosan community has managed the plantation itself, allowing the profits to return to the village, while also providing full employment. With the support of local NGO Elang, improved management practices have increased yields and reduced the environmental impact. The smallholder scheme with improved management is succeeding so that now it has become a model for integrated peatland management across the country.