18 March 2017

Africa: Is a Sustainable Palm Oil Industry Possible in Africa?

A boy from the village of Quitupo walks past palm trees in Palma on February 16, 2017. The village of Quitupo will be resettled to make way for the new gas mining project in and around the district of Palma. AFP/John Wessels

Most of the world's palm oil comes from Indonesia and Malaysia. It's been that way for decades. But environmentalists say this has come at a huge cost to the region's forests, where native trees are cut down in order to plant the palm trees that supply palm oil. So avoiding a repeat of what has happened in south-east Asia has become a priority for environmentalists. RFI's Clea Broadhurst asks if it's possible to implement a sustainable palm oil industry in Africa.

Palm Oil has quite a bad reputation. For decades, it has been associated with environmental damage and human rights abuse, mainly due to the way large-scale companies operate. In Indonesia, for example, deforestation has increased carbon emissions and destroyed the habitat of rare breeds of animals such as orangutans.

The aggressive expansion of the industry has also broken up communities.

Africa faces similar problems.

The Global Palm Oil Market is expected to be worth about 82 billion euros by 2022. And today, rival investors are flocking to West Africa to secure land for their plantations.

Environmentalists are warning governments in these countries not to make the same mistakes that were made in Southeast Asia.

One thing experts seem to agree on is the fact that the business model needs to change, evolve, if palm oil production in Africa is to be sustainable.

RFI spoke to Matthias Rhein, a finance policy advisor at SeventyThree, a firm specialised in the energy, marine, land and industrial sectors; Tom Lomax, a lawyer and human rights coordinator at an NGO called the Forest Peoples Programme; Christopher Stewart, Head of corporate responsibility and sustainability, at Olam International; and Abraham Baffoe, Africa regional director at an NGO called Proforest, which advises governments and companies how to operate, and respect the environment at the same time.

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