For all the economic benefits the palm oil industry has brought to Indonesia and Malaysia, which together produce more than 80 percent of the global supply of the commodity, the industry’s rapid expansion in both countries has also brought numerous, well-documented cases of massive deforestation and human and labor rights abuses.
The global palm oil market is projected to be worth $88 billion by the year 2022.
Elaeis guineensis, the species of palm that is the chief source of palm oil, is actually a native of the African tropics, which is why it’s commonly referred to as the African oil palm. Fearing that the species’ homecoming by way of industrial agricultural operations could mean for their tropical forests what it has meant for the forests of Indonesia and Malaysia, seven African nations signed a pledge, known as the Marrakesh Declaration because it was formally adopted at the UN climate talks in Marrakesh, Morocco last November, dedicating themselves to sustainable development of the palm oil sector.
According to a study published in the journal Environmental Research Letters earlier this month, those seven nations, which collectively represent 70 percent of Africa’s tropical forests, have good reason to be proactive when it comes to managing the rollout of oil palm operations within their borders. But there is also reason to hope that oil palm expansion in Africa can be done more sustainably in Africa, especially if lessons learned from how agricultural expansion has impacted the tropical forests of Southeast Asia and South America are heeded, the researchers behind the study found.
Monocro plantations have already taken a rather large bite out of Africa’s forests. For instance, close to three-fourths of the world’s cocoa is produced on the continent, which, Ordway and colleagues note, has required that more than 325,000 acres of new cropland be carved out of Africa’s forests annually in order to keep up with growing demand for the commodity.
And that is just a small portion of the overall agricultural expansion happening in Africa right now: Production of agricultural commodities has been growing faster there than in any other region of the world since 2015, with total cropland area predicted to expand by as much as 10 percent by 2025.
Multinational companies have already bought up a land area larger than Costa Rica in the Congo Basin, home to the world’s second-most extensive tract of rainforest, mostly for crops such as oil palm and soy, Ordway and team discovered.
Four of the six Congo Basin countries (the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, and the Republic of the Congo) plus Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, were found to be most at risk, with the highest average forest cover and lowest amounts of potential cropland outside those forest areas, per the study, meaning that any new cropland expansion will likely be done at the expense of forests. “Foreign investment in these countries was concentrated in oil palm production (81%), with a median investment area of 41,582 thousand [hectares],” Ordway and co-authors add in the study.
But if these African nations were to adopt policies that prioritize forest conservation and local control of the land, they could still largely avoid the widespread deforestation and associated impacts for indigenous and other local forest communities that has accompanied agricultural expansion in other tropical regions, the researchers argue.
Ordway and her co-authors propose a number of ways African countries can limit deforestation even while allowing for the growth of oil palm and other agricultural sectors, including: investments aimed at ensuring small and medium-scale farmers continue to drive agricultural expansion in Africa, which will alleviate poverty and avoid conflicts over land; cultivation of shade crops such as cocoa to help promote conservation of forest cover; and engaging African consumers on issues around deforestation, as they are currently the end users of most locally grown crops.
Study co-author Eric Lambin, a professor in the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences at Stanford, said, “Civil society, policymakers and private companies can benefit from many years of trial-and-error with anti-deforestation policies in South America and Southeast Asia to design more effective interventions in sub-Saharan Africa.”
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