The palm oil industry is growing by leaps and bounds around the globe but its overnight success is worrying environmentalists.
An estimated 7.5 million acres of land traditionally used or inhabited by local communities has been acquired by palm oil companies, according to GRAIN, a nonprofit that supports small farmers.
In the past decade, politicians in West Africa and countries of the Congo basin have leased out around 4.5 million acres of land for palm-oil plantations, according to Hardman, a London-based research company. Another 3.5 million acres is being sought.
“Foreign companies sniffing around include groups such as Wilmar, Olam, Sime Darby, Golden Veroleum and Equatorial Palm Oil.” The nonprofit Proforest has predicted that “as much as 54 million acres of land in west and central Africa could be converted to palm plantations over the next five years.”
From Liberia to the Democratic Republic of Congo, a battle is brewing over where and how palm oil should be developed and its impact on local water supplies, wildlife populations, biodiversity and climate change. But the heart of the matter is control over land. To expand their palm oil production, a number of companies have relied on what critics describe as land grabs.
Alfred Brownell, founder of Green Advocates, a Liberian lawyers’ network, warned: “Palm oil companies will not just displace [people in affected communities], but their culture, their history, their values, their traditional institutions, will all be completely altered.”
Brownell reportedly resides in Boston since fleeing into exile after he was threatened by private security guards protecting land being cleared of sacred sites to make way for palm oil development in Liberia.
Clear-cutting forests for palm oil plantations leaves local communities worse off because not enough jobs were created to employ residents who lost their land as a result of the development, he noted.
West Africa’s Upper Guinean Forest, which has some of the world’s richest biodiversity, is threatened by expanded palm oil production, among other commercial activities. If it disappears, Brownell says, so too does the spiritual connection that many indigenous communities have with it.
Meanwhile, palm oil production has been doubling worldwide every 10 years during the past 40 years, says Thomas Mielke, CEO of the market analysis firm Oil World, adding: “Palm oil has become the most important vegetable oil worldwide.”
Today it’s a $60 billion-per-year market that provides material for everything from fuels to food to face paint. Commercial palm oil development is also taking place in Côte d’Ivoire, Nigeria and Ghana.