Africa’s palm oil industry: new frontier or age old issue? Part 1

Interview, 24 March 2015
Photo by Nanang Sujana / CIFOR (Creative Commons)

Continuing the debate on sustainable palm oil, we spoke to Dr Marcus Colchester, Senior Policy Advisor for the Forest Peoples Programme, and UNEP’s Douglas Cress, Programme Coordinator of the Great Apes Survival Partnership (GRASP) in Nairobi. In part one of this new series of blogs, Dr Colchester offers a human rights take on the issue, while in part two, Douglas Cress gives a conservationist’s perspective.    

How would you define the origins of palm oil in Africa?

The oil palm, which occurs widely in the forests of West and Central Africa, has been a cultivated crop in Africa for thousands of years. It was associated with the very first wave of farming settlements in the forests of Central Africa in the earliest phases of the Bantu migrations. It remains a mainstay of mixed farming systems in the wetter parts of West and Central Africa, and hand-processing to extract the oil is commonplace. 

But given its history, what makes Africa a ‘new frontier’ in terms of palm oil production?

Actually palm oil is not so ‘new’ in Africa. Industrial-scale palm oil production was started by the British in West Africa in the late 19th century and the company that became Unilever established commercial plantations in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in the early 20th century. However, limited infrastructure and the political disruptions associated with decolonisation and independence discouraged sustained foreign investment, so in the second half of the 20th century it was only in ex-French colonies like Cote d’Ivoire (and to a lesser extent Anglophone Ghana) that palm oil production maintained significant export volumes. Now, with easily accessible lands becoming less available in Southeast Asia, attention is again turning to Africa and Latin America as alternatives.

How is Africa adopting the RSPO standard, in response?

Many companies opening up in Africa are offshoots of Asian companies that are already members of the RSPO. Others plan to export to European markets where RSPO certification is becoming increasingly standard. So, the majority of new operations in Africa are seeking to become RSPO compliant. However, our detailed field work with impacted communities in the DRC, Cameroon and Liberia – as well as more anecdotal reports from Nigeria and Gabon – shows that these companies are struggling to meet RSPO standards.  There has been a flood of submissions under the RSPO’s grievance system from communities complaining that their customary lands have been taken over without their rights to land being recognised, and without their ‘free, prior and informed consent’. Deforestation has likewise surged – and some of the companies implicated are prominent members of the RSPO.

So how can governments help to prevent eviction of local populations and other human rights abuses?

Although the companies themselves are far from blameless the problem has been exacerbated by the lack of effective national laws to secure communities’ customary rights to their lands. Also, governments’ accelerated permitting procedures, which are designed to speed up foreign investment, do not take the time to ensure that communities have a proper voice in the process. This has provoked a storm of protests – locally, nationally and internationally –and inward investment in palm oil has now stalled in some countries. The RSPO should engage with African governments to help them understand that a more measured investment process, which is respectful of human rights and local peoples’ needs, will not only encourage more responsible investors but may also result in better development outcomes for local peoples and their environments.

RSPO also needs to build synergies with international agencies, such the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which has a new ‘Voluntary Guidelines on the Governance of Tenure in Land, Fisheries and Forests’, and the World Bank Group, with its new ‘Framework and Strategy for Engagement in the Palm Oil Sector’ – both of which aim to tackle the wider legal and governance challenges implicit in palm oil development.

Legal reforms are needed to secure communities’ land rights. Above all, RSPO needs to apply its multi-stakeholder approach to make sure communities and civil society actors have a voice in national planning and reforms.

What lessons can we learn from Southeast Asia? How might the role of smallholders in Africa be different to those in Southeast Asia?

African NGOs indeed question whether the colonial model of plantations that still prevails in Southeast Asia is what they need now in Africa. They question the real development benefits of large estates run by ex-pat planters, estates where local people are little more than a labour force or, at best, heavily-controlled out-growers. Given that Africa already has thousands of years of experience with oil palm there is a need to consider alternative models where commercial stands of oil palm are better integrated with local mixed farming systems. It is true that – compared with say smallholder rubber – palm oil requires more lumpy investment, better infrastructure and rapid transportation, but smallholder-based approaches seem to have worked in Cote d’Ivoire. As the philosopher George Santayana famously noted: ‘Those who fail to learn from the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them!’

Is 100% sustainable palm oil a realistic target for Africa?

It is unlikely that the millions of African farmers producing palm oil through traditional farming systems for domestic consumption and local markets will want to bother with certification. It just means extra costs with neither the benefit of premiums or better market access. The markets are there already. It makes much more sense for RSPO to focus on the activities of existing RSPO members moving into Africa and those operators seeking to produce for the international trade in palm oil.

What next for Africa’s palm oil industry?

A rethink of how best to produce palm oil in Africa may anyway be needed on financial grounds. RSPO companies moving into Africa are already learning that the costs of production are a lot higher than Southeast Asia, so on top of what turns out to be an illusory lure of cheap and available lands, they are finding that their profit margins are being squeezed by multiple transaction ‘fees’, major infrastructural and transportation overheads, and surprisingly high labour costs. The conventional route out of this conundrum would be increased mechanisation and intensification, which would mean even fewer jobs and benefits for local communities. This will only stir further opposition to the sector.

For more information visit: www.forestpeoples.org