Opinion

Palm oil, a driver for development or a cause of ecological disaster?

Eric Servat

Palm oil: avoiding the worst, striving for the best?

Palm oil has a bad reputation in the international media, but most consumers know very little about its production. Consumers are not aware that oil palm play an important development role in those African countries where the plant originated.

Côte d’Ivoire is the fifth largest palm oil producer in the world after Indonesia, Malaysia, Nigeria and Colombia. It is the second largest African producer, and the sector employs more than 1 million people in the country. The crop is crucial for small-scale local producers who represent 71% of Côte d’Ivoire’s palm oil production (while globally small-scale producers account for 40% of production).  The oil palm only grows in humid tropical areas (the southern part of the forest region, 20 km north of Divo). Because oil palm production is not done by machine, cultivation creates numerous manual jobs. An explosion in palm oil demand has become a driving force in the economies of a number of West African countries.

With little or no suitable plant materials, relevant technical training and investment, yields from small-scale family plantations are low: 7 tonnes/ha, which is three times less than in Asia and half that of industrial plantations. Although small-scale producers grow and sell their crops to industrial processors, they also have small self-owned village production units for processing the fruit into oil. Small-scale palm oil processing activities involve the entire family and are vitally important, often constituting the main source of income for these families and their local communities.

Low returns from oil palm orchards cause small-scale producers to constantly seek to extend their farming areas at the expense of forests. According to Melanie Bayo, director of CEFCA, an Ivorian NGO, “It has been proven that oil palms grown under conventional  systems reduce biodiversity by 90%; using inputs such as pesticides and fertilisers change the balance of soils and aquatic ecosystems, which seriously threatens the protection of ecosystems in palm oil production areas. There is an urgent need to meet the growing demand for palm oil (which is also crucial for local consumption), and to support the Ivorian government in its ambition to increase production by 50% by 2020.”

At the Rainforest Alliance we believe that to avoid adding thousands of hectares of oil palm plantations at the expense of forests, biodiversity and land belonging to local populations, it is necessary to intensify production of oil palms on farming land that has already been degraded, to provide technical support to regenerate old plantations, and to improve the productivity of small-scale planters while respecting the environment. We are therefore developing the resources to provide plantation owners with high performing disease tolerant plant material, which is tailored to agro-ecological areas and disease-tolerant. In addition, we are providing training for small-scale producers in sustainable agriculture principles that comply with Sustainable Agriculture Network’s strict social and environmental standards.

The Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) is a joint international institution of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group of States and the European Union (EU). CTA operates under the framework of the Cotonou Agreement and is funded by the EU.