Palm oil’s legacy in Southeast Asia is visible from space. Indonesia and Malaysia account for 87 percent of global production. Borneo, who has now less than half of its rainforests remaining, hosts nearly half the world’s 18 million hectares of the crop alone. Between 2000 and 2017, the loss of 14 percent of the island’s old-growth rainforest has come at a well-known cost: devastating consequences for both wildlife and climate change.
But as agricultural land on Borneo becomes scarcer, regulations are becoming stricter, as Western consumers and NGOs pressure countries and companies on sustainability. Instead, palm oil’s next frontier is likely to be the rainforests of the Congo Basin, in Central Africa – where a quarter of the world’s tropical forest carbon stocks are stored.
Will history repeat? Does palm oil expansion necessarily lead to rampant deforestation? A team of researchers from the Center for International Forestry Research set out to discover what Africa can learn from Southeast Asia’s mistakes and solutions – and what is different about the Congo Basin.
They found that in many ways, oil palm in Central Africa is a rather different story from Asia – with its own opportunities and challenges. Africa’s contribution to global palm oil supplies declined from 77 percent in 1961 to less than 4 percent in 2014, as the crop boomed in Malaysia and Indonesia.
But many of the Congo Basin’s most forested countries are dreaming big. Cameroon aims to double palm oil production by 2035, and Gabon has ambitions of becoming a leading exporter. At the same time, edible oil consumption across Africa is projected to triple by 2050 (from 2013 levels.)
“The same areas that could be used to grow oil palm are the areas that, for the moment, store carbon, and host biodiversity,” says CIFOR scientist Denis Sonwa who is based in Yaounde, Cameroon. Having just contributed to an infobrief on the subject, he says “If nothing is done, we can expect that forest will be cleared to establish oil palm plantations.
But the fact that the palm oil sector is still in the early stages of development is a unique opportunity, says the paper’s lead author Elsa Ordway, currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard University Center for the Environment. “There’s an opportunity now to put in place policies that could limit the kind of environmental destruction we saw from rapid oil palm expansion in Southeast Asia.”
Spot the Differences
However, she cautions that those policies may not be the same ones that have had some degree of success (arguably) in Southeast Asia – the certification schemes, industry roundtables, and deforestation-free commitments. For her doctoral research, Ordway investigated the way palm oil is produced in the southwest of Cameroon, the country’s main production area.
Importantly, she found that oil palm cultivation is expanding, and it is contributing to deforestation, though not at the rates or the scale seen in Southeast Asia. But she also found a number of key differences in the way the sector operates that have important implications for sustainability efforts.
In Cameroon, smallholders cultivate palm oil on roughly twice as much land as industrial agribusinesses – though, due to low yields, they produce only a third of the country’s palm oil. (Smallholders is a catch-all term that includes both subsistence farmers cultivating less than a hectare and larger-scale independent farmers.)
Unlike in Southeast Asia, the consumers of Africa’s palm oil are mostly local. Oil palm is not an exotic export crop, but a native plant with a long history of traditional use: as an ingredient in stews, for frying plantains, in soaps. “It’s such a culturally important crop,” Ordway says. Before it was farmed commercially, people harvested the palm nuts in the wild, and it contributes to food security in the region
Over that long history, African farmers developed various artisanal ways of extracting the oil from the palm nuts – from manual to fully mechanised systems. “That makes the supply chain incredibly complex, and very different from Asia,” she says.
The vast majority of palm oil mills across the Congo Basin are unregulated non-industrial facilities that vary widely in scale and quality, in Southwest Cameroon for instance, they make up for 99 percent of the milling facilities. Many mills and third-party suppliers operate entirely independent of large public and private companies.
“Palm oil is produced, processed and consumed locally – or in the region,” says co-author Patrice Levang, from CIFOR and Institut de Recherche pour le Développement. “That means the usual actions by environmental NGOs to save the remaining forests in Southeast Asia won’t be effective in Africa. Putting pressure on large companies with the help of European and American consumers won’t be effective – boycotting and certifying won’t reach their targets.
Instead, environmental policies will need to target the diverse kinds of non-industrial actors involved in the sector, perhaps in different ways, says Ordway.
Palm Oil Paradox
One way to start is to assist farmers to intensify production – to make more oil from the land they are already cultivating Here, there is huge potential for improvement on two fronts, Ordway says. “So much of the production is on very small-scale farms, by farmers who are often limited in terms of their access to technology or information, so yields on these farms are very low compared to what they could be.”
In addition, the artisanal mills can be very inefficient, and improving those processes could greatly increase the output of oil. Giving farmers access to finance and assistance could enable them to make these improvements, says Sonwa. However, “intensification is not inherently a sustainability path,” Ordway cautions. She explains there’s a risk of something called the ‘Jevons paradox’ – that increased profitability from intensification can ultimately incentivize further expansion.
“If production was increased, whether on-farm or at the milling stage or both, one of the positive results of that would be increased income for a farmer. However, Ordway prophesizes, that the farmer could think, ‘I’m now making more money from the same amount of land, but if I cleared more land, I could make even more money.”
Intensification could help Congo Basin countries to meet food security and poverty alleviation goals, she says, but to avoid that coming at the cost of forest and biodiversity loss, additional environmental policies will be required as well. That could be land-use regulations or other tactics, but will vary depending on the local and national context, says Sonwa. “Our role as scientists is to spell out the situation so that different stakeholders can know what their options are.”
Patrice Levang has studied oil palm on both continents. “The oil palm expansion in Southeast Asia happened at the expense of both primary and secondary forests, and had a disastrous impact on biodiversity and animal habitat,” he says. “On the other hand, it promoted incredible economic development – and like it or not, African policy-makers and farmers are going to be more inclined to favor economic development than biodiversity conservation.”
“Trying to prevent oil palm development in Africa is a lost fight. Looking for win-win – or at least lose-less – solutions are the only viable alternatives.” There are some early signs that the Congo Basin’s leaders are already paying attention to the potential environmental trade-offs of oil palm expansion – like the Marrakesh Declaration, in which seven African governments pledge a shift towards sustainable, low-carbon palm oil production. Preventing palm oil’s history from repeating will require regional pledges like this be kept.