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.


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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