Palm oil plantation in Cameroon would destroy 173,000 acres of tropical rainforest

By Jeremy Hance / Mongabay

Eleven top scientists have slammed a proposed palm oil plantation in a Cameroonian rainforest surrounded by five protected areas. In an open letter, the researchers allege that Herakles Farm, which proposes the 70,000 hectare plantation in southwest Cameroon, has misled the government about the state of the forest to be cleared and has violated rules set by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), of which it’s a member. The scientists, many of whom are considered leaders in their field, argue that the plantation will destroy rich forests, imperil endangered species, and sow conflict with local people.

“You can’t just cut the heart out of this area and then expect everything to be fine,” says signatory Thomas Struhsaker, an expert on African primates and rainforest ecology at Duke University. “If this project proceeds the parks will become islands, surrounded by a hostile sea of oil palm.”

The scientists say they are not against palm oil plantations in principle. While the oilseed is the world’s most productive, it has come with a considerable ecological cost in Southeast Asia due to its link to deforestation in the region. Recently, the expansion has spread to Latin America and West Africa.

“We do not dispute that when oil palm plantations are established on previously deforested or abandoned lands and do not degrade nearby biologically rich areas, their environmental costs can be acceptable,” the letter reads. “The project proponents, however, have located their concession in the midst of a biodiversity hotspot on land that buffers and provides vital support functions to Korup and Bakossi National Parks, Rumpi Hills Forest Reserve, and Banyang Mbo Wildlife Sanctuary.”

Korup National Park alone is home to over 600 species of trees, nearly 200 reptiles and amphibians, around 1,000 butterflies, 400 species of birds, and 160 species of mammals, including one of the richest assemblages of primates in the world. Fourteen primates are found in the single park, including the Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes ellioti), the most imperiled of the world’s chimpanzee subspecies. Forest elephants, leopards, and forest buffalo also roam the park.

Tropical ecologist and letter signatory, William Laurance of James Cook University says the region represents “some of the world’s most biologically important real estate,” adding that, “There’s no way a project like this would be allowed in most countries, because the price for biodiversity is just too high.”

A spokesperson from Herakles Farm told, “we certainly value the environment and biodiversity in the Southwest Region of Cameroon and laud the establishment of the protected areas around our concession,” pointing to a 28-page sustainability guide. In the guide the company describes its forest concession quite differently than Laurance, stating that it is “heavily exploited” secondary forest and therefore of “low biodiversity value.”

But in the letter, the scientists contend that Herakles Farms has misled Cameroon’s government about the state of the forest they propose to clear.

“[Herakles Farm] claims that the ‘vast majority of the concession is secondary and degraded forest’ and that the concession area was selected because it was located on ‘land that had been previously logged,'” reads the letter. But the scientists say that parts of the region have never seen logging, and, in addition, almost three-fourths of the palm oil concession currently has at least 70 percent natural tree cover, about the same as the world-renowned Korup National Park.

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