Conservation news

Seven African countries pledge to protect their tropical forests from unsustainable oil palm development

  • Together, those seven countries comprise more than 250 million hectares (about 618 million acres) of tropical forest, 70 percent of the tropical forests in Africa and 13 percent of the world’s total.
  • Global demand for palm oil has skyrocketed over the past several years, and Africa is expected to be the next big expansion opportunity for the industry.
  • Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, co-chair of the International Indigenous People’s Forum on Climate Change, the indigenous peoples’ caucus to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), said the declaration would protect the livelihoods of local and indigenous communities.

Seven oil palm-growing African nations pledged today to protect their tropical forests by shifting to sustainable palm oil production.

The TFA 2020 Marrakesh Declaration for the Sustainable Development of the Oil Palm Sector in Africa was signed by the governments of the Central African Republic, Côte d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, Liberia, the Republic of Congo, and Sierra Leone at the UN Climate Summit (COP22) in Marrakesh, Morocco.

Together, those seven countries comprise more than 250 million hectares (about 618 million acres) of tropical forest, 70 percent of the tropical forests in Africa and 13 percent of the world’s total. Global demand for palm oil has skyrocketed over the past several years, and Africa is expected to be the next big expansion opportunity for the industry.

The vast majority of the world’s palm oil is produced in Indonesia and Malaysia, but a significant amount of oil palm is grown in South America, as well. The spike in palm oil production has been linked to high rates of deforestation. According to a recent study, Southeast Asia accounted for 45 percent of deforestation for oil palm expansion between 1989 and 2013, while South America accounted for just over 30 percent. Most oil palm is grown in areas that were once highly biodiverse and carbon-rich rainforests, due largely to the fact that the crop’s natural range is limited to the humid tropics.

The global palm oil industry is worth $50 billion annually, by some estimates, and is projected to grow to $88 billion a year by 2022. Africa’s palm oil sector has the potential to deliver a much-needed economic boost to the region, but it also brings the risk of significant deforestation and the destruction of other high conservation value landscapes as well as social problems like land conflicts and human rights abuses.

Oil palm fruits. Photo by Rhett Butler.

The declaration signed by the African nations today states that the countries are committing themselves to “Work with partners, including the Tropical Forest Alliance 2020, to fully implement national action plans for sustainable oil palm sector development that take account of the ambitious development plans of countries in Africa, while addressing both environmental targets for reduced deforestation and low carbon development, respecting national land use plans and also important social indicators such as land tenure and the rights of local communities and indigenous peoples.”

The Marrakesh Declaration is part of an ongoing public-private partnership in Africa called the Tropical Forest Alliance 2020 Africa Palm Oil Initiative (APOI). As the official coordinator of the APOI, UK-based NGO Proforest helped lead the process that culminated in a set of principles for sustainable oil palm development in West and Central Africa that formed the foundation of the declaration.

“During the initial development phases of the APOI, the technical work has mainly been about engaging government and other partners and facilitation of a process to agree national-level principles,” Abraham Baffoe, Proforest’s Africa Regional Director, told Mongabay. “We have overseen a series of multi-stakeholder national and regional workshops which has been the primary vehicle for government, civil society, community and indigenous groups, and private sector stakeholders to come together to discuss the challenges and issues of palm oil production in their countries in order to agree these national and regional principles.”

Baffoe added: “It has been important that the process is rooted in a deep and practical understanding of both the region and the sector.”

Governments, companies, civil society welcome the Marrakesh Declaration

Several members of the Tropical Forest Alliance 2020 (TFA 2020), a global public-private partnership that brings together more than 80 governmental bodies, private sector companies, and civil society organizations to work together on reducing deforestation related to the production of commodities such as beef, palm oil, pulp and paper, and soy, issued a joint statement applauding the signing of the declaration.

“The Marrakesh Declaration sends an important signal to market actors that will help accelerate the implementation of voluntary commitments to remove deforestation from palm oil supply chains,” according to the statement.

Global demand for agricultural commodities has become an increasingly important driver of land use change and tropical deforestation, which in turn drive massive amounts of carbon emissions. A December 2015 study found that, between 2000 and 2011, an average deforestation area of 3.8 million hectare (9.4 million acres) and land use change emissions of 1.6 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent was embodied in the production of the four commodities TFA 2020 is focused on — beef, soy, palm oil, and wood products (which includes pulp and paper) — in seven key tropical forest countries.

That’s 40 percent of total tropical deforestation and 44 percent of associated carbon emissions over that time period — from the production of just those four commodities in seven countries.

But Dominic Waughray of the World Economic Forum, which hosts the secretariat of TFA 2020, said that the Marrakesh Declaration shows that commitments by businesses to remove deforestation from their palm oil supply chains are transforming the global market.

“These governments recognize the significant market signal that global businesses are providing through their desire to source sustainable palm oil at scale,” Waughray said in a statement. “Through this unprecedented agreement, the Africa Palm Oil Initiative — with support from the private sector and civil society through the platform of the Tropical Forest Alliance — is now well-positioned to build a multi-country market for sustainable palm oil across West and Central Africa that will improve smallholder incomes and drive greater action on tropical deforestation.”

Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, a major purchaser of palm oil and a TFA 2020 partner, said that he too welcomed the signing of the Marrakesh Declaration. “Palm oil, if produced sustainably, can play a key role in poverty alleviation by helping farmers thrive economically while adopting sustainable agricultural and business practices,” Polman said in a statement. “I am pleased that these countries are demonstrating their commitment to sustainable palm oil by signing the Marrakesh Declaration.”

Governments and civil society partners of TFA 2020 also issued statements saying they were encouraged by the declaration. For instance, Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, co-chair of the International Indigenous People’s Forum on Climate Change, the indigenous peoples’ caucus to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), said the declaration would protect the livelihoods of local and indigenous communities.

“Deforestation has often been linked to human rights violations,” Ibrahim said in a statement. “People are losing access to the land they have always lived on and farmed. I hope this declaration will be an example to the rest of the region and encourage other tropical forest African countries to follow in the commitment.”

Tropical Forest Alliance 2020

There is a huge opportunity to mitigate global warming and rein in tropical deforestation by transforming agricultural commodities into deforestation-free commodities. But that is no small task: “Supply chains are vast, complicated intricate things with a lot of moving parts and players,” Kevin Rabinovitch, the Global Director of Sustainability for candy and food giant Mars, said during the UN climate talks in Paris last December. “They are more like webs than chains.”

TFA 2020 was founded in 2012 at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to tackle this large and complex issue. TFA 2020 was essentially a response to the commitment to achieve zero net deforestation in beef, palm oil, soy, and wood products supply chains by 2020 made by the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF), a network of about 400 consumer goods companies.

“In 2010 consumer good companies that were part of the Consumer Goods Forum made a commitment to achieve zero net deforestation by 2020, and out of these commitments and discussions between the US government and CGF, who sought ways to deliver deforestation-free solutions that spur economic growth and food security, developed an alliance structured to do just that — the Tropical Forest Alliance 2020,” Anna Kopacz, a communication and digital engagement specialist with TFA 2020, told Mongabay.

The members of TFA 2020 use the platform to exchange ideas and experiences, and identify areas where they can work together — in large or smaller groups — with the goal of building sustainable supply chains, Kopacz added.

The TFA 2020 secretariat has been headquartered at the World Economic Forum offices in Geneva, Switzerland since June 2015, and is financially supported by the governments of Norway and the United Kingdom.

“Fundamentally, TFA 2020 has been developed with a mandate to bring together key partners across sectors to help achieve deforestation-free supply chains,” Kopacz said. “In many ways this actually means bringing individuals who represent organizations or governments into a common space — whether this is in-person at events and meetings, on monthly conference calls, or even on a digital space that enables easy and accessible collaboration.”

But bringing all of the different players and stakeholders in the global palm oil supply chain into one room is only a part of the work TFA 2020 does, Kopacz explained: “The other component is aligning them and their understanding — what are the needs and challenges of each of the players, what do they need from each other and how, together, do they halt deforestation.” It also requires knowledge-sharing through access to data and tools that TFA 2020 makes available to its member organizations.

“Members of the TFA 2020 have joined the alliance not because they need convincing of the dangers of continued deforestation,” Kopacz said, “they’ve joined because they know that forests are essential to our economic growth and that we can no longer continue business as usual, and if we want to achieve transformation we can only do it through partnerships. Silos will get us nowhere.”

Oil palm plantation and rainforest in Borneo. Photo by Rhett Butler.

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