Congo oil palm development threat shows need to put forest communities on the map

As half a million hectares of Congo Basin rainforest is actively being cleared to make room for oil palm plantations and – according to Seeds of Destruction, a new report published by the RFUK – with as much as 115 million hectares being deemed suitable for future palm oil cultivation, the need for careful planning of the use of forest land becomes all the more critical. Several new plantations have already met stern resistance from local people. The State formally owns the land and is legally entitled to allocate it, but local communities living on that land may have extensive customary tenure claims.  Local communities may want the jobs, income and services such as roads, health and education which palm oil developers promise to bring, but they do not want to lose their links to the forest.

Some forest dwellers, such as indigenous “Pygmy” people may be present in large numbers, using vast territories for their nomadic and semi-nomadic lifestyles, but completely absent from government censuses, maps and planning documents.  Even Bantu farming settlements may only appear as villages on official maps, with no recognition of the extensive lands such communities use for rotational forest farming. As a result, the developers of palm oil or other agro-industrial schemes can find that what appeared from official maps to be largely empty and unused lands turn out to be heavily populated, with much of the land already put to some use or under customary arrangements.  This can bring developers great uncertainty about their relationship with local communities, along with high unforeseen costs – and potentially years of conflict.

Seeds of Destruction reveals that land for a number of large palm oil developments has already been cleared, without the free, prior and informed consent of the people who live on it. Oil palm is native to the Congo Basin, and is already grown widely by local communities for subsistence purposes. Potentially, commercial production could be greatly expanded without incurring the kinds of environmental and social costs that have occurred in countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia. But this would require much more careful assessment of existing local rights, claims and usage of forest areas, strengthening of community rights, and identification of truly degraded and underused land.

Simon Counsell of the RFUK said that “Government agencies should develop the means to systematically map and recognise both the statutory and customary tenure conditions within any potential palm oil development area, prior to approval of projects.  Careful analysis of existing livelihood systems need to be made prior to approval of projects.”