Capitalists amping up destruction of Congo rainforests for palm oil plantations

By Jeremy Hance / Mongabay

Industrial oil palm plantations are spreading from Malaysia and Indonesia to the Congo raising fears about deforestation and social conflict.

A new report by The Rainforest Foundation UK (RFUK), dramatically entitled The Seeds of Destruction, announces that new palm oil plantations in the Congo rainforest will soon increase fivefold to half a million hectares, an area nearly the size of Delaware. But conservationists warn that by ignoring the lessons of palm oil in Southeast Asia, this trend could be disastrous for the region’s forests, wildlife, and people.

“Governments of Congo Basin countries have handed out vast tracts of rainforest for the development of palm oil with apparently little or no attention to the likely impacts on the environment or on people dependent on the forest,” Simon Counsell, Executive Director of the Rainforest Foundation UK, said.

The palm tree used to produce palm oil originated in Africa, so production in the Congo Basin isn’t new. But industrial palm oil production involving massive plantations is a recent development for the region. The approach, modeled after operations in Southeast Asia, raises concerns among environmentalists who argue that palm oil has been a disaster for the forests of Malaysia and Indonesia. Indeed, scientific research has found that between 1990 and 2000, 86 percent of all deforestation in Malaysia was for palm oil.

The largest palm oil developer in the Congo Basin is currently Malaysian-owned Atama Plantations SARL, which is working to establish a 180,000-hectare (450,000-acre) plantation in the Republic of Congo. But the entire enterprise is masked by a complete lack of transparency, says the report.

“No publicly available maps of the concession are available, but evidence suggests that the forests designated for clearance mostly appear to be virgin rainforest that is habitat for numerous endangered species, including chimpanzees and gorillas. The area borders, and some of it may fall inside, a planned National Park and Ramsar site,” according to the RFUK report, which notes that logging has already begun on the concession.

The RFUK report further questions whether the plantation development is simply an excuse to log what it calls “primary forests with significant timber stocks.”

Another controversial concession, this time in Cameroon, has received considerable pushback from international NGOs as well as local groups. U.S.-based Herakles Farms is working to develop a 60,000 hectare palm oil plantation in forest bordering four protected areas, but the company’s reputation has been tarnished by local protests, as well as condemnation from international groups such as Greenpeace. Last year, 11 top tropical biologists sent an open letter to Herakles condemning the project.

But Herakles and other companies say they are bringing economic development to a notoriously poor part of the world.

The RFUK report notes that in many cases governments appear unwilling even to take advantage of the economic benefits of palm oil plantations, by overly-sweetening deals to foreign corporations.

“The contracts signed between governments and oil palm developers are being kept secret, reducing transparency and democratic accountability. Those contracts that have come to light show that governments have already signed away some of the potential economic benefits, by granting developers extremely generous tax breaks of 10 to 16 years and land for ‘free’ or at highly discounted rates,” the report reads.

In addition, the palm oil plantations are sparking local conflict with traditional landowners, much as they have done in Malaysia and Indonesia. Locals often have little input on the project and in some cases leases are extraordinarily long, for example Herakles Farms’ lease is 99 years.

“New large-scale oil palm developments are a major threat for communities, livelihoods and biodiversity in the Congo Basin,” Samuel Nguiffo, Director of the Center for Environment and Development (CED), Cameroon, said. “It is absolutely not the appropriate answer to the food security and job creation challenges the countries are facing. Supporting small-scale family agriculture is a better solution.”

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