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In West and Central Africa, palm oil investors buckle under community pressure

A woman harvests palm fruit in a village near Equatorial Palm Oil's former concession in Grand Bassa, Liberia. Image courtesy of the Open Government Partnership via Flickr, Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).

A woman harvests palm fruit in a village near Equatorial Palm Oil's former concession in Grand Bassa, Liberia. Image courtesy of the Open Government Partnership via Flickr, Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).

  • In the late 2000s, a commodity boom spurred a rush of land deals in West and Central Africa for palm oil development, raising fears of deforestation and land grabbing.
  • A new report by the financial risk analyst Chain Reaction Research says most of the deals have since failed, with 27 representing 1.37 million hectares (3.39 million acres) of land having been outright abandoned
  • Researchers say that cross-border campaigning and resistance by community land rights organizations is a major reason why the industry has faltered in Africa.

When commodity prices spiked in the late 2000s, multinational agribusiness giants smelled profits. Eager to branch out of crowded Southeast Asian rainforests, some palm oil companies set their sights on Africa, where governments in countries like Sierra Leone, Liberia, Cameroon, and Côte d’Ivoire assured them that they had land to spare. In just a few years, deal after deal was inked, with companies from across the world suddenly holding the rights to huge tracts of West and Central African land. For the palm oil industry, an exciting new frontier was opening up at a breakneck pace.

But far away from the champagne being popped at signing ceremonies was an inconvenient reality: the land they’d leased wasn’t, as some governments had claimed, “unencumbered.” It was instead home to tens of thousands of farmers and other rural villagers.

Now, an analysis by Chain Reaction Research, a Washington, D.C.-based financial risk analyst, says that just over a decade later, many of the deals have collapsed in the face of organizing and campaigning by those farmers. Between 2008 and 2019, 27 palm oil projects that were to have covered 1.37 million hectares (3.39 million acres) of land have either “failed or been abandoned” in the region, and of the remaining 2.7 million hectares (6.7 million acres) of forest currently under concession, less than 10% has been converted into plantations.

“I think there was this idea of cheap, abundant lands and less strict regulations, but apparently they missed the kind of resistance they would meet from local communities,” said Sarah Drost, one of the report’s authors.

In some countries, the discrepancy between the amount of land that was initially given out to foreign investors and what they were able to develop was striking. Liberia, for example, inked deals for around 750,000 hectares (1.85 million acres) with companies from Indonesia, Malaysia and the U.K. But as of 2019, only 54,000 hectares (133,400 acres) had been cleared and planted with seedlings — about 7% of the total.

Researchers say there was a litany of reasons why the plantation ventures failed. Some companies didn’t have experience developing unrealistically vast concessions. Others found themselves limited by deforestation pledges they had made under pressure from investors. But the biggest obstacle many faced was one few seemed to anticipate: strong, relentless campaigning by agrarian communities and land defenders.

“They were going into places where there were communities living there and who weren’t just going to step away from their lands,” said Devlin Kuyek, a researcher with GRAIN, who provided much of the data for the report. “They didn’t seem to understand the kind of resistance they would meet.”

In Cameroon, for example, U.S.-based agribusiness Herakles Farms all but abandoned its 73,086-hectare (180,600-acre) concession after years of conflict with communities. And in Liberia, a small cluster of villages successfully forced U.K. firm EPO to back off despite violence by local police and company security forces. In 2019, Malaysian conglomerate Sime Darby sold its 220,000-hectare (543,600-acre) concession at a loss just 10 years after signing a 63-year-long contract.

Community activists at a press conference in rural Liberia look out at land cleared by Malaysian palm oil investor Sime Darby in 2012. Photo by Ashoka Mukpo.

Aminata Fabba, chair of the Malen Affected Landowners Association in Sierra Leone, is one of the West African land defenders who’s spent years facing down a palm oil investor. In 2011, the French-Belgian agribusiness giant Socfin signed a 50-year lease to develop a plantation in the country’s forested southern district of Pujehun. Fabba said it didn’t take long for communities in the area to grow angry at what she described as Socfin’s broken promises.

“They promised them they would build schools, hospitals, give them drinking water and community centers, but all these things were never met by the company,” she told Mongabay.

In a pattern familiar to palm oil investors hoping to expand across the region, local civil society groups held training workshops and helped Fabba and communities in Pujehun organize and plan campaigns. Advocacy groups in Europe and the U.S. used their communications prowess and fundraising capacity to boost the campaign and put pressure on Socfin from abroad.

“[Civil society groups] and human rights defenders started visiting these communities and teaching them even about our own laws about land rights, and it built up their resistance,” Fabba said.

Kuyek said that in addition to the help from outside the continent, community advocates developed cross-border networks that shared information and strategic advice with each another.

“There’s solidarity between African communities, even within a country. And I think that’s really important for communities to exchange with other communities and share their experiences, so they see that they’re not alone and feel part of a larger struggle,” he said.

Still, despite the slow pace of land development and withdrawal of some of the companies that were at the forefront of the initial rush into Africa, most of the concessions still exist on paper. According to Chain Reaction Research, more than 450,000 hectares (1.11 million acres) of large-scale industrial palm plantations are operational on the continent. More than 300,000 hectares (741,300 acres) of them are owned by just five companies: Socfin, Wilmar, Olam, Siat, and Straight KKM.

Socfin is the largest industrial palm oil producer in Africa, with nearly 100,000 hectares (247,000 acres) planted in seven countries. Nearly all of its operations have been the target of heavy criticism and campaigning by community organizations and environmental advocacy groups. Last year, Socfin was accused of dodging taxes in Africa by shifting sales and profits to its subsidiaries in Europe.

The report also said that Nigeria’s forested Edo state has recently seen a rush of interest by foreign investors, as the powerful West African nation looks to ramp up production, partially by opening up Edo’s forest reserves to palm oil development.

“With a very supportive government that’s looking out for the interests of the larger palm plantation owners, I think this is a risk for the remaining state forests,” Drost said.

Drost and her colleagues also used publicly available mill data to trace purchases of palm oil from Africa to international buyers. Nestlé, General Mills, Avon and Bunge were among the companies said to have bought the commodity from Sofcin’s plantations on the continent.

“I don’t think there’s a lot of knowledge on who is actually buying from Africa, and the reason is because trade data is very limited and unreliable,” Drost said.

For Fabba, the successes that other West and Central African communities have had in blocking palm oil companies from expanding is encouraging, but also frustrating. Despite years of campaigning, her community’s land is still in Socfin’s control.

“It’s bittersweet because we’ve not achieved the goal of getting back the land,” she said. “The community people are asking for their lands, but it has not been achieved.”

Banner image: A woman harvests palm fruit in a village near Equatorial Palm Oil’s former concession in Grand Bassa, Liberia. Image courtesy of the Open Government Partnership via Flickr, Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).