Halting The ‘Ruthless’ Charge of Palm Oil Producers In Cameroon

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A western charity is providing the indigenous people of cameroon and other developing nations with the tools they need to resist the unethical and ruthless advance into their territories of palm oil producers.

The Forest Peoples Programme (FPP) is helping indigenous people in Cameroon to negotiate with the palm oil companies that want to develop their land. The strategies taught by the UK-based charity provide forest communities in South America, Africa and Asia with the tools to defend their lands and livelihoods against exploitation. The expansion of palm oil production in the Congo Basin and Asia has seen land grabbing, the destruction of tropical forests and the loss of territorial rights.

Cameroon’s indigenous people are now facing the problem of ruthless and unethical palm oil companies taking advantage of their vulnerability. “We’re helping them make maps to get the best out of the situation,” said John Nelson, Africa Regional Coordinator for the FPP. “Some communities might be willing to give up 10% of their territory to palm oil if they thought it would secure stable schools and an education for their children. But these benefits are often sparse or unfair. We want to make sure everyone knows what their rights are so they can act to protect them.”

One farmer in Cameroon only discovered a palm oil company had targeted his land when he noticed it had been marked out with posts. His experiences reveal the dangers of being caught unawares. “I left my field at 5:30pm and when I returned the next day at 6am the pillar was here on my land in the middle of my cocoa field,” he said. “I haven’t pulled it up because I’m scared of getting into trouble but it’s my land and I don’t want it taken from me. Others have them as well – there are hundreds of them all over the place, drawing out lines across our fields and forests. No one has come to talk to me about any of this but we’ve heard that the company has signed papers with the government and some of the chiefs. We haven’t seen any papers here in our community.”

Another farmer in Cameroon said: “We’ve been here for many generations and our forest is still big. We said we would be happy to talk to the company since we want development and there could be opportunities to discuss in return for some of our forest. They haven’t come here though so we have no deal. They tried putting pillars in our forest anyway. Many young people don’t want that company here now. The trust is gone.”

Massive expansion

Palm oil production evolved in West Africa but was taken to South America and then to Malaysia and Indonesia, which are now the biggest producers. Clearing land for plantations has led to deforestation, has endangered species and in some cases, has forced indigenous people off their land. Now palm oil producers are looking to expand their operations into West and Central Africa, land rich areas with few controls.

Palm oil is a cheap and abundant source of versatile saturated fat and one of Africa’s most important crops. Many of the chocolate biscuits, ice creams, margarines, cooking oils, crisps and cakes we eat along with many household cleaning products and cosmetics contain it, yet only an estimated 18% of global supplies have been certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), the international body responsible for certifying palm oil producers.

The RSPO was set up in 2004 by the World Wildlife Fund, among others, in response to concerns about the environmental damage caused by the rapid expansion of the palm oil business. The RSPO has developed a set of environmental and social criteria which companies must comply with in order to produce Certified Sustainable Palm Oil.

The FPP’s John Nelson says that reputational risk is one of the ways of restraining companies from behaving unethically. When companies are convinced that “it’s not good for business” it changes their behaviour overnight. “Companies should seek out and join these standards and make sure they apply them down the supply chain,” he said. “When they are buying goods and services they need to know they are from people who own the land, that no one has stolen it and no deforestation has taken place. After all, there’s a major reputational risk to companies that do not pay attention to these issues. If people can make the connection between human rights violations and the products they are consuming, it is not really good for business and people will vote with their feet.

“If a company believes it is ethical, it should participate in making sure standards like those of the RSPO are in place and followed. Even some of the most ethical companies try to do their best but there are potential difficulties in knowing whether the palm oil they’ve purchased is ok or not.”

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Photo Credit: Adam Cohn from flickr

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