In West and Central Africa, palm oil investors give in to community pressure
- In the late 2000s, a commodity boom spurred a rush of land deals in West and Central Africa for palm oil development, raising fears of deforestation and land grabbing.
- A new report from financial risk analyst Chain Reaction Research says most deals have since failed, with 27 representing 1.37 million hectares (3.39 million acres) of land being abandoned outright.
- Researchers say cross-border campaigns and resistance from community-based land rights organizations are one of the main reasons the industry has faltered in Africa.
When commodity prices soared in the late 2000s, multinational agribusiness giants sniffed out profits. Eager to diversify into the overpopulated rainforests of Southeast Asia, some palm oil companies have set their sights on Africa, where the governments of countries like Sierra Leone, Liberia, Cameroon and the Côte d’Ivoire assured them that they had land to resell. In just a few years, case after case has been inked, with companies around the world suddenly owning the rights to huge swathes of land in West and Central Africa. For the palm oil industry, an exciting new frontier was opening up at breakneck speed.
But far from the champagne popped at the signing ceremonies, there was an inconvenient reality: the land they had leased was not, as some governments had claimed, “free”. Rather, it was home to tens of thousands of farmers and other rural villagers.
Now a analysis by Chain Reaction Research, a financial risk analyst based in Washington, DC, says that just over a decade later, many deals have collapsed in the face of these farmers’ organization and campaign. Between 2008 and 2019, 27 palm oil projects that were to cover 1.37 million hectares (3.39 million acres) of land “failed or were abandoned” in the region, and of the 2, Of the remaining 7 million hectares (6.7 million acres) of forest currently under concession, less than 10% has been converted to plantations.
“I think there was this idea of cheap, plentiful land and less stringent regulations, but apparently they missed the kind of resistance they would encounter from local communities,” said Sarah Drost, l one of the authors of the report.
In some countries, the gap between the amount of land originally allocated to foreign investors and what they were able to develop was striking. Liberia, for example, has signed deals for around 750,000 hectares (1.85 million acres) with companies from Indonesia, Malaysia and the UK. total.
Researchers say there was a litany of reasons why plantation companies failed. Some companies had no experience in developing unrealistic concessions. Others found themselves limited by the deforestation commitments they had made under pressure from investors. But the biggest hurdle many faced was what few seemed to be anticipating: a strong and relentless campaign by agrarian communities and land defenders.
“They were going to places where there were communities that weren’t just going to walk away from their land,” said GRAIN researcher Devlin Kuyek, who provided much of the data for the report. “They didn’t seem to understand the kind of resistance they would encounter.”
In Cameroon, for example, US agribusiness Herakles Farms has all but abandoned its 73,086-hectare (180,600-acre) concession after years of conflict with communities. And in Liberia, a small group of villages are succeeding forced the British company EPO to back down despite violence from local police and company security forces. In 2019, Malaysian conglomerate Sime Darby sold its 220,000-hectare (543,600-acre) concession at a loss just 10 years after signing a 63-year contract.
Aminata Fabba, president of the Malen Affected Landowners Association in Sierra Leone, is one of the West African land defenders who has spent years confronting a palm oil investor. In 2011, Franco-Belgian agribusiness giant Socfin signed a 50-year lease to develop a plantation in the forested Pujehun district in the south of the country. Fabba said it didn’t take long for communities in the region to get angry at what she described as Socfin’s broken promises.
“They promised them to build schools, hospitals, give them clean water and community centers, but all these things were never fulfilled by the company,” she told Mongabay. .
In a pattern familiar to palm oil investors hoping to expand into the region, local civil society groups held training workshops and helped Fabba and communities in Pujehun organize and plan campaigns. Advocacy groups in Europe and the United States have used their communication prowess and fundraising ability to boost the campaign and put pressure on Socfin from abroad.
“[Civil society groups] and human rights defenders started visiting these communities and even teaching them about our own land rights laws, and that strengthened their resistance,” Fabba said.
Kuyek said that in addition to help from outside the continent, community advocates have developed cross-border networks that share information and strategic advice among themselves.
“There is solidarity between African communities, even within a country. And I think it’s really important for communities to interact with other communities and share their experiences, so that they see that they are not alone and feel part of a larger struggle” , did he declare.
Yet despite the slow pace of land development and the withdrawal of some of the companies that were at the forefront of the initial scramble for Africa, most concessions still exist on paper. According to Chain Reaction Research, more than 450,000 hectares (1.11 million acres) of large-scale industrial palm groves are operational on the continent. More than 300,000 hectares (741,300 acres) of them are owned by just five companies: Socfin, Wilmar, Olam, Siat and Straight KKM.
Socfin is the largest industrial palm oil producer in Africa, with nearly 100,000 hectares (247,000 acres) planted in seven countries. Almost all of its operations have been the target of strong criticism and campaigning from community organizations and environmental groups. Last year, Socfin was accused of dodging taxes in Africa by shifting sales and profits to its subsidiaries in Europe.
The report also says that Nigeria’s Edo Forest State has recently seen renewed interest from foreign investors, as the powerful West African nation seeks to increase production, in part by opening up forest reserves. from Edo to the development of palm oil.
“With a very supportive government looking out for the interests of the big palm plantation owners, I think that’s a risk to the remaining state forests,” Drost said.
Drost and his colleagues also used publicly available factory data to trace palm oil purchases in Africa to international buyers. Nestlé, General Mills, Avon and Bunge were among the companies believed to have purchased the product from Sofcin’s plantations on the mainland.
“I don’t think there’s a lot of knowledge about who is actually buying in Africa, and the reason for that is that trade data is very limited and unreliable,” Drost said.
For Fabba, the successes other communities in West and Central Africa have had in preventing palm oil companies from expanding are encouraging, but also frustrating. Despite years of campaigning, the lands of his community are still under the control of Socfin.
“It’s bittersweet because we didn’t achieve the goal of reclaiming the land,” she said. “People in the community are asking for their land, but it hasn’t been obtained.”
Banner image: A woman harvests palm fruit in a village near the former Equatorial Palm Oil concession in Grand Bassa, Liberia. Image courtesy of the Open Government Partnership via FlickrAttribution 2.0 Generic (DC BY 2.0).