SCB Africa Section Issues Position Statement on the Threat from Expansion of Oil Palm Production

A new policy statement authored by the SCB Africa Section and endorsed by the SCB global organization highlights the threat to biodiversity posed by expansion of industrial oil palm production in equatorial Africa. Africa contains about 675 million hectares of forests, corresponding to 17 percent of the world total. However, it is estimated that Africa lost 3.4 million hectares of forests between 2000 and 2010 of which 572,000 hectares was primary forest. The decline has resulted mainly from the rising demand for agricultural lands, commercial harvesting of timber, urbanization, and industrialization.

Recent significant investments in African agriculture in the oil palm (Elaeis guineensis) industry are likely to lead to biodiversity losses similar to those in Southeast Asia. The purpose of this SCB position statement is to highlight the rapid and unsustainable destruction of forests due to industrial oil palm expansion in West and Central Africa, and the role of oil palm expansion in the attrition of biodiversity including flagship species such as apes, as well as associated human health and economic implications. This is a call on African governments, policy makers and societies to formulate effective policies that support ecological sustainability of African equatorial forests. The statement concludes that:

• Industrial oil palm expansion at unregulated and unsustainable rates is a threat to forests and biodiversity in equatorial Africa. Governments and societies must put into place robust policies and laws to protect the remaining forests in the region.
• Africans are custodians of their forest ecosystems and biodiversity, and irrespective of the short term economic gains provided by the oil palm industry, economic and ecological sustainability should guide decision making by African governments and society. Africa cannot afford the forest losses similar to what Southeast Asia has incurred due to oil palm expansion.
• Responsibility for our forests as Africans is based on the consciousness that we are in control and can determine our own environmental outcomes as a contribution to global efforts for a sustainable world. We believe Africans have the wherewithal to develop the legal instruments, policies and land use planning to secure forests in perpetuity.

The statement makes specific recommendations as documented by scientific research published in the peer-reviewed literature:
1. Government should play a proactive role by granting concessions only to companies that are part of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) (Wich et al. 2014). However, before this, the allocation of new industrial oil palm concessions should be halted until environmentally and socially responsible policies are put in place (Linder, 2013). Given the different socioeconomic and environmental contexts in Africa as compared to Southeast Asia, it is important to develop region and country specific management guidelines for African palm oil producers (Wich et al. 2014). Scientists should guide government in the entire process by providing empirical data and information.
2. Government could stimulate the development of oil palm plantations on degraded lands by providing incentives (e.g. tax breaks) to make this option more attractive to companies (Wich et al. 2014). The RSPO, government and civil society should clarify the concept of “degraded land ,” including its definition and accepted methods of identification (Linder, 2013). Degraded land may be located in great ape ranges. Under such conditions, biodiversity conservation should be mainstreamed in designing and implementing oil palm concessions. Governmental and nongovernmental organisations can work to develop national strategies for land allocation that integrate maps of conservation priorities and agricultural suitability (Fitzherbert et al. 2008).
3. Producers must be given access to information that will help them to locate new plantations in areas where they will cause the least ecological damage (Fitzherbert et al. 2008). Therefore it is critical that each African country invest in developing high-resolution updated maps of great ape distribution for instance, oil palm suitable areas, and degraded lands (Wich et al. 2014).
4. To achieve higher production of crude palm oil in a less environmentally damaging way, an investment in high-yield oil palm plantations, through better seed quality and best management practices could be investigated first, before expanding plantations over primary forests (Wich et al. 2014).
5. Financial institutions, buyers and consumers can assist by continuing to demand detailed evidence that producers are doing all they can to minimise the negative impacts of palm oil production, and by denying finance and markets to those that are not (Fitzherbert et al. 2008).

Read the full statement with references here.