Palm oil's new frontier. How industrial expansion threatens Africa's rainforests.



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Palm oil is the world’s cheapest edible oil, and increasingly one of the most popular. As global demand continues to grow so has the vigorous search for land for new plantations by investors and industry. When it is done well and is properly managed, palm oil production can be of potential benefit to the populations of developing countries by providing sustainable livelihoods. Oil palm cultivation also has a greater oil yield per hectare than any other oil crop, which in theory means it should require less land. On the other hand, unchecked large-scale expansion of the industry could lead to environmental devastation, and precipitate social and economic havoc for African people. Some acquisitions put forests, ecosystems and the climate at risk, and threaten the livelihood of the people depending on the land. The impact upon local environments and the global climate of the widespread conversion of rainforest and peatlands for large oil palm plantations in Southeast Asia has been widely documented. Countries in Africa now stand at a crossroads. They can choose to continue to allow corporations to encroach upon their lands and expand into their natural rainforests in pursuit of the illusion of short-term economic benefits. Alternatively African governments and African people can choose the path of sustainable development and put the protection of their natural resources and their livelihoods first. This should include having clear and efficient plans for land use, as well as strong safeguards leading towards sustainable equity and food sovereignty. Governments, financial institutions and corporations all have a responsibility to formulate, implement and enforce environmental and social safeguards so that the path of destructive agricultural conversion can be diverted towards a green economy.