Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Biofuels, Palm and People

2011 in Africa started with a bang as Malaysian and North American corporates announced they were aiming to acquire around 300,000 hectares of land around Mount Korup and Ocean Department in Cameroon as part of their £1.2billion West Africa expansion plans. I was in Central Africa Republic when it was announced, and there was a shudder from forests already scented with the effects of palm expansion heading south from the capital Bangui. The whole region is booming with promises of mega infrastructure projects linked with resource exploitation and local level development plans. Mineral exploration programmes that will compete with Cameroon’s well-established logging industry are already well-advanced, and the future is becoming more clear: roads, rails and rocks will replace timber in Cameroon.

Climate change debates are also descending into the Congo Basin from two competing fronts, (i) conservation supported by carbon offset funding , about which I have written before, and (ii) palm plantations for the industrial food industry, supported by investors positioning themselves to feed the growing market in biofuels. As a result the expansion of palm plantations into increasingly remote African forests is gaining momentum, and the threats to poor communities everywhere are clear. This is why I support Action Aid’s campaign against expanding use of biofuels .

I know from interviews with officials across West Africa that millions of hectares of biodiverse forest across the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Cameroon, Central Africa Republic, and the Republic of Congo are threatened with conversion to industrial palm monoculture - 3 million in DRC alone. Without clear plans to protect people, this presents a direct threat to local and indigenous communities whose livelihoods are intertwined with forest diversity. Despite the rhetoric, there are few concrete plans by palm planters to support communities, apart from maybe employing some of them to work plantations that have taken over their lands. The woeful record speaks for itself when reviewing the old-fashioned modus operandi of most industrial enterprises already operating in places like Cameroon. Communities are destined to lose out.

Unfortunately West and Central African tropical forests make ideal places to cultivate palm, and the growing international demand for palm oils for biscuits and climate change busting car fuels has given a huge incentive for corporates from Asia – where land is increasingly difficult to acquire - to invest in the Congo Basin, where land is plentiful, the economies are weak, and government accountability to local communities is almost non-existent. Where certification has arrived in the region, for example with Forest Stewardship Council standards being applied by loggers, application has often been weak, and communities remain marginalised. In the Congo Basin alone over 40 million people rely upon those forests for income and food. The lands where they hunt, gather and farm are the same ones being targeted by this industry.

Most of the nations concerned have already signed up to the major human rights conventions, so they are under strong obligations to protect communities from dispossession without compensation, eg in the form of cash or strong social programmes addressing their priorities. However even when these are done well, when communities are deprived of their lands their foundations fall away, leaving them especially vulnerable to famine and spiralling poverty, particularly given that almost none of the profit from their lands trickles down from national capitals. Coupled with the loss of biodiversity that helps them remain resilient in the face of their unbending poverty, the poorest people will be swept away in a tide of plantations funded by northern hedge funds and banks. These investors have a responsibility to ensure that high standards are met.