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For the love of palm oil

For the love of palm oil
  • PublishedJanuary 28, 2014

Although the palm tree is native to West and Central Africa and is widely cultivated in the two regions, much of the palm oil produced for the global market comes from the vast industrial plantations of Malaysia and Indonesia, where it has caused massive deforestation and loss of biodiversity. But growing demand for palm oil and rising production costs in Asia have led to a new land rush across West Africa and the Congo basin countries. Today palm oil is coming full circle, returning to its ancestral home, but African countries should beware of environmental and resource-acquisition concerns as one American agribusiness company, interested in growing palm trees, has got stuck in the mud in Cameroon. Curtis Abraham reports.

I n 2008, the former US President Bill Clinton delivered an enthusiastic opening speech at the launch ceremony for an anti-poverty event being run by an organisation called All for Africa. All for Africa was starting a “Palm Out Poverty” campaign, and Clinton gave it his full support. “As you may know,” Clinton said on the night, “tomorrow we open this year’s annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative… Tonight you are joining that cause by helping to alleviate poverty and its associated issues, including inequalities in education and healthcare, through a creative initiative whose potential I am happy to celebrate with you.”

The ex-president went on: “When tonight’s goal of $20m is met, you will have created a mechanism built on African soil with African sources and African labour that will produce thirty years’ worth, an entire generation’s worth, of sustained impact at the local level, empowering people to understand the challenges and have workable solutions but now lack the financial means to implement.

“Now you are giving them something to do over the long run. The success of All for Africa will empower great numbers of these good people in diverse places all across the African continent to shape their own destinies and those of their children. I look forward to observing that great work with you.”

But is that really what is happening? All for Africa is a New York-based but Delaware-registered non-profit organisation co-founded in 2008 by Bruce Wrobel, who is also its current chairman and executive director. Wrobel is also the chairman and CEO of Herakles Farms, an agribusiness company. All for Africa aims to work with the private sector to support projects that generate socio-economic benefits to communities throughout Africa. At the “Palm Out Poverty” campaign launch, All for Africa committed to reducing poverty, preventing illness, and promoting education across Africa by planting one million oil palm trees, primarily in Cameroon, and using the profits to fund community-based projects in Africa.

Herakles Farms supports the “Palm Out Poverty” campaign by providing All for Africa with subsidised land and oil palm seeds and assistance with marketing and sales.

World leader
Palm oil is the world’s main source of vegetable oil and fats. It is derived from the fresh fruit bunches (FFB) of the oil palm tree (Elaeis guineensis). Each FFB contains hundreds and sometimes thousands of small fruits comprising of a fleshy mesocarp and a hard kernel.

When crushed, the mesocarp produces crude palm oil, and the kernel produces palm kernel oil. Crude palm oil can be consumed as is or further refined for use in packaged goods, such as margarine, shortening, ice cream, chocolate, tocotrienol extract, vanaspati, soaps, detergents, lubricants, biofuel, candy bars and cosmetics. More than half of all supermarket items contain it. The Singapore-based Wilmar International, founded in 1991, and now Asia’s leading agribusiness group, controls 45% of the world’s palm oil market.

But its most popular use to date is as vegetable cooking oil. The global production of palm oil has increased exponentially over the past 50 years. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), between 1961 and 2009 the average annual growth rate of the world’s palm oil production was 7.3%, with production more than doubling every 10 years. In fact, the land converted to oil palm plantations globally quadrupled from 3.6 million hectares in 1961 to 15.4 million hectares in 2007, mostly in Southeast Asia, where over 80% of the world’s palm oil is produced. According to the World Bank:

“With a population increase of 11.6% and a 5% increase in per capita consumption, an additional 28 million tons of vegetable oils will have to be produced annually by 2020. Palm oil is well placed to meet this demand with the lowest requirement for new land.”

But “the lowest requirement for new land” bit of this statement is not entirely true. Because, although the palm tree is native to West and Central Africa and is widely cultivated in the two regions, most of the palm oil produced for the global market comes from the vast industrial plantations of Malaysia and Indonesia where it has caused massive deforestation and loss of biodiversity.

But growing demand for palm oil and rising production costs in Asia have led to a new land rush across West Africa and the Congo basin countries. The current boom in forestland being purchased or leased by multinational agribusiness corporations for mega oil palm plantations in Africa is expected to cause the same socio-economic and environmental disasters that have adversely affected populations in Indonesia and Malaysia as well as their tropical rainforests.

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The land rush in Africa
Human rights groups have labelled the rapid increase in acquisition of land in Africa by foreign investors as a “land grab”, to highlight the potential negative consequences for local landowners and users. Historically in sub-Saharan Africa, smallholder and subsistence farmers clearing land for agricultural production has been the primary cause of tropical forest loss. However, the continent has recently begun to experience a shift in the drivers of deforestation due to an expansion of large-scale industrial oil palm estates. Experts have observed that similar impacts of industrial oil palm expansion have been reported for tropical rainforests in South America.

In Colombia, the world’s fourth-largest palm oil producing country, oil palm expansion has become one of the principle drivers of deforestation and forest fragmentation, especially of gallery forests. A study of 23 forest-protected area fragments in Côte d’Ivoire, varying in size and degree of isolation (caused by small and large-scale farming) indicated that all surveyed forests, except one, lost between 25%-100% of primate species.

So it stands to reason that industrial oil palm development in the tropical rainforests of West Africa and the Congo basin will lead directly to the loss of large areas of primate habitat as well as endangering the primates themselves, if those forests are adjacent to industrial oil palm plantations.


Rural lives under threat
Herakles Farms has proposed an oil palm plantation in Cameroon, which environmentalists say will involve destroying thousands of hectares of rainforest in a region identified as one of the top 25 hotspots for biodiversity conservation in the world.

The Cameroon project is a strong example of how the expansion of such projects in Africa is not only threatening rural livelihoods (via the loss of land, and increasing the risk of food insecurity) but also represents a big risk for endangered wildlife species.

Herakles Farms’ numerous African and international critics have argued that its project in Cameroon has serious environmental, social and legal problems. The critics have thus called on the Cameroonian government to terminate the company’s contract and prohibit it from clearing forest. One report has claimed that Bruce Wrobel has an interest in producing palm oil in Africa for the global biodiesel market and, through his energy company Sithe Global, has considered developing plantations in Liberia, Tanzania, and Madagascar.

However, by late 2008, as the price for crude oil sharply declined from its peak of nearly $140 per barrel, Wrobel decided that palm oil would have more value as a food crop than as a component in biofuel. Herakles Farms then acquired all of Sithe Global’s assets in the palm oil industry, including the company Sithe Global Sustainable Oils (SGSO), which, in 2008, was incorporated in Ghana and Cameroon.

A year later, Sithe Global-Sustainable Oils in Cameroon (SG-SOC) signed an establishment convention with the government of Cameroon, which detailed the terms of a 99-year lease of 73,086 hectares of land.

It was that same year that problems with the Herakles Farms/SG-SOC development project first arose, when the Cameroon Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife informed Herakles Farms that its plantation overlapped with existing forest titles.

Earlier in 2010, the Programme for the Sustainable Management of Natural Resources in the Southwest Region, a development programme of the Cameroon government co-financed by the German Development Bank, wrote to Herakles Farms raising similar issues and suggested that a majority of the plantation area was covered with dense High Conservation Value (HCV) forest. The failure of Herakles Farms to appropriately respond to the Cameroon government and the managers of the joint sustainable development programme led to the emergence of an organised local and international campaign to stop the Herakles Farms development. Since then, there has been massive opposition to the project from local NGOs, including the Centre for Environment and Development (CED), RELUFA, Struggle to Economise the Future Environment (SEFE), and Nature Cameroon.

Other international NGOs such as Greenpeace International, the Oakland Institute, WWF, Save Wildlife, the German development foundation GIZ, and private individuals have also been vocal about what they call “the dangerous activities” of Herakles Farms/SG-SOC. Herakles Farms has claimed that the land targeted for its plantation “…consists 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 company also insists that the forest “has been heavily exploited and now remains as secondary forest … and of low biodiversity value”, and that it is a “biodiversity cold spot” – in other words devoid of important wildlife species.


The evidence
But where is the evidence? Herakles Farms cites letters from the Cameroon government which state (without accompanied evidence) that the plantation area has been heavily logged and is covered by “secondary forest”. Additionally, Herakles Farms cites its Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA), and HCV assessment as evidence that extensive human use and commercial logging have seriously degraded the habitat in the plantation area.

A map provided by the company of their planned plantation area identified only small (mostly 25 hectare) isolated patches of HCV forest primarily restricted to hilltops and steep-sided ridges. However, the plantation area is not a “degraded habitat” as Herakles Farms claims it to be. Satellite and aerial surveys indicate that dense, intact, high canopy forest covers the majority of the plantation area. Furthermore, an organisation composed of representatives from NGOs and the private sector called the HCV Resource Network, which conducts peer reviews of HCV assessments, has concluded that the survey effort and methods used by Herakles Farms to assess the HCV of the plantation area were inadequate and that it did not comply with the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) principles. The RSPO was formally established in 2004 with the primary aim of promoting and certifying “sustainable” palm oil. The RSPO defines “sustainability” as comprising “legal, economically viable, environmentally appropriate, and socially beneficial management operations”.

This is guided by a set of principles and criteria focused on issues related to transparency, compliance with local laws, the use of appropriate best practices for growing palm trees, limiting environmental impacts, protecting biodiversity, and responsible consideration of affected communities. Similarly, in letters written to the Cameroon government, Cameroonian and international organisations and scientists have strongly criticised the Herakles Farms’ environmental assessment for its poor survey design and implementation, and also its misrepresentation of the quality of the forest in the plantation area.


Government role
Curiously, despite these criticisms, the Cameroon government approved Herakles Farms’ environmental assessment. The discrepancy arose because the company and the Cameroon government’s description of forest conditions failed to differentiate between types of secondary forest. This was so because forest recovered from selective logging differs substantially from forest regeneration on previously cleared land. Environmentalists believe Herakles Farms’ oil palm project will seriously threaten the already fragile ecosystems in the region.

The land proposed for the concession falls between the Korup National Park, the Rumpi Mountains, Bayang-Mbo Wildlife Sanctuary, Bakossi Mountains and the Nta Ali Reserve. All these are of HCV. In August 2013, researchers from Dschang University found evidence that groups of the rare Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee live in an area of the rainforest near Korup National Park, which is set to be cleared by Herakles Farms. For many years now, the US government has invested heavily in the conservation of the endangered Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee. It thus seems both tragic and ridiculous that Herakles Farms, an American company, is set to bulldoze forest that is critical to the survival of these unique creatures. The European Union is also actively involved with the chimpanzee concession and its proper functioning. The area where the chimps live is also a habitat for elephants, antelopes, and monkeys of all kinds, including the critically endangered Preuss’s red colobus.

Another real threat is the bush meat trade. The establishment of a large oil palm plantation generates a large influx of workers and money into rural areas, which has a negative impact on poaching activities for the commercial bush meat trade. Workers often eat bush meat themselves and/or go poaching to sell it for additional income, and this is very hard to police. 

Additionally, a fish survey conducted in 2013 in rivers in the Herakles Farms plantation area found high levels of endemism and diversity and concluded that the rivers were of extreme aquatic conservation value. Generally, the rainforests of West and Central Africa help to sustain life across the whole world. For example, an estimated 8% of the earth’s carbon that is stored in living forests worldwide comes from the forests of DRCongo, making the country the fourth-largest carbon reservoir in the world. The Congo Basin rainforest also plays a critical role in regulating the global climate and halting runaway climate change, for the benefit of the entire biosphere.

In September 2011, critics of the Herakles Farms plantation filed a formal grievance with the RSPO, citing inadequate environmental assessment and unsupported claims made by the company. In August 2013, the company withdrew its membership from the RSPO, arguing that the grievance process was preventing the company from moving forward with its activities.

Another bone of contention in the Herakles Farms saga is that they commenced with their oil palm activities prior to obtaining all the required legal paperwork. In Cameroon, “national land” (on which the company’s plantation is situated) is leased through a process that requires the leasee to produce or obtain several documents prior to developing the land. Of particular relevance here is an ESIA, a certificate of environmental conformity and, for leases of land more than 50 hectares, a presidential decree.

Herakles Farms submitted an ESIA to the Cameroon government in August 2011 and soon after it was given a certificate of environmental conformity. Without a land lease signed by the president of Cameroon, Paul Biya, Herakles Farms nonetheless went on to clear 300 hectares of forest for oil palm nurseries and roads, and has been negotiating with villages in the area for additional land outside the planned concession limits.

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Illegal logging of timber
A serious bone of contention is that Herakles Farms/SG-SOC have been engaged in illegal logging activities in the southwest region of Cameroon. But the company says it “surrendered the timber to the government and took a lower lease rate, as we are not commercial loggers… This will… add huge value to the government’s timber income,” Bruce Wrobel stated in an open letter released in September 2012.

However, a recent Greenpeace research trip found evidence that Herakles Farms had continued to log throughout a suspension period imposed by the Cameroonian government in early 2013, when all work was ordered to stop. Herakles Farms announced the suspension in a press release on 18 May and the suspension was lifted on 29 May. But photographic evidence of logs stacked in the concession area revealed that they were stamped with the date 22 May – suggesting that they were cut down while the stop order was still in place.

Clearing and logging are now taking place on a larger scale in the concession area, and logs are being marked in a way that clearly indicates that they are intended for commercial sale. Herakles Farms is not, however, licensed to operate as a commercial logger or timber trader in Cameroon. According to Greenpeace’s Africa Forest Campaigner Irene Wabiwa, concerns had already been raised as a result of a field mission undertaken by the Cameroonian Ministry for Forestry and Wildlife and an EU-funded independent observer in May 2012. Their report concluded that Herakles Farms was “responsible for serious infringements to the national timber law, including clearing without authorisation inside the permanent forest estate”.

A joint report by Greenpeace International and the Oakland Institute in May 2013 also estimated that sales of this timber could provide Herakles Farms with revenue of between $60m and $90m over the next seven years. The latest on this saga is that on 26 November 2013, the government of Cameroon awarded Herakles Farms a provisional land lease to develop 20,000 hectares (of the originally estimated 70,000 hectares). But opponents of the project say this does not resolve the issues of deforestation, forest fragmentation, biodiversity threat, and socio-economic instability that the project, even in its current scaled-down form, would unleash. They simply want it stopped.

According to Anuradha Mittal, executive director of the Oakland Institute: “The Cameroonian government has shot itself in the foot with this decision. They are making it clear that under the guise of ‘investment’, virtually anyone can get away with illegal activities in the country and even be rewarded for it. It will be the government itself and the Cameroonian people who lose out from this.”

The recent developments have exposed the fact that the project was given the green light without adequate consultation with the people who live there.


Villagers suffer
“Of the 20 villages in the concession area, the majority are fearful that they will lose their traditional lands and their livelihoods to Herakles Farms, and that their children will grow up not knowing the forests that have sustained their families for generations,” says Irene Wabiwa. Many farmers were not consulted by Herakles Farms and simply found concrete boundary markers for the project planted in their fields and forests overnight, without any advance notification. This goes against Cameroonian law and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which gives all community members the right to be informed and be part of the decision-making process on issues that will impact their livelihoods. Inhabitants in the villages of Nguti and Sikam, which together have lost almost 6,000 hectares of land, reacted with indignation when they learned that Herakles Farms had made an official request for land without proper consultation. Residents of both villages wrote to the Cameroonian presidency three months ago, calling for further consultation prior to signing an official land lease.

Says Irene Wabiwa: “Herakles Farms has obtained a very favourable contract with the Cameroonian government, meaning that they will pay minimal taxes and land rent, despite Herakles’ own investor presentations valuing the land at $4,500-$6,000. This is a classic example of a land grab, and the revenues generated by Herakles Farms will not benefit local communities.”

She added: “Resistance to the project has been dealt with harshly. Local activists have been arrested and detained without charge, and face court cases against them simply for standing up to protect their community’s land.”

Other residents in the village of Ebanga told Greg Norman, another Greenpeace forest campaigner, that they signed an agreement with Herakles Farms without fully understanding the small print and now feel trapped. “When information is distributed showing the rate Herakles intends to pay people for their land compared to the rate paid elsewhere, including in Malaysia, there is shock and dismay,” says Norman. Adolf Ebong Ndbe, the regent of Talangaye village near the Babensi Forest, which has been bulldozed by Herakles to expand the area around its nursery, told Greg Norman: “We have written so many complaints about Herakles Farms. How can they enter our land without permission?”

What’s happening elsewhere
Herakles Farms and its Cameroonian affiliate, Sithe Global-Sustainable Oils Cameroon (SG-SOC), are certainly not the only ones in sub-Saharan Africa that threaten rainforests and the biodiversity they harbour.

Malaysia’s Wah Seong Corporation has a subsidiary in Congo Brazzaville that is perhaps the largest palm oil developer in the Congo basin. It has a concession agreement to occupy 470,000 hectares of mostly forested land in the north of the country, and plans to develop at least 180,000 hectares for oil palm, which would be the largest oil palm plantation in the Congo Basin.

An estimated 402,637 hectares of the concession land is in Cuvette province, while the remaining 67,363 hectares are in Mokeko district in Sangha province. If given the go-ahead, palm oil production is expected to yield 900,000 tons per year. However, environmental researchers believe that the forests designated for clearance mostly appear to be dense virgin rainforest, home to numerous endangered species, including the Western Lowland Gorilla.

There is no evidence of social and environmental assessments having been carried out, yet logging in the area has started. Official inspectors have uncovered numerous breaches of regulations in the logging that has occurred to date.

Then there is the case of the Sime Darby oil palm plantation in Liberia, run by a Malaysian company, which is also involved in forest destruction and illegal logging. Aside from the biodiversity loss, the destruction of the forest means that local communities that have already lost valuable farmland to the Sime Darby concession, and that rely on the forest for plant medicines, fruits and vegetables, and other traditional cultural activities, will be deprived of an essential part of their livelihoods.

These are important issues that African governments cannot just brush away as they grant concessions to agribusiness companies seeking to invest on the continent.

Written By
New African

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