With an annual global production of over 50 million tons, palm oil has become the most important vegetable oil globally. Nearly 30% of the world’s production of vegetable oils is contributed from palm oil. The demand of the palm oil is expected to rise approximately to 70 Mt by 2020 because of its favorable characteristics. More than 14 million ha of oil palms have already been planted across the tropics. The global need for palm oil is likely expanding additional 4 Mha of palm oil plantation by 2020. Being a common cooking ingredient in Africa, Southeast Asia, and Brazil, the palm oil cultivation in an industrial scale caused great damage to the rainforests and forest peoples and even urban areas of South-East Asia. The expansion of oil palm plantations between 1990 and 2005 caused the deforestation of 1.1 million ha and 1.7 Mha in Malaysia and Indonesia, respectively. 50-60% of all oil palm expansion in the two countries during this period occurred at the expense of natural forests and most of it has been done by Sime Darby, Goodhope, Wilmar, and FELDA. The same investors are now turning their attention to the Congo rainforest. Meanwhile the investors invested in Southeast Asia, then tried in Brazil as it was seen as a natural pick for expansion; however, the pressure from green groups who say no to planting oil palms because it speeds up deforestation in the Amazon. We can see the oil palm plantations around the tropics. The forests in Southeast Asia are mostly exploited, and some parts of Africa are showing the signs of explosive growth.
A study done by rainforestfoundationuk.org is the update information about the oil palm plantations in the Congo region. On one hand, seeing them as potential new sources of prosperity and job creation, the governments in the Congo Basin, one of the world’s poorest regions, welcome the oil palm developers with open arms. It is true that palm oil production is potential to boost the economic growth through FOREX returns, but the damage it may bring about to the ecosystem and the human health needs to be balanced. In practice, the contracts signed between governments and oil palm developers are being kept secret, reducing transparency and democratic accountability. Those contracts that have come to light show that the governments have already signed away some of the potential economic benefits, by granting developers extremely generous tax breaks of 10 to 16 years and land for free or at highly discounted rates. It is far from clear that national economic benefits of palm oil will be shared equitably or compensate for local livelihoods lost by communities in the Congo Basin due to development, or that granting large land concessions to foreign companies is a real solution to rural poverty and food insecurity in the region. It looks like the local governments do not want to consider any negative consequences of these decisions.
On the other hand, with limited options for further growth of new palm oil plantations in South-East Asia, currently the Southeast Asian producers of palm oil, are now looking to expand their activities in the Congo basin, particularly in the Green Heart of Africa (Cameroon, Gabon, DRC, CAR and the Republic of Congo). The Congo Basin is thus currently a small player globally in terms of palm oil production. The region has less than 2 percent of the world’s oil palm-planted land and accounts for less than 0.5 percent of global palm oil production. However, the problems already exist in connection with oil palm plantations in Equateur province that the Canadian listed agribusiness company Feronia bought from Unilever in 2009. In addition, new players are entering the market along with agricultural commodity traders seeking to break into the industry. Whilst new oil palm investments in Liberia have received attention, developments in the Congo Basin have been largely unremarked. Confirmed projects alone identified will result in 0.5 million ha of new planting in the Congo Basin – a fivefold increase in the current area of productive industrial oil palm in the region. This is a new threat to the Congo rainforest.
The place, Moyembe massif is a potential logging area and the presence of logging companies may encourage conversion to oil palm, with profits derived from the sale of lumber used to pay for the cost of converting forest into plantations. It is estimated that between 1.6 and 3 Mha of the DRC’s forests could be converted to industrial oil palm in the near future. In another instance, the governor of Bas-Congo province in the corridor of Boma-Matadi-Kinshasa allocated a 10,000 ha to Congo Oils & Derivatives for oil palm and soya in the Muba and Kiemi reserves. Their website mentions that their mission is to positively contribute to the transformation of traditional production of palm oil in the bottom-River (Boma-Matadi-Kinshasa corridor) region in the province of Bas-Congo to industrial modern production. The CONGO OIL is campaigning for self-sufficiency in products derived from palm oil in the Bas-Congo province of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Therefore, oil palm plantations are very likely in the region.
My Ph.D. dissertation showed that the surrounding forests are prone to increase ground-level ozone pollution. However, there should be considerable research has to be done before having solid evidence. The crucial drawback I found is that the region is very poorly observed, so I suggest the universities or other organizations planning to set up the observation stations in the region. I wrote this blog to encourage local researchers to focus on air quality studies in the region and advice the policymakers according to your research findings to save local people from airborne diseases and the rest of the world.