Africa's forests menaced by palm oil rush: NGO

February 23, 2016 by Marlowe Hood
A vast plantation of Palm trees is pictured in Bumanji Parish, Uganda on May 21, 2015
A vast plantation of Palm trees is pictured in Bumanji Parish, Uganda on May 21, 2015

Africa's tropical forests are threatened by a palm oil bonanza that has already razed millions of old-growth hectares in Southeast Asia, Greenpeace France warned Tuesday.

The NGO called on European palm and rubber plantation giant Socfin, which controls vast tracts of tropical land in more than half-a-dozen African nations, to join other multinationals in adopted so-called "zero deforestation" policies.

Dozens of global companies—GAR, Cargill, and Agropalma among commodity producers, and Nestle, Unilever and L'Oreal among makers of consumer products—have made pledges, though some are more stringent than others.

So far, Socfin—majority controlled by Belgian businessman Hubert Fabri, with French billionaire Vincent Bollore holding 38.8 percent of the company's shares—have failed to make similar commitments, Greenpeace said.

The stakes are high: , soy, paper pulp, and beef drive nearly three-quarters of deforestation in tropical areas, according to studies.

Deforestation from all sources is responsible for 12 percent of the greenhouse gases driving global warming.

Indonesia and Malaysia account for more than 90 percent of palm oil production today.

Clear-cutting and burning to make way for causes health-wrecking air pollution, exacerbates climate change, and destroys some of the planet's richest "hotspots" for biodiversity.

Palm oil seeds are collected at a plantation area in Pelalawan, Riau province in Indonesia's Sumatra island on September 16, 201
Palm oil seeds are collected at a plantation area in Pelalawan, Riau province in Indonesia's Sumatra island on September 16, 2015

The transformation of great swathes of rainforest to monoculture farming is also a mixed blessing for local populations, providing a source of low-wage employment but often displacing indigenous peoples and disrupting established livelihoods.

Africa is the new frontier

Currently, only a small percentage of palm oil comes from Africa, but Socfin operates numerous plantations there with others in the pipeline.

"Africa has become the new frontier for palm oil, the new battleground of oil palm and rubber tree companies," the Greenpeace report said.

The company has sought a 150 million euro ($165 million) loan via the International Finance Corporation (IFC), an entity of the World Bank, to finance certification under environmental norms upheld by the IFC.

But Socfin does not meet even these modest standards—described by Greenpeace as "insufficient to prevent deforestation"—according to the IFC, which signalled "major gaps" between the palm and rubber giant's operations and "good international industry practice."

A worker collects palm oil seeds at a plantation in Pelalawan, Riau province on September 16, 2015 in Pelalawan, Riau province,
A worker collects palm oil seeds at a plantation in Pelalawan, Riau province on September 16, 2015 in Pelalawan, Riau province, Indonesia

"The IFC must urgently suspend the ongoing corporate loan procedure and condition the granting of this loan on the company's publication of a credible zero deforestation commitment," Greenpeace said.

Made aware of the contents of the report, a spokesperson for the Groupe Bollore said that the company was "only a shareholder" of Socfin, and thus "can not be held directly responsible for the actions or decisions of Socfin."

"Nonetheless," Elodie Le Rol said by email, "the Groupe Bollore carries out it duty to be vigilant, and is an active shareholder and administrator of Socfin."

The core provision of a zero deforestation policy is to identify and protect so-called "high carbon stock" areas.

These are forest regions that store huge quantities of carbon dioxide in living wood mass. Once it is cut down and burned, CO2 is released into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change.

Another key provision is the protection of peatlands which—when drained to make way for a plantation—also spew CO2 into the air.

Due to the rapid expansion of palm plantations and logging, Indonesia has become the sixth largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world.

Zero deforestation likewise includes guarantees that local populations are fairly compensated for lost land, and not otherwise adversely affected.

Socfin currently has 50,000 hectares (124,000 acres) in rubber plantations, and 80,000 hectares (198,000 acres) in palm oil trees in Africa.

The forests in the Congo basin cover some 200 million hectares (500 million acres) across six countries, and are home to more than 500 species of mammals, 400 reptiles and thousands of plants.

Between 1990 and 2010, at least 3.5 million hectares of natural forests were converted into palm oil plantations, mainly in Southeast Asia.

Explore further: Study shows the causes of mangrove deforestation in Southeast Asia

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