Date: 21 December 2016
Author: Jeremy Hance
Image Source: http://www.nationalgeographicexpeditions.com/
The plight of the orangutan and the south-east Asian forests it inhabits has kept the palm oil industry on the defensive for decades. As the industry now expands at breakneck pace into Africa, conservationists fear slaughtered gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos could become its new symbol unless significant changes are made.
This is the conclusion of a recent report produced by the Great Apes Survival Partnership at the United Nations Environment Programme. According to the report’s authors, conservationists and industry must work together to protect Africa’s great apes and avoid the destruction caused by the palm oil industry in Malaysia and Indonesia.
“Lessons learned from south-east Asia showed that fighting oil palm development doesn’t really work,” says Marc Ancrenaz, an orangutan expert with the NGO Hutan who co-authored the Palm Oil Paradox report. “Oil palm development is going to stay and to expand. Rather than ignoring the consequences, conservationists should better engage with this industry to try to influence their practices on the ground.”
The stakes are high. The bonobo, for example, is only found in one country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and 99% of its range (the area where biologists know or expect a species to live) is suitable for oil palm production.
The report’s authors, including a number of the world’s top primatologists, recommend that palm oil companies must start by implementing “no-go zones” to ensure forests housing so-called “priority populations” of gorillas, chimps or bonobos remain untouched.
Serge Wich, a professor at Liverpool John Moores University and report co-author, says prioritising populations may mean losing some small, fragmented populations that, he says, have almost no chance of long term survival, but it would ensure the survival of the bulk of Africa’s great apes, all of which are either listed as critically endangered or endangered.
Employing strict no-go zones for apes would prevent many palm companies from fully developing their concessions. Currently, limited resources mean governments often grant large concessions with little information on wildlife populations, forest structure or local communities. Companies therefore often have to enforce their own sustainability standards when it comes to clearing land.
To date, however, ape populations are rarely taken into account either by governments or companies. By working with conservationists, companies can help fund on-the-ground surveys to establish no-go zones for apes and other wildlife.
The establishment of new oil palm plantations doesn’t just lead to habitat loss for apes. An increasingly fragmented and accessible forest means a potential increase in poaching for bushmeat or revenge killing of apes that feed on nearby crops after their forest food sources are destroyed.
To deal with this, the report’s authors recommend companies incorporate best management practices, such as gaining certification through the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, installing a no-kill policy for apes and other wildlife, and creating wildlife corridors for animals to move through and around plantations.
In addition, the scientists say all palm oil companies must employ full-time environmental management teams and invest in monitoring of great apes and other wildlife near the concession to make sure populations are thriving.
Yet many current projects on the continent do not instill confidence that the industry has learned any lessons from south-east Asia. A hugely controversial plantation in Cameroon, formerly run by Herakles Farms but now by SG Sustainable Oils Cameroon, has been criticized for the location of its concession in chimpanzee territory. Meanwhile a massive oil palm plantation in the Republic of the Congo operated by Atama has been faulted for logging gorilla habitat.
“Certainly many of the same mistakes are being made,” says Wich. But he points to Olam, an agribusiness with palm oil operations in Gabon, as an example of a firm that “seems to be moving in the right direction”.
Olam has set aside more than 50% of its flagship concession as high conservation value forest, including protecting both chimpanzee and gorilla populations on site. In conducting great ape surveys, Olam found not only chimpanzees and gorillas in the remote parts of its concession but also ample evidence of a thriving bushmeat trade. It then worked with partners such as Gabon’s national park system and WWF.
“I think they set a good example and now it is time for others to follow,” says Wich, though he adds that new revelations prove even Olam has a lot of work to do. Olam has recently been criticized for allegedly clearing 20,000 hectares of forests since 2012. Olam does not dispute it has cut down forests, even those used by great apes.
Olam does not have a “no deforestation” policy. It argues this is because of the unique situation of working in Gabon; the central African country is one of the most heavily forested nations on the planet and has high unemployment and little agriculture investment, meaning much of the food is imported.
“Gabon has a right and an essential need to develop its agriculture sector to diversify its economy, improve food security to feed its people and create new livelihood opportunities, while also protecting its natural forests,” said Sunny Verghese, CEO of Olam, in a statement responding to the report.
The example of Olam – lauded on one hand, criticized on the other – proves the complexity of palm oil in Africa and its perils. But if great apes are to survive the palm oil boom, companies and conservationists must find common ground.