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Africa’s palm oil industry: new frontier or age old issue? Part 2

Interview, 28 April 2015
Palm Oil (Mazidi Ghani / WWF)

Following on from our Q&A with Dr Marcus Colchester, Senior Policy Advisor for the Forest Peoples Programme, we spoke to Douglas Cress, Programme Coordinator of the UN’s Great Apes Survival Partnership (GRASP) in Nairobi for a conservationist’s view of how the palm oil debate affects Africa.    

What is GRASP’s involvement in sustainable palm oil in Africa?

I was amazed when I joined GRASP in 2011 that there was almost zero palm oil engagement in Africa or in the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the UN on a broader level. In early 2013 we began to catch upon a subject, I’m embarrassed to say, we were not in a leadership position on. We pushed UNEP to develop an MOU last year with the RSPO, which is very important for us because gives us a legal framework to work with.

Of the countries inside GRASP that are partners, 21 of them are in Africa and two are in Asia – Malaysia and Indonesia. We understand the players [in Africa] and we understand some of the issues better. But if you go to an RSPO meeting there might be one African out of a thousand people. RSPO has tried several times to kick-start or jump start the African programme but it hasn’t really taken off yet, so facilitation is part of our commitment.

Is Africa really a ‘new frontier’ in terms of palm oil production?

Companies look at Africa, longingly, at all this undeveloped forest and millions of acres that haven’t been touched yet, and maybe think they can come in do and what they want. But they’re so far out of their comfort zone compared to how they operate in Asia. They don’t know who to talk to, which governments or local administrators to trust. They don’t understand the politics.

For one thing, we have tremendous problems across sub-Saharan Africa with land ownership. Who owns which property? If you overlay the maps of protected areas, gazetted areas, forest concessions, oil rights, palm oil… they overlay each other 13 or 14 times, so clearly this confusion is something most companies don’t want to get in the middle of. This has worked in our favour – it’s kept most of the big developers on the sidelines, for now.

It is common to find two, three, maybe four different ministries liaising with a major corporation for development, based on whether they are administering forests or trade or whatever. You end up getting a map and a concession deed and find that it’s been given to ten other people! This is one of the reasons that companies stay away, but it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be helping countries understand what they need to be asking for.

How is Africa adopting the RSPO standard, in response?

In Asia there are incredibly well-developed economies and incredibly well-developed systems. We don’t have that in Africa, yet. So to make promises to corporations in Africa is disingenuous at this point. And a country in Africa, African developers of palm oil, are going to want to see profits too. However, if you say, ‘In ten years you’ll see profits,’ they don’t want to hear that. They want to see profits much sooner. So the standards have to be something that gives them a reason to commit and a reason to pay up. It’s not a moral question. The moral imperative has long gone in our world [of Africa]. You have to provide an economic incentive to do this.

The standards are not particularly onerous. The biggest complaint we hear with major corporations in Asia is you have no idea how difficult it is to break apart a supply chain and ensure that each step, every barrel, every container is scrubbed up. Okay, well you built a supply chain – you can certainly un-build it, can’t you? But still, that’s their argument. Well, in Africa we’re still building that supply chain. This is where we have an incredible opportunity – maybe never again in this industry – to get something right, right from the start. 

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

This whole battle, to turn the tide on sustainability and make any commodity sustainable – I don’t care whether it’s palm oil or cocoa or timber or anything else – is going to be won or lost by the major corporations, because they control so much of the consumer market, they have so much of the investment, they create the jobs, they are the players. Those guys have to be the ones on board with this. That’s why when you see the major ones turning – Kellogg’s and Nestlé and Unilever and others – and then even taking a leadership position, that’s what’s going to have to happen for any of these commodities to redevelop or re-present themselves to the marketplace.

In terms of smallholders and communities, Africa has had this issue for a century, on so many fronts. So this is just the latest battlefield that is going to get played out on. But it’s been played out on city development, on the gazetting of national parks, natural resource use and utilisation so often that the indigenous communities just get bypassed [because] they’re not strong enough, they don’t have a voice in government, and they’re too small a community or group. This is a well-worn path.

How might the role of smallholders in Africa be different to those in Southeast Asia?

Smallholders are still the dominant palm oil developers in Cameroon and Sierra Leone, for instance.  Until the business acumen and confidence rises here, I think it’ll stay that way. That gives us a little more time to operate, which is great. Cameroon could not be a better example. We’re helping them with their national strategy and have been in a development process with them for over a year. It’s a country that has gorillas, chimpanzees, protected areas, heritage sites… it has all the things that are important to us. But it’s also equatorial and, with a fairly stable government, is perfect for developing palm oil. It’s the one country you would’ve thought would’ve been torn to pieces long ago for development, but it hasn’t. Even a large corporation such as Herakles is still trying to find its way – they don’t quite know where to go, who to trust. Developing palm oil in Africa is not easy, which again buys us more time. We’re very thankful for that.

What lessons can we learn from Southeast Asia?

Quite often, a plantation keeps moving along – it leaves behind an area for five years and moves on to something else. But you can grow palm oil effectively and equally as profitably on [existing] degraded land. One of our biggest pushes would be to go back to degraded land and resuscitate those areas you’ve left behind.

In Southeast Asia, smallholders are struggling for a voice. They’re overwhelmed by the major corporations, so they’ve really been marginalised to some degree, even though they’re very important. Some of these communities have been doing this for centuries, but have been boxed in by larger corporations. It’s the complete reverse in Africa, where essentially smallholders are the large corporations, because the big ones haven’t found a footing yet. You can’t simply hold a meeting in Africa and call in Sime Darby and Cargill and others and know you’ve got critical mass. They’re not there. You would be calling 400 smallholders to talk about the topic. But it will change. It changed fast in Asia, so there’s no reason to think it wouldn’t be the same in Africa.

For more information visit: www.un-grasp.org

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