Africa palm-oil plan pits activists against investorsBy: MARK JOHN
FABE, Cameroon – It was a tough week for Cameroonian village chief Wangoe Philip Ekole.
People in Fabe, angry at his support for a palm-oil plantation in their rainforest home, had put a curse on its seedling nursery, prompting petrified workers to lay down their tools and flee.
Ekole, who believes the project will bring people jobs and wealth, had persuaded them to return. But the whiff of revolt remained. Many of his 200 or so subjects accused him of seeking to enrich himself through the project. Some even disowned him as their leader.
The village dispute is part of the global struggle to feed the world – and central to a New York investment fund’s bid to capitalise on that effort in Africa.
Expanding markets from Nigeria to China are fuelling a voracious appetite for more food. A big part of that demand will have to be met by palm oil, a low-cost fat coveted by food manufacturers and a mainstay of cooking across the tropics. Since 2000, world demand for palm oil has doubled. Millions of hectares of forest in top producers Indonesia and Malaysia have been turned over to plantations.
That has prompted dismay among environmentalists and brought about tough new rules that are forcing planters to look elsewhere. One of those places is Cameroon, a central African state whose 20 million people live on an average of US$3 a day. New York-based Herakles Farms proposes planting a palm-oil farm stretching over 60 000 hectares of land – 10 times the size of Manhattan.
Herakles says it will provide locals with steady work, roads and health care. But critics call the planned plantation, which would cover Fabe and at least 30 other forest villages, a land grab. They say it will threaten an ancient forest at the heart of the wider Congo Basin rainforest – the world’s second-largest after the Amazon.
Right now, Africa is the target of many companies hungry for forest land. An April 2012 study by the World Wildlife Fund and France’s Institute for Research and Development noted that new regulations and scrutiny elsewhere are “encouraging large Asian companies to heavily invest in Central Africa”.
Herakles Farms, owned by New York venture-finance firm Herakles Capital, and other food giants such as Malaysia’s Sime Darby and Singapore’s Olam, see the next big growth area down the west coast of Africa, from Liberia to Gabon.
The Herakles plantation is a test case for an African industry-in-the-making. Get it right and the continent could benefit. Get it wrong and Africa could see its resources consumed and its people deprived of livelihoods.
Chief Ekole has no doubt about what to do. “Is it the right of a chief to refuse light where there is darkness?” asked Ekole, ensconced in the wood-carved throne of his royal hut. “Their grievance was that I had eaten all the money alone and they would have to leave their farms ... This is completely phony.”
The oil palm, or Elaeis guineensis, is a food-producing machine with few parallels. Give it warmth, sun and rain and it will transform soil nutrients into fatty acids more efficiently – thus more lucratively – than any rival.
The average palm plantation can generate four tons of oil per hectare a year, six times the typical yield for rapeseed and 10 times that of soybeans. Small wonder it is the world’s most important vegetable oil, with annual production of 50 million tons worth US$20 billion.
Palm oil is used in everything from margarine and soap to biofuel. It is a prized dressing on dishes across West and Central Africa, and as its popularity has surged, so has its price. Malaysian palm oil now sells at around 3 000 ringgit (US$940) a ton, triple what it cost in 2000.
Take the road from the coastal town of Limbe around the volcanic slopes of Mount Cameroon and barely a minute goes by without a new oil palm plantation.
What looks like a monolithic sea of palm is in fact a patchwork of smallholdings and larger plantations held by both the state and agro-industrial companies. Some plots date back to pre-1960 colonial rule.
Cameroon’s current output of 230 000 tons makes it the world’s 13th-largest producer. That’s enough for Peter Okpo wa Namolongo, deputy mayor of Mundemba, at the southwestern tip of the Herakles plot. The last thing he wants is more palm.
“We don’t lack palm oil. Shall we not also have space for our family? We have children to feed,” said Namolongo. The area around his town should be left to traditional small-scale farming, hunting and fishing, he said. “We are tired of palms, palms, palms.”
State firms Pamol and Cameroon Development Corporation offer jobs and homes to their workers. But their plantations limit the land available for farming and hunting. Of the land that remains, much has been protected after Cameroon and ecology-minded donors developed a network of conservation areas in the 1980s.
That network includes the Korup National Park, home of the endangered, baboon-like drill, red colobus and other primates. Korup provided the breathtaking jungle backdrop to the 1984 movie ‘Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes.’ It is a Pleistocene, or Ice Age, forest that by some estimates contains more biodiversity than any other spot in Africa.
For the people of Mundemba, whose town is cursed with soil too poor to sustain farming, Korup means that the only land available to them lies towards Fabe and beyond – the spot now claimed by Herakles.
Local ecology activist Nasako Besingi said protests held in June in Fabe and other villages in the concession suggest many locals do not want the plantation. At least 10 police summons have been served against opponents since late May, he said.
“Charges are very rarely pressed in the end. It is an attempt at intimidation,” he complained.
Local police declined to comment. Under local law, demonstrations must have prior consent from authorities, thus protesters can be served with summons for not having permits.
Environmentalists also have worries.
Herakles commissioned a report on the conservation value of its plot, which found that the “vast majority of the concession is secondary and degraded forest, with few remnant patches of primary” – or virgin – “forest”.
The HCV Resource Network, a global forest-protection body funded by the World Bank and packaging giant Tetra Pak, among others, rejected the assessment as “completely inadequate” and “severely lacking in nearly every section”.
Those concerns were shared in March by senior conservation academics from institutes such as Stanford University in California and Switzerland’s Federal Institute of Technology, who have urged Cameroon to suspend the project. Citing satellite images and aerial photos of the Talangaye nursery in particular, the 11 scientists argued in an open letter that nearly three-quarters of the concession was covered in forest similar to Korup park.
Ecologists argue the plantation could damage Korup itself because some of the rare primates living there would lose their migration routes through the forest.
“I do not dispute the desire and need for economic development in Cameroon’s South West Region,” said Joshua Linder, an anthropologist at James Madison University in Virginia and a visitor to the region for 10 years. “But this is a lose-lose situation. Local people might lose their land and way of life, while the region’s great biological diversity will be put in serious jeopardy.”