by Ewelina Łukasik-Morawska, Engagement Manager at GES
Before leaving your home today, you had more than likely eaten this oil and probably even washed with it. Palm oil is the most widely used vegetable oil and with a constantly increasing demand it is a profitable business worth USD 50 billion a year, with a potential to reach USD 88 billion by 2020.
In response to growing global demand, companies are looking for ways to increase production. Malaysia and Indonesia have tried to achieve this through increasing the yields produced per hectare, typically through management of the plantations. Some believe, however, that yield improvements will only make palm oil more competitive compared to other crops, attracting more production and potentially raising the risk of deforestation in the tropics. With limited potential for further expansion in Malaysia and Indonesia, companies are now looking elsewhere in the tropics for extensive areas that can be converted to oil palm plantations. Africa, and to some extent South and Central America, are now attracting much of this attention. Currently, oil palm is grown commercially in eleven countries in Africa: Angola, Benin, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, DR Congo, Ghana, Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Togo. There are no continent-wide data on areas covered by oil palm for Africa. However, the recent increase in improper land acquisitions in several countries shows that the interest of industry is set to expand in Africa.
African forests that lack formal protection are at great risk, but the emerging palm oil market carries great opportunity. The Marrakesh Declaration, signed last November by seven African countries at the United Nations Climate Change conference, indicates that some lessons have been learnt from how unregulated agricultural expansion may impact tropical forests. The signatories have committed themselves to protecting their forests by creating national plans to produce palm oil in a sustainable way, contributing to growth while tackling deforestation and respecting human rights.
If sustainable practices are built into the industry as it expands, then there will be a higher chance of economic and development goals being met without having a significant negative impact on biodiversity. The authorities, along with conservation organisations on the ground, can learn from the ecological devastation in Southeast Asia 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. However, top-down commitments don’t always translate into changed practice on the ground; that is why African governments should also promote sustainable practices with smallholders.
 Belenki, M., and M. Wolosin. 2015. From habitat to plantation: Causes of conversion in sub-Saharan Africa. State of the Apes: Industrial Agriculture and Ape Conservation. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.
 Carrere, R. 2013. Oil palm in Africa: Past, present and future scenarios. World Rainforest Movement. ; https://news.mongabay.com/2016/04/palm-oils-new-frontier-averting-a-great-ape-catastrophe-in-cameroon/