Fruits and nuts, bark and beetles


The seeds, bark and leaves of the "country onion" tree are used for food and medicine.

The seeds, bark and leaves of the “country onion” tree are used for food and medicine.


When you begin to add up the riches of the forest, it is incomprehensible that a state could lease these lands to palm oil developers for next to nothing.

There’s timber, of course. Illegal logging is a major problem in the Congo Basin, but timber can be harvested sustainably to provide wood and income for local communities. It’s also worth noting that logging and clear-cutting are not the same thing. When forests are razed it’s for industrial agriculture.

In a recent article for environment360, Fred Pearce writes:

Logged tropical forests, new research suggests, are much more valuable for biodiversity than previously thought. Our understandable preoccupation with protecting pristine ecosystems may be blinding us to the fact that the forests that have been selectively logged deserve conservation, too. One immediate and troubling implication is that schemes backed by conservationists in Indonesia and elsewhere to turn “degraded” forests into palm oil plantations will do far more damage to nature’s biodiversity than the original logging.

It’s an interesting story that raises serious questions about clear-cutting any tropical forests.

Wild pepper vine.

Wild pepper vine.


But beyond timber, the forests are a vast source of food, medicine, building materials and revenue for local communities.  For those who study forest economies, there’s a growing recognition of the importance of non-timber forest products (NTFPs) for rural livelihoods.


Branches used for making pegs, posts, toothpicks, etc. Bamboo in background is used for building and furniture.

Branches used for making pegs, posts, toothpicks, etc. Bamboo in background is used for building and furniture.


A local collector in Cameroon with a Goliath beetle – the 4th largest beetle in the world. Photo: John Fogoh Muafor

A local collector in Cameroon with a Goliath beetle – the 4th largest beetle in the world. Photo: John Fogoh Muafor


Consider beetles:

Protection of beetle habitats in Cameroon and regulation over their collection and trade could help lift rural communities out of poverty while conserving relic forest patches in the region, a new study says.

The hardy insects are the most diverse of all living organisms in terrestrial ecosystems, constituting nearly a quarter of our global biodiversity.

They have long been harvested by forest-dwellers in parts of Africa for local consumption, some having a nutritional value comparable to meat and fish and others a higher value proportionally of proteins, fat and energy. And since the 1980s when enthusiastic beetle collectors arrived in southwestern Cameroon and started training people to identify and gather unique or interesting species, the bugs have been exported (usually after negotiations via the Internet) to Europe, Asia and the Americas.

This article, appearing in Forests News, a blog from the  Center for International Forestry Research, points out that income from NTFPs “often complements main sources of income – cash crops such as cocoa or coffee – especially during the off-harvest season.”

Farmers returning from their cocoa farms with NTFPs.

Farmers returning from their cocoa farms with NTFPs.


This is important to remember when palm oil developers talk about the employment that plantation agriculture will bring. Plantations certainly employ agricultural workers (low paid jobs, for the most part), but smallholder farmers are able to boost their incomes through NTFPs. When the forest is razed, this extremely valuable source of revenue, food, medicine and building materials will be gone.


Nigerians object to land grabs by a foreign palm oil company




SAVE Wildlife Conservation Fund is a German NGO working to halt deforestation for palm oil in Cameroon. Learn more about their campaign here: SAVE The Forest

This recent article from SAVE describes a controversial land takeover in Cross River State in Nigeria. Nigeria’s Cross River National Park is located just across the border from Cameroon’s Korup National Park and is ecologically contiguous with Korup.

Summary: Nigerian NGO Rainforest Resource Development Centre (RRDC) filed formal complaints to the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) in regards to a plantation takeover in Nigeria by Wilmar International of Singapore.

Wilmar which has bought over the operations of Obasanjor Farms of Nigeria was supposed to take over plantation lands of some 12,000 hectares. These were to include the Ibad Plantation measuring 7,805 hectares, the Oban Plantation measuring 2,986.385 hectares and the Kwa Falls Plantation measuring 2,014.429 hectares. RRDC in its charges claims that Wilmar was mislead into making the transactions over Obasanjor Farms properties as much of the properties have outstanding claims against them which are in open violations of the RSPO’s Principles and Criteria for its members.

Citing multiple infractions of Nigerian state and federal laws governing land ownership and land use, the RRDC is calling the deal with Wilmar null and void until all outstanding issues are resolved. Some of the issues include land grabs that were initiated by Obasanjo Farms when it was established 11 years ago and the establishment of its plantations inside forest reserves including biodiversity hotspot Cross River National Park.Wilmar is yet to make any comment in respect of the irregularities raised by RRDC concerning the Obasanjor farms.

The most contentious issue revolves around ownership and title of the land. Wilmar in its defense in respect of the Biase New Planting Plantations stated that: “The land title belongs to the government of Cross River State whose acquisition dates back to the mid seventies. Therefore, what we enjoy today is a sub-lease from the government who has paid all the ground rents to the landlords”.

RRDC Director Odey Oyama in citing the Land Use Act No. 6 of 1978 (Laws of the Federal Republic of Nigeria) stipulates that: “the Governor is the Trustee, and nothing more. He holds land on behalf of the owners and acts according to the trust bestowed on him, in good faith and for the benefit of the owners, as prescribed by the Act. In LAW this means that he is the manager of another’s property: i.e. somebody who is given the legal authority to manage land on behalf of somebody else.”

The complaint to the RSPO further stated that Wilmar has received only the approval of two of the five affected communities for the plantation and insists on an open forum that will include the participation of all affected communities. Director Odey Oyama further stated that: “the RRDC has absolutely no objections to the good intentions of Wilmar towards the livelihoods and general economic wellbeing of the landlord communities. Our position however is that Wilmar must observe our National Laws and Regulations as they pertain to Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), the Land Use Act, the National Park Act, the Forest Laws and regulations, and the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. They should also continuously ensure that the rights, privileges and entitlements of indigenous communities are not usurped by any external agencies and /or influential internal minority interest groups.

Global demand for palm oil is expected to skyrocket in the coming years and South East Asian palm oil companies are increasingly looking towards Africa to create new plantations. Sime Darby Berhad of Malaysia was similarly challenged in its plantation in Liberia and agreed to pay reparations and proper compensations for affected communities there. The most contentious palm oil plantation in Africa however belongs to Herakles Farms USA where ongoing disputes between the company and land owners are yet to be resolved.


Red Colobus ©SAVE
In addition to the indigenous land rights issues, the plantation areas encroach deep into Cross River National Park, home to several endemic primate species including the endangered Preuss Red Colobus and the Drill. “This plantation cannot be allowed to proceed the way it has been mapped out,” declared Lars Gorschlueter, Director of the Save Wildlife Conservation Fund.”We are already fighting Herakles Farms proposed plantation on the Cameroon side that will impact Korup National Park which is contiguous with Cross River National Park. If this industrial plantation is allowed into the Oban Forest Reserve, it will effectively box in wildlife and our research has shown that wildlife cannot survive in an environment like this.”

In the case of Wilmar’s plantations and operations in Nigeria, the RRDC remains hopeful that the company will abide by the Principles and Criteria of the RSPO.

15 January 2013

Oil spill

Near Mundemba, Southwest Region, Cameroon

Near Mundemba, Southwest Region, Cameroon

No, it’s not crude oil. It’s palm oil or, to be precise, POME, Palm Oil Mill Effluent, the highly-polluting, oily wastewater generated by palm oil processing mills.

In Southwest Cameroon a PAMOL palm oil mill is located just across the river from Korup National Park, a recognized  global biodiversity hotspot.  Stand on the bank of the Mana River and you’ll see primary forest on one side and oil palm plantations on the other. If you’re standing at the top of the bluff that leads down from the mill to the old river port, you’ll also see a stream of brown, greasy liquid flowing into the river and covering the beach with sludge. When the water is calm an oily sheen stretches from bank to bank.

From WWF: “A palm oil mill generates 2.5 metric tons of effluent for every metric ton of palm oil it produces. Direct release of this effluent can cause freshwater pollution, which affects downstream biodiversity and people. When POME is not released directly into rivers it is often discarded into disposal ponds, its contaminants polluting the soil and groundwater and releasing methane gas into the atmosphere.”

Near Mundemba, Southwest Region, Cameroon

Near Mundemba, Southwest Region, Cameroon

Read more about POME and what to do with it here.

“The environmental impact of POME cannot be over emphasized,” write Nigerian researchers J.C. Igwe and C.C. Onyegbado in the introduction to their report, A Review of Palm Oil Mill Effluent (Pome) Water Treatment. It’s a fairly technical report that provides a detailed description of POME pollution and treatment.

Palm oil mills don’t have to pollute. Palm oil plantations don’t have to cause deforestation. Smallholder farmers can be involved. Labor conditions can be improved. Yes, things can be done differently. But if the current state of affairs is anything to go by, there’s cause for alarm.

Near Mundemba, Southwest Region, Cameroon

Near Mundemba, Southwest Region, Cameroon

Illegal logging is rampant. Plantation labor conditions are appalling with workers often paid less than Cameroon’s minimum wage (approximately US$60/month). Environmental regulation is weak and rarely, if ever, enforced. The palm oil projects currently in the pipeline in Cameroon are the result of secretive deals with zero transparency and no community involvement. The government is reportedly allocating vast expanses of land to foreign companies for next to nothing:

“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 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.” (Seeds of Destruction, Rainforest Foundation U.K.)

If Cameroon is prepared to lease land for US$1 per hectare per year, one can wonder how much concern the government has for the forest or its inhabitants.


Logging by another name?


GWZ Wijma sawmill, Nguti, Southwest Region, Cameroon

GWZ Wijma sawmill, Nguti, Southwest Region, Cameroon


Although deforestation across the Congo Basin has not been as dramatic as in West Africa where the rainforests have largely disappeared, logging and illegal logging are serious threats. In Cameroon, for example, more than 13% of the country’s forest cover was last between 1990 and 2005 due to logging, agriculture and the search for fuel.

The increasing number of palm oil concessions across the Congo Basin, some granted to companies with no agricultural experience, has raised suspicions that certain concessions may be “timber grabs”.

Seeds of Destruction, the new report from the Rainforest Foundation (U.K.) describes the case of Atama Plantations, a 470,000 hectare palm oil project, in the Republic of Congo:

In February 2012, Wah Seong Corporation, a Bursa Malaysia (formerly the Kuala Lumpur stock exchange) listed company, announced its intended purchase of a majority 51% stake in Atama Resources Inc, thus becoming majority owners of the oil palm plantation project in Congo. 

Previously, Wah Seong has principally been involved in the manufacturing of specialist metal pipes for the oil and gas industry. The company’s only previous connection to oil palm in Africa was the supply of equipment for palm oil refineries, and this will be its first venture into the oil palm plantation industry….

Stock-watchers have questioned how Wah Seong can afford the costs of developing the massive new oil palm plantation, which they estimate at US$650 million. One analyst has suggested that the cost “could be partly offset by forest clearance such as sale of logs”. This has often happened in the past in Indonesia. Evidence obtained by RFUK suggests that the forests Atama is planning to convert are indeed primary forests with significant timber stocks. The potential profits from harvesting this timber may be one of the main driving factors behind the development.

In 2012 the company had already harvested almost 15,000 cubic metres of timber at its first development in Epoma in Sangha, yet had thus far only cleared 120 hectares. If most of it is primary forest, by a rough yet conservative estimate, the 180,000 hectares the company plans to convert could yield timber worth more than $500 million.



Palm oil and the high forest, low deforestation equation

The rainforest of South West Cameroon, a global biodiversity "hot spot."

The rainforest of South West Cameroon, a global biodiversity “hot spot.”


The Congo Basin is home to the second largest tropical rainforest on earth. Although the region has been logged for decades, the six Congo Basin countries (Cameroon, Central African Republic, Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon) have low deforestation rates overall. They are referred to as “High Forest, Low Deforestation,” or HFLD, countries. Countries like Indonesia that have lost significant amounts of forest are known as HFHD or “High Forest, High Deforestation.”

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Why palm oil? Why Africa? Why now?

PAMOL plantation in South West Cameroon. The PAMOL plantations date from the colonial period.

PAMOL plantation in Southwest Cameroon. The PAMOL plantations date from the colonial period.


Palm oil, from the fruit of the oil palm tree (Elaeis guineensis), is the world’s most widely used edible oil. Although the oil palm is native to west and central Africa and is widely cultivated in the region, most of the palm oil produced for the global market comes from the vast industrial plantations of Malaysia and Indonesia.

Growing demand for palm oil and rising production costs in Asia have led to a new land rush across the Congo Basin. Today palm oil is coming full circle, “returning” to its ancestral home: The mega-plantations are arriving in Africa, threatening both the environment and the livelihoods of countless smallholder palm growers and farmers.

According to a recent study published by the Rainforest Foundation (U.K.): “New industrial oil palm expansion projects currently underway cover 0.5 million hectares in the Congo Basin, which will result in a fivefold increase in the area of active large-scale palm plantations in the region. The area of projects announced since 2009, but not necessarily underway, covers 1.6 million hectares and palm oil companies are searching for larger areas. Approximately two-thirds of the total forest area of the Congo Basin’s forests – 115 million hectares – has suitable soil and climate for growing oil palms.”

Environmentalists and social justice activists fear the development of massive, industrial palm oil plantations in the Congo Basin, home to the world’s second largest tropical rainforest and a number of notoriously corrupt governments. Palm oil production has wreaked havoc in Indonesia and Malaysia, leading to massive deforestation, critical loss of biodiversity and violent social conflicts. Will the same occur here?

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