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Palm oil’s new frontier: averting a Great Ape catastrophe in Cameroon

  • Cameroon, with its vast bio-diverse forests and key great ape habitat, is being eyed as a prime site for oil palm production, making it a center of agro-industry development in Africa. Conservationists hope to avoid mistakes made in Asia.
  • Conservationists in Africa are working to implement oil palm standards that will limit deforestation, protect biodiversity, limit carbon emissions, and benefit smallholders, while also supporting economic growth and job creation.
  • A key to Africa’s sustainable oil palm production is the implementation of mutually agreed upon industry-wide, and possibly nationwide, sustainable standards for siting and development of plantations.
  • Standards being tested are: the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) that identifies High Conservation Value areas; a system favored by WWF using integrated land-use planning / smallholders; and Zero Deforestation (ZD) favored by Greenpeace.
A baby gorilla. As an agro-industrial oil palm production boom looks set to hit Africa, Critically Endangered gorillas are under threat. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

This is the second in a four-part series on palm oil in Cameroon. Read the first, third, and fourth parts for more discussion on the topic.

In Cameroon’s 500,000-hectare (1,931-square mile) Dja Biosphere Reserve — found at the northwest edge of the Congo basin — chimpanzees, gorillas, forest elephants and leopards roam “one of the largest and best-protected rainforests in Africa” according to UNESCO.

Abutting the southern boundary of this World Heritage site is a 45,000-hectare (174-square mile) rubber concession, present since 2010. Plans are afoot to plant oil palm here, Christian Azenui Asanga, of the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) told Mongabay, saying that the threat the concession poses “has been identified by UNESCO as a major concern for the status of the reserve.”

This story is being repeated across Cameroon, as agro-industrial expansion eats away at forest habitats, threatening the integrity of protected areas and the species they contain.

Cameroon is an important home to four great ape taxa, with six priority landscapes for ape conservation identified by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature). The central chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes troglodytes), and the Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes ellioti) — the most threatened chimp of all, numbering fewer than 6,500 individuals — are both classified as Endangered by the IUCN. The western lowland gorilla (Gorilla gorilla gorilla), and Cross River gorilla (Gorilla gorilla diehli) — with just 300 remaining — are both Critically Endangered.

An oil palm plantation borders rainforest. Conservationists warn that international agribusiness expansion into Africa, palm oil’s “new frontier”, puts numerous protected areas and threatened species at risk. Photo © Serge Wich/

“Large scale habitat destruction due to industrial agriculture greatly threatens these species,” said Asanga, ZSL’s Cameroon country coordinator.

Explosive oil palm growth closing in on great apes

The picture in Cameroon reflects the growing issues facing great apes across Central and Western Africa, particularly as the promise of palm oil — ubiquitous in food, cosmetics, and cleaning products around the world — is felt across the region.

Palm oil originates from Africa and has long been a staple crop for many smallholders. Its profitability means it could play a critical role in alleviating poverty. But with the global appetite for palm oil ever-increasing, space running out in Asia for more plantations, and African markets hungry for international investment, the spectre of the ecological devastation wrought in Asia in pursuit of palm oil looms large for this “new frontier” of industrial oil palm production.

“Current great ape distribution in Africa substantially overlaps with current oil palm concessions (by 58.7 percent) and areas suitable for oil palm production (by 42.3 percent),” reported a 2014 study led by Serge Wich, a professor in primate biology at Liverpool John Moores University, UK. “More importantly, 39.9 percent of the distribution of great ape species on unprotected lands overlaps with suitable oil palm areas.”

African forests that lack formal protection are therefore at grave risk, while agricultural development adjacent to protected areas puts pressure on the wildlife populations within: where industry goes, people follow, meaning that plantation expansion often results in both habitat loss and increased hunting in the forest habitat that remains. Great apes are especially vulnerable to both these impacts.

Cameroon has a long history of agro-industry, but it recently experienced a surge of interest, especially from international groups who have been asking for larger concessions than ever before. A strategic partnership with China, incentives for foreign investment, and perceived political stability have further contributed to attracting foreign interests.

A 2015 report lists companies hailing from Brazil, Russia, India, China, and the US among those seeking or currently controlling Cameroon lands for biofuel, sugarcane, coffee, rubber, oil palm and other crops. The six largest concessions named range from 59,000-500,000 hectares (228-1,931 square miles); four are held by international interests, just two are Cameroonian. Development is bad news for rural communities that often lack legal rights to their lands, allowing the government to easily turn over forests to agricultural investors.

An adult male gorilla. Conservation organizations including WWF and ZSL are working with a range of stakeholders to increase knowledge and capacity about sustainability, which would reduce the negative impacts of agro-industry on great ape habitats and populations in Africa and elsewhere. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

The government is especially encouraging growth in the oil palm sector, reportedly seeking a near doubling of palm oil production, from 230,000 tons in 2010, to 450,000 tons by 2020. Across the country, oil palm companies have more than 1 million hectares (3,861 square miles) in their sights.

A chance for great apes and oil palm to coexist

“There is an urgent need to develop guidelines for the expansion of oil palm in Africa to minimize the negative effects on apes and other wildlife,” Wich and colleagues warn.

The emerging palm oil market not only carries with it great risk, but also great opportunity: if sustainability can be built into the industry as it expands, then there will be a higher chance of economic and development goals being met without biodiversity paying the price. Government ministries along with conservation organizations on the ground have the opportunity to learn from the ecologically disastrous Asian oil palm boom to identify effective conservation strategies. They also have a range of international industry standards and guidelines to choose from to promote sustainability in the sector.

They need to act quickly, but if they get it right, Cameroon could be a showcase for sustainable palm oil.

A slight reprieve in expansion plans may help buy enough time to establish a strong framework for sustainable production within the country. Companies involved in the “mad rush…to acquire large concessions” between 2010 and 2012 have “largely withdrawn due to the potential conflicts with biodiversity conservation,” Asanga said. “[T]he situation could have been much worse for great apes conservation if these companies had proceeded to deforest large areas,” he concluded.

Wich told Mongabay that plantation siting is a major priority for sustainable agro-industry. “The first step is to carefully examine where oil-palm plantations could potentially be developed with the least negative impact on biodiversity and local communities,” he said. “This requires very careful land-use planning.”

Both ZSL and WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature) are working with multiple stakeholders and government ministries to try and make that happen by helping develop national guidelines for the industry, increasing knowledge and understanding around sustainability, and building capacity to incorporate sustainability into the production process.

One approach that is showing promise is the development of indicators for High Conservation Value areas, in accordance with the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). Some conservationists are advocating for a national land-use policy for Cameroon that would take RSPO guidelines into account, saying that it could greatly influence, and hopefully reduce, the impact oil palm plantations have on biodiversity — while also ending the battles between industry and environmentalists over duelling standards.

In Cameroon, oil palm plantations already exist within chimpanzee and gorilla ranges, but conservationists see an opportunity to avert ecological disaster by building sustainability into this burgeoning industry. Photo © Joshua Linder

WWF is advocating for an integrated land-use plan and national sustainable palm oil strategy, said Durrel Halleson, WWF Cameroon’s Business and Industries Project Coordinator. This approach, which is awaiting government validation, places the emphasis on “promoting oil palm smallholder schemes against attributing large expanses of forested lands to large agro-industries,” he told Mongabay.

But even as some proposed concessions fail to materialise, and with a government shift to encouraging smallholder palm oil production, new large concessions seem inevitable.

It is also likely that existing operations will expand within their concessions, Halleson added. Some are seeking new land, though it’s not clear whether these requests will be granted by the government.

Conservationists working with, not against, industry

ZSL is gaining some significant successes in Cameroon by building on its existing good relationships with logging companies certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). Those partnerships have already resulted in the development of wildlife protection plans extending to almost 600,000 hectares (2,317 square miles) of great ape habitat in proximity to the Dja Biosphere Reserve.

ZSL has “also been engaging with [the] agro-industry sector — oil palm, rubber — to introduce best practice management methods in order to reduce their [future] environmental impacts,” Asanga said. It is currently working cooperatively with one oil palm company in Cameroon — Safacam, a subsidiary of Socfin, a major player in the rubber and palm oil industries, operating in eight African countries. ZSL and Safacam/Socfin are seeking to mitigate historical environmental impacts in Cameroon’s Lac Ossa Reserve.

Another facet of ZSL’s work has been the establishment of the Sustainable Palm Oil Transparency Toolkit (SPOTT) to support companies and investors in monitoring and managing the environmental risks of production, he explained.

“SPOTT provides regularly updated assessments of companies regarding the sustainability of their operations and [offers] associated information and guidance to support companies in implementing their commitments to addressing environmental impacts,” Asanga said. One issue ZSL has regularly encountered associated with company commitment verification “is the lack of accurate data on company concession maps. Increasing transparency in this area is vital and is a key focus of ZSL’s work.”

The oil palm originates from Africa and is an important crop for smallholders. Its profitability means it could play a valuable role in alleviating poverty. But big business interests in Cameroon threaten the livelihoods of rural communities who often lack legal rights to their land. Photo © Joshua Linder

Encouraging companies to make environmental and sustainability commitments, and giving them the evaluation tools to measure the results is one challenge. Getting them to fulfil their commitments can be an even bigger one. “Many of the companies claim they are undertaking effective conservation measures, or making efforts to conserve biodiversity, but there is little evidence that they are making serious efforts that are having an impact,” Asanga explained.

“The companies concerned have to be closely monitored and compelled to adopt best practices,” he said. “In some situations such as those directly adjacent to [protected areas] conversion to agro-industry is simply not compatible with ensuring that the [protected area] status is maintained.”

Greenpeace campaigns for a zero deforestation strategy

Some companies have gained greater international attention than others. One of the first flashpoints of the emerging African palm oil industry was in Cameroon at the controversial Herakles Farms project situated between multiple protected areas, including Korup National Park. This development, which some have termed a “land grab”, saw dense high canopy forest cleared to make way for oil palm nurseries. The initial concession of over 70,000 hectares (270 square miles), which enveloped a number of rural communities, was greatly reduced due to local and international pressure, including an ongoing Greenpeace campaign.

Greenpeace asserted that as much as 89 percent of the concession consisted of natural forest, as opposed to degraded land as claimed by Herakles Farms. This heated conflict between conservationists and industry helped underline the critical importance of the upfront establishment of clearly defined and mutually agreed upon terminology and standards in order to avoid the significant loss of biodiverse tropical forests.

In February, Greenpeace’s attention turned to Socfin. This global company’s Cameroon operations, run by Socapalm and Safacam, have combined concessions of more than 80,000 hectares (309 square miles), of which 43,000 hectares (166 square miles) are devoted to oil palm.

Greenpeace is demanding that all of Socfin’s operations “adopt a zero deforestation (ZD) policy based on the HCS (High Carbon Stock) approach, and [that] this policy should be applicable to each and every [one of] Socfin’s concessions, in Cameroon and everywhere else,” said Cécile Leuba, Forests Campaign Officer with Greenpeace France. “We know they have expansion plans” in Cameroon, Leuba told Mongabay, citing a news report of a possible $53 million investment.

Internationally, “a vast majority of the palm oil sector is already committed to ZD,” she added. “By refusing to commit to ZD, Socfin is acting counter to the upward trend for progress launched in the palm oil sector.”

Socfin rejects Greenpeace’s claim. “We have developed our own zero deforestation policy,” said Pierre Bois d’Enghien, Head of Sustainability at Socfin. “Our approach is consistent with the WWF’s zero deforestation policy”. Socfin is also currently using UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) definitions, and having their methods approved by a number of development banks. “Greenpeace is upset because we have not used their own approach (HCS); but it must be noted that their approach is also criticized by others [including the new HCS+ study group].”

Korup National Park is one of the protected areas threatened by industrial oil palm expansion in Cameroon. Even if agribusiness observes the limits of the protected areas, development on adjacent land threatens the integrity of the forest within the park. Industrial agriculture attracts people to work in the plantations, resulting in increased hunting of animals for bushmeat. Photo © Joshua Linder

The FAO’s definition of a forest is land with at least 10 percent canopy cover. In this context, deforestation is the reduction of canopy cover below this already low threshold. The High Carbon Stock approach to zero deforestation promoted by Greenpeace incorporates the biodiversity, carbon, and social value of different forest types in order to identify areas where agricultural development would do the least harm, and minimize the carbon lost due to deforestation. The HCS+ approach extends this to make palm oil production carbon neutral, as well as ensuring better welfare and environmental standards.

Bois d’Enghien went on to explain that not only is Socfin awaiting a Proforest assessment regarding High Conservation Value areas in its Cameroon operations, but the company is already adhering to RSPO principles and criteria, despite not being certified, and is exploring the possibility of certification under the Sustainable Agriculture Network.

Greenpeace dismissed Socfin’s sustainability policy in a report: “If it were applied, this policy would not protect most of the tropical forests covered by Socfin plantations, and thereby not break the link between industrial plantations, deforestation and massive greenhouse gas emissions.”

How good is RSPO?

Even as some conservationists in Africa advocate for RSPO certification, it too remains a contentious issue. For palm oil to be certified as sustainable by the RSPO, growers must meet a number of standards and criteria, including a commitment to transparency, use of best practices, social responsibility, continued improvement, and a responsibility to the environment and biodiversity conservation.

Protected areas and great ape habitat in Cameroon. Figure 2.4 on page 53 from the State of the Apes: Industrial Agriculture and Ape Conservation © Cambridge University Press (2015)

The standard’s voluntary nature means that companies can simply choose not to comply, without penalty. That’s why the IUCN sees government enforcement of RSPO principles as being crucial for African oil palm expansion. “No oil palm company in Cameroon is a member of RSPO,” Halleson said, but the draft national sustainable palm oil strategy does make reference to RSPO, which “could go a long way in ensuring ape conservation.”

Asanga doesn’t agree: “It takes government policy to compel companies to adhere to RSPO standards, but the way things are going, government will not adopt such a stance. Besides, the process is expensive and it may not make sense to smallholders who may dominate in the near future.” He did concede that “In spite of its weaknesses, RSPO certification would contribute, albeit modestly, to great ape conservation in Cameroon.”

Joshua Linder, a biological anthropologist at James Madison University in the US, is unwilling to put any trust in RSPO. He has worked extensively in Cameroon over the past decade, and investigated Herakles’ operations there. “If every company operating in Africa becomes RSPO certified tomorrow, I’d bet we’d still lose vast areas of tropical forest from conversion to oil palm plantations,” he said, then added ironically, “But at least we’d feel better about ourselves, right?” Linder published a study highlighting the “rapidly emerging threat” of African oil palm expansion in 2013, and also contributed to the recent State of the Apes report on the same theme.

Three Lowland gorillas. The future of great apes in Cameroon greatly depends on conservationists, agribusiness and government creating, agreeing upon and implementing effective habitat protection standards. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

“I do think that we have to stop pretending that large scale, industrial oil palm plantations can be good for nature conservation,” he said. “There is no such thing as sustainably, industrially produced palm oil (at least in terms of ecology/environment) despite what the RSPO and large conservation organizations say. Let’s stop fooling the public.” He does acknowledge that RSPO implementation could see the worst oil palm plantation impacts and excesses reduced to some extent. “[B]ut let’s be very clear — it is bad for the environment and in many contexts, bad for local people.”

Linder proposes a more radical approach to reducing plantation impacts. Concession allocations should stop until “a transparent land-use planning process has designed strict criteria for the granting of new agro-industrial sites” in all ape-range countries, he said.

“Plantations should not be developed anywhere close to protected areas,” nor should they result in forest conversion, he added, reasoning that “at this point in human/Earth’s history, all tropical forest is of high conservation value.” Finally, “the issue of customary land tenure systems [among rural communities] in sub-Saharan Africa needs to be addressed in any national policy on the expansion of industrially produced palm oil,” he stated.

Wich sees RSPO as the only practical approach to forest preservation. “The RSPO is the only global system at the moment that can help all parties forward in this process. So I think we need to try to improve upon this system,” not reinvent the wheel.

“Within [the existing] system we can try to develop market chains that are sustainable. We can try to develop more transparency about oil palm plantation monitoring by satellites and drones.… We can try to [create] plantations that maintain [and manage] forests with apes [in them],” he urged. “But that will only happen if we can discuss things together and that can happen in the RSPO framework at a global level,” he concluded.

Linder concurs that certification in itself may hold some promise, just not in its current form. And other factors will be important. “If you want to see long-term [positive] impacts on ape conservation, then you need to be training local people to be the conservation leaders of tomorrow,” he contended. “[W]e need to be vigilant, on the ground wherever agribusinesses expand to ensure that they are not destroying tropical forest, and not ruining the lives of local people.”

One need only look to Asia and the devastating impacts of oil palm production on Great Ape habitat to understand the urgency of determining and implementing effective conservation standards in Africa. Action now, before the industry fully asserts itself on the continent and in Cameroon, could make all the difference. With political will and robust, transparent frameworks for sustainable agro-industry, the great apes of Africa may stand a far better chance than their orangutan cousins.



Dunn, A. et al. 2014. Revised regional action plan for the conservation of the Cross River Gorilla (Gorilla gorilla diehli): 2014–2019. IUCN/SSC Primate Specialist Group and Wildlife Conservation Society, New York, NY, USA.

Hoyle, D. and Levang, P. (2012) Oil Palm development in Cameroon. WWF Report.

IUCN (2014). Regional action plan for the conservation of western lowland gorillas and central chimpanzees 2015–2025. Gland, Switzerland: IUCN SSC Primate Specialist Group.

Linder, J.M. (2013) African primate diversity threatened by “new wave” of industrial oil palm expansion. African Primates 8:25-38

Nguiffo, S. and Sonkoue Watio, M. (2015) Agro-industrial investments in Cameroon: Large-scale land acquisitions since 2005. IIED, London.

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Wich, S.A. et al. (2014) Will oil palm’s homecoming spell doom for Africa’s great apes? Current Biology 24, 1659–1663