Palm oil is one of the most widely used commodities in the world, present in half of the products in the average supermarket. Some developing countries see oil palm as a path to rapid economic growth; looking to follow other oil-palm producing countries such as Indonesia, which has now made it into the ranks of the G20 major economies.
Recently, Al Jazeera’s program “People&Power” took an in-depth look at the environmental consequences of palm oil plantations in equatorial Africa.
Their spotlight was on Cameroon, where the government had signed a controversial deal for oil palm development with a foreign investor. President Paul Biya has the ambitious plan of his country becoming an emerging economy by 2035.
Research on oil palm is one of the focus areas of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA), particularly FTA Flagship 5 that focuses on the Impacts of trade and investment on forests and people.
For the documentary, From Africa’s Palms, Al Jazeera interviewed oil palm expert Patrice Levang, a scientist with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and the French research institute for development IRD.
The 25-minute program shows how “the Cameroonian government struck the outlines of a deal with a US-based enterprise called Herakles Farms, granting it exclusive use of a biodiversity hotspot in south-western Cameroon – an area covering 73,000 hectares of pristine forest and farmland – in which to start plantations.”
Herakles Farms rented the land at a mere 50 cents to 1 dollar per hectare per year for 99 years and benefited from generous tax exemptions. The deal caused massive protests from environmental groups.
In Levang’s opinion, the investors had taken the Cameroonians by surprise with their offer because it was the first time they were presented with a contract of that scale.
“It doesn’t make sense,” says Patrice Levang. “It is only afterwards when they saw what they had signed that they understood they made a mistake.”
In the meantime, this mistake has been at least partly rectified, he explains. The government found a way to renegotiate the contract so that it comprises only 20,000 hectares, while the rent was increased and the tax exemptions reduced.
For more information, watch Al Jazeera’s From Africa’s Palms
See also When Wall Street Went to Africa (Foreign Policy)