Saturday, September 17, 2011

Palm Oil Fuels Land Grab

By next year palm oil is forecast to be the world's most produced and internationally traded edible oil. India and China are the world's biggest palm oil users. Apart from its use as a cooking oil, it's also found in a of processed foods and cosmetics. One in ten supermarket products contains palm oil. Government targets for the use of agrofuels in Europe, China and North America are making palm oil, which can be used to produce biodiesel, an even hotter commodity.

In Liberia, a country that was ravaged for years by war, an estimated 5.6 per cent of the total land mass has been leased out to foreign investors for palm oil production. Sime Darby has a 63-year lease for 220,000 hectares of land for oil palm plantations in the country. Singapore-listed Golden Agri Resources has another 220,000 hectares for palm oil estates, and Equatorial Palm Oil, a UK-listed palm oil developer has another 170,000 hectares. This, in a country that still has to import 60 percent of its staple rice needs.

In Sierra Leone European and Asian firms are securing long-term (50 year) leases on at least half a million hectares of farmland, almost 10 percent of the country's arable land. Of that amount, close to 300,000 hectares have been acquired for oil palm plantations by corporate investors from Europe and Southeast Asia.

In Cameroon, foreign investors from Asia, the US and Europe are rapidly securing enormous land banks, often in fragile forested areas, for palm oil estates. The same is true in Benin, Nigeria, Gabon, the Republic of Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo, where a Chinese company is reportedly working to secure 2.8 million hectares for oil palm for biodiesel production.

African governments that are endorsing and enabling this wave of large land acquisitions. They are not just allowing but actively encouraging the foreign industrialists and speculators to repeat the same grave injuries committed by colonists and capitalists of yesteryear. Governments and traditional rulers seem indoctrinated by the myth that allocating large tracts of land to foreign investors will lead to 'modernised' agriculture. They and others promoting the land deals as a form of agricultural investment would have us believe that anyone who defends smallholder production is succumbing to 'romanticism'. They appear equally oblivious, wilfully so, to the enormous risks these land deals incurs for their people and their nations. When foreign corporations and nations descend on Africa to get at the continent's oil, they tend to cause massive environmental, social and political disruption, and also conflict. But when they descend on the continent to get hold of massive amounts of arable land to produce palm oil for the world market, they are doing something even more egregious. They are taking control of the land and water on which the local people depend for their food production, livelihoods - their very survival.

Local growers and consumers in Africa do not refine, bleach and deodorise the oil into the commodity that industry produces for the world market.

In West and Central Africa the indigenous oil palm is invaluable in the region. Oil palm is often grown by rural people in 'tree-crop plantations' just one or two hectares in area, in diverse stands of other important trees in and around their farmland and at forest edges. The tree flourishes in natural association with other key food crops such as cassava and yam. It grows well in forest fallows and in agroforestry stands that include kolanut, citrus, indigenous fruit and timber trees, banana and plantains, and cocoa and coffee. The rich red oil that is extracted manually from the palm fruit is a staple in diets, second in importance only to rice or other staple grains or cereals. It is used in soups and sauces, for frying, and in dough made from customary foods such as cassava, rice, plantains, yams and beans. The fruit can even be boiled and roasted with a bit of sugar, tasting very much like a delicious date. It is an excellent source of Vitamins E and K and full of carotenes, which can be converted in the body to Vitamin A. It is also medicinal. Wild and cultivated stands of oil palm in West and Central Africa are also the source of one of the region's great delicacies - palm wine. The clear oil that is extracted, mostly manually, from the palm kernel is used to make soap. The pressed cake left after extraction can be used for fodder. Palm fronds are used for thatch.

Grown and used the way it traditionally has been in Africa, the oil palm also performs environmental services. It can help reclaim degraded lands, as a valuable shade tree in biodiverse cocoa and coffee tree-crop plots, and the residue left in boilers after oil extraction can be used to fertilise soils. But all of this relates to oil palm only as smallholders grow and use it. Once the foreign industrialists got their hands on it and took it away, the oil palm became something very different. In the hands of corporations, palm oil was transformed into a highly profitable commodity for the world market and its industrial production has caused immeasurable environmental damage in Southeast Asia. It appears poised to do the same in Africa. Prevailing economic dogma emphasises economies of scale and increased profitability through sheer size of oil palm estates. It does not take into consideration what is lost from the land when it is transformed into endless rows of oil palm clones, or the environmental damage caused by heavy pesticide and fertiliser use required in monoculture plantations. Massive amounts of productive smallholder farmland and precious woodlands, forest fallows and biodiversity reserves are being taken over by Asian, European and North American investors. They're keen to capitalise on the latest oil boom - one involving the humble African oil palm that is, sadly, threatened by the push to cultivate its 'improved' varieties on millions of hectares of precious African farmland.

The burgeoning demand for palm oil is fuelling a new scramble for land in Africa.

Adapted from here , an article by Joan Baxter

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