Thursday, September 29, 2016

The Palm Oil Land-grab

Palm oil is the planet's new "super oil and  is present in about half of all products in supermarkets in Germany. It's in cakes, margarine, make-up and ice cream. It is also used as a bio-diesel in the European Union (EU). The global consumption of palm oil is growing and is forecasted to continue to grow.  The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) predicts that consumption will double by 2050. The oil is versatile and is cheaper to produce than other plant oils such as canola or sunflower. So it is not surprising that investment in palm oil is climbing. However, the oil is controversial. Sierra Leone possesses massive amounts of land where oil palm production could thrive and a government that is willing to hand over this land to investors for not that much money.

When a multinational palm oil company expanded into Sierra Leone, rainforests were leveled and local livelihoods disappeared. Some say that this is the price of development while others want their land back.

"People say that even our elders want to give the land away," said Crespo. "They also say that the company has also offered to buy our lands as well. But then we would be suffering just like the people from Sahn Malen." In Sahn Malen, oil palm plantations dominate the landscape with their low, uniform shape for as far as the eye can see. "All of this land was taken by the company," said Crespo, "all of it."

Socfin, which is registered in Switzerland but has its headquarters in Belgium, in the past four years has planted 12,432 hectacre (30,720 acres) of oil palms in Sierra Leone. The company came to Sahn Malen in 2012 and leased swaths of land. It planted oil palms and built an ultra-modern processing plant. Before Socfin arrived, farmers used to grow palm oil but also cocoa, cassava, potatoes, pineapples, beans and rice. Most were able to provide for their daily needs with their own harvests. But these times have passed since the local chief sided with the newcomers.

"The chief pressured us to sell our lands," said Fascia. "We did not have a choice. Even if we said no, he still handed it over." said Fascias in Kasseh, a village in Sahn Malen. When the bulldozers came, Fascia stood in front of her house and was able to save this small plot of fertile land that helped feed her family and send her children to school. She is the only one in the whole village who did so.

Mattia Limbe, one of the founders of the Malen Land Owners Association (MALOA) which formed after protests against Socfin in 2012 said there is another reason why the people are quiet. "My people are scared," he said. "The chief would not tolerate any opposition," said Mattia. Many people are scared of being arrested so they meet in secret. Mattia has already been arrested numerous times.

The spread of palm oil plantations is a threat to rainforests and the indigenous people who live there. Greenpeace has been warning for years against the clear-cutting of rainforests in Malaysia and Indonesia to make way for palm oil. More recently they have expanded their warnings to Africa.

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