Palm oil faces backlash in Africa

Samir Tounsi in Libreville, Reinnier Kaze –
Its lower cost has made it popular in commercial food production, but after being blamed for deforestation in Asia, palm oil plantations are now getting a similar rap in Africa.
The sheer scale of land required is having an impact in Gabon, Cameroon and the Congo Basin, environmentalists say.
With financing coming from American, European and Asian agri-businesses, palm bunches are cultivated then cut from trees and sent to factories where oil is extracted by hot pressing.
But the production process accelerates deforestation, contributes to climate change and threatens fauna and flora in vulnerable areas, opponents argue.
However the companies say palm oil is not only less expensive than soya or sunflower oil but requires much less land to produce and provides much-needed jobs.
Gabon, where forest covers 80 per cent of the territory, is feeling the brunt.
Brainforest and Mighty, two environmental groups, investigated the activities of Olam, an agri-business from Singapore, which said it has planted 58,000 hectares of palm trees in Gabon.
“It is estimated that Olam has deforested 20,000 hectares in its Gabonese concessions of Awala et Mouila since 2012,” the groups said.
Olam said palm trees had been planted on 25,000 hectares of land which had previously been forested, but that this had been “highly logged and degraded secondary forest”.
But the impact appears wider. In their report, the environmental groups expressed fears the Congo Basin, considered the lung of Africa, could go the same way as forests in Sumatra, Indonesia and on Borneo.
“A few decades ago, these places were almost entirely covered with forests, a paradise for orangutans, rhinos, elephants and exotic birds. Today, only 20-30 per cent of the forest cover exists.”
The report was released in Libreville when an environmental film festival honoured the French documentary Et Maintenant Nos Terres (And Now Our Land).
Its directors, Julien Le Net and Benjamin Polle, chronicled how villages in Cameroon and Senegal were being affected by what they called “land grabs” by multinational companies.
In southwest Cameroon, 244 farmers have filed a trespassing complaint against a company that intends to plant 20,000 hectares of palm trees.
Greenpeace has asked Cameroon not to renew the company’s concession which expired at the end of November, and it cited “six years of illegal foresting, trampling of locals’ rights, unfulfilled investments and destruction of forest”. —AFP

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