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Palm oil – wonder crop, but at what cost?


Over the last 20 years oil palm has emerged as a wonder crop – providing copious quantities of palm oil as an ingredient in everything from soap to biscuits. But at what cost to the environment? I’ve come to Gabon, in western Central Africa, to see what’s happening here. Palm oil production has already cleared vast swathes of tropical Malaysia and Indonesia. but the demand appears to be almost limitless, and now it’s coming to Africa, ‘big time’!

Cleared land being prepared for a palm oil plantation.Establishing oil palm plantations is not pretty, even if it is done at the expense of secondary forest deemed to be of low conservation value. It is a brutal, apocalyptic landscape to look at. © Beatrix Richards / WWF

I’m also here to attend a meeting about our ‘Green Heart of Africa’ programme – to discuss how WWF offices around the world will liaise to support our work in Central Africa over the next five years, and what our priorities will be.

My first full day in Gabon is taken up with a visit to the Olam oil palm plantation. Olam is a relatively recent arrival here (last five years). It’s a big company with interests in 64 countries, across six continents. It’s working closely with the Gabonese government to help diversify their economy and produce crops like palm oil. Here in Gabon it is committed to producing palm oil certified by the RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil).

The RSPO was formed in 2004 as a not-for-profit organisation to ensure that palm oil could be grown and used in a way that would lessen its impact on the environment and take account of the needs of local people.

The RSPO unites stakeholders from seven sectors of the palm oil industry – including environmental and social NGOs – to develop and implement global standards for sustainable palm oil, under the RSPO certification scheme. With regards to deforestation and carbon emissions, the RSPO is currently discussing different options – including: zero net emissions; a simple limit of 40 tonnes of carbon per hectare of above-ground forest vegetation (as opposed to carbon in roots and soil); and a ban on planting on peat.

The Gabonese government is committed to developing a diverse, sustainable economy and is putting in place legislation to achieve this, hence their encouragement of companies like Olam. So what does this look like on the ground?

A tree stump in land cleared for a palm oil plantationThere is very little living in the landscape after it has been cleared - but nitrogen fixing plants are used to rapidly cover the soil, both protecting it and adding nutrients. © Beatrix Richards / WWF

Agriculture currently contributes a relatively low 19.7% of GDP and unemployment is at 30%. Palm oil offers important employment opportunities to local rural communities. The Olam Oil Palm plantation set up near Kango is pretty much brand spanking new. The infrastructure required to support it all still needs to be built, but already it is employing 900 people, the majority from surrounding villages. The long-term target is around 1400.

Olam were originally allowed to use 51,000 hectares by the Gabonese government across three blocks, all of which were originally timber concessions. There is no clear demarcation of agricultural land in Gabon, so land-use planning is another challenge that the Gabonese government faces.

To meet RSPO requirements, Olam undertook a feasibility study. This precluded around 16,000 hectares across two blocks of land, because to clear them would produce too much carbon, the biodiversity of the forests were too high and there were local communities living within the forest. So Olam are focussing on the third block, Block 8. This will eventually give Olam a concession of around 35,000 hectares.

Within Block 8 they plan to set aside 10-15,000 hectares in the north, given the high conservation value of this section and its difficult access. Currently they are developing just over 7,000 hectares. The first phase of this, an area of 3,000 hectares, was cleared in 2011. A total of 1100 hectares is now being planted

Establishing oil palm plantations is not pretty, even if it is done at the expense of secondary forest deemed to be of low conservation value. They clear everything outside of the buffer zones. They even scrape the top soil from large areas in order to fill the bags for the palm oil seedlings for the nurseries before the oil palm trees are planted out.

Post-clearance, it’s a brutal, apocalyptic sight. We saw nothing living or moving in this landscape except for diggers, scrapers and the trucks driving palm oil workers home. The clearance had left swathes of dead trees across the landscape, unexploited. Gradually they were being piled into long rows to sit either side of the palm oil plants.

Trees awaiting planting in GabonThe buffer zones, as seen around these saplings, extend the edges around the palm oil crop. © Beatrix Richards / WWF

By way of ameliorating the impact on the soil, Olam are planting nitrogen-fixing plants, which rapidly cover the terrain. They’re also using the buffer zones around the rivers and streams to extend the edges around the crop. They reassured us that the site would soon look green again, and, as the oil palm establishes itself (it produces a viable crop within just three years of being planted out), the aspect will be a far more familiar one – ie that of a monoculture crop.

Companies like Olam show that parts of the industry recognise their impact not just locally on people and nature, but also on wider, global issues such as climate change, and want to do something about it.

The RSPO is currently reviewing its standards, and including limits on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions must be a core part of it. Olam has chosen to disclose its GHG emissions here in Gabon and admits that, given the density of the forest in Gabon, these emissions are high. They’re looking at encouraging the natural regeneration of roadside sections to offset some of the carbon emissions.

They’re also following the RSPO guidance on buffer zones around water courses, including extending the zone around large rivers to 300 metres. And they’re working on free, prior and informed consent with local communities – although they consider that customary rights are not well recorded in Gabon and there is a national need to identify these.

Olam have a health and safety statement too, which they call their ‘mantra’, and they employ a medical doctor, three nurses (one of them from a local villages) and one QEHS engineer. The safety mantra encompasses people, environment, process and quality. They have a series of key performance indicators. Smallholders will also have to go through the health and safety process in order for Olam to include their production as RSPO-certified.

The company is also acquiring additional capacity to process palm oil. They will set up a mill in Gabon, which will export to refineries planned in Mozambique and Nigeria. They’re also building a fertiliser plant in Port Gentil.

Olam considers that sustainable oil palm development in Gabon could be 100-110,000 hectares (although they’re looking for options on more than 300,000 hectares), but this needs to be part of a sound land-use planning process.

While I was in Gabon, I heard rumours of the government considering setting aside more than one million hectares – which, given the country has more than 80% forest cover, would inevitably involve extensive forest conversion. This pales into insignificance when you hear the kinds of figures that are being bandied around for central Africa, a heavily forested region, as a whole.

What were my thoughts on all of this? As a forester, I came away from this experience a bit shell-shocked, but convinced that WWF needs to work with the RSPO and the wider palm oil industry as a matter of urgency, and in doing so draw in as many other partners as possible.

It’s an industry that needs to be scrutinised, because there are real tangible benefits, in terms of reduced environmental and social impact, for a company producing RSPO-certified palm oil as opposed to uncertified.

We need to highlight unacceptable practice and we need to make sure countries like Gabon have a fighting chance to learn from past mistakes made in other parts of the world, and instigate things like good land-use planning, open and transparent concession mapping, engage in free prior and informed consent with local communities, improve production techniques and stop converting highly biodiverse forests.

If countries like Gabon do this, then we may just have a chance at converting an environmentally brutalising industry into one which, given the exponential global demand for palm oil, we can live with.

WWF has a clear position on palm oil production – let me know what you think.

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