Palm oil development in Cameroon: An urgent need for a national strategy

If properly managed, oil palm expansion in Cameroon could reduce poverty and lead to strong economic development.

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YAOUNDE, Cameroon (06 June 2012) _ Cameroon’s expansive tract of the Congo Basin rain forest is at threat with a recent influx of investors in search of cheap land for palm oil plantations, underscoring a call by scientists for the development of a national land-use strategy.

“Cameroon is of special interest to many Asian palm oil companies due to the excellent biophysical conditions, availability of cheap land and labour, political stability, the willingness of the government to develop its agricultural sector, and more importantly the closeness of the country to high-valued European and North American markets”, said Patrice Levang, a scientist at the Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (IRD) and Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and co-author with David Hoyle (WWF) of a new study entitled “Oil Palm Development in Cameroon.”

“However, it cannot take full advantage of those benefits unless the government works with all relevant stakeholders to develop a national palm oil strategy that will guide the rapid expansion of the sector,” he added.

With pressure to meet the growing demand for food and fuel, combined with tighter regulations to limit deforestation, increased land shortages, and closer scrutiny of land acquisitions, many Asian palm oil companies are diversifying their production areas and investing heavily in Central African countries including Cameroon.

Since 2009, Cameroon has witnessed a sharp rise in the number of investors seeking land for palm oil plantations. At least 6 companies are applying for the allocation of over 1 million hectares of land in the forest areas of the southern part of the country, which is about 4.7 per cent of the country’s total forest area of 21,245,000 hectares, says the report.

With industrial palm oil production being a key element of the Cameroonian government’s poverty reduction strategy, it is willing to offer concessions to companies demanding large acreages of land in forested zones for oil palm production.

Previous CIFOR research in Malaysia and Indonesia has shown that while expansion of palm oil production could provide an opportunity to develop national economies by boosting employment opportunities, increasing revenue for the State to help develop infrastructure and by facilitating smallholders’ involvement in its production, the social and environmental cost can be high.

The land clearing for production could result in the loss of high conservation value areas, as well as the depletion of carbon stocks vital for reducing emission from deforestation and degradation schemes. Social unrest and human rights violations, and the loss of alternative sources of income to the State could limit alternative land-use options such as mining, hunting and logging, for local populations.

According to Hoyle and Levang, a new national strategy should invest in increasing the productivity and yield of the existing palm oil plantations as well as focus on sustainable development with minimum impact on carbon emission levels and biodiversity conservation.

“There is a number of different things that the strategy should address, including the development of areas already deforested or degraded to ensure that all new palm oil developments in Cameroon meet the criteria set by the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil; smallholders must benefit from the development of agro-industrial complexes by establishing out-grower contracts using the model developed in Southeast Asia, where at least 30 per cent of the total area is reserved for smallholders, and measures must be put in place to support family farming through the provision of selected seedlings and training,” Levang added.

The report also suggests that palm oil investments in Cameroon should be suspended at least until a road map leading to a new government policy on the expansion of palm oil production is agreed or, at least until the government consults all stakeholders before issuing new oil palm concession areas.

While acknowledging the fact that oil palm expansion in Cameroon could reduce poverty and lead to strong economic development, the report warns that if not properly managed and well thought-through, it could cause loss of high conservation value areas and have negative impacts on the livelihoods of local communities and indigenous people.

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