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Robert Steury

Undergraduate Researcher - Microbial and Molecular Pathgenesis, University of Oregon Institute of Ecology and Evolution

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How do we justify consumption of palm oil? What can we do to stop palm oil companies from destroying the African rainforest?

The Consequences of the Palm Oil Industry and African Primates

Primate communities in the African rainforest provide many ecosystem services and they are a critical source of protein for rural human populations. But primates are severely threatened by many activities including logging, development, agriculture, and overhunting for bushmeat and trophies. Rural Africans have little power (less than 2% of the rainforest is publically owned) over land that is increasingly sold to private companies by their governments.

Government of Cameroon recently offered Herakles Farms the use of 300 square miles of rainforest land at 50 cents per hectare per year, with exemptions; it even gave the company the power to "search, apprehend, detain, exclude, and evict” anyone trespassing on their leased land. The American corporation that promised to build sustainable development for local villages in the region started building roads and nurseries before any agreements were official. After 13 months, villagers realized Herakles didn't live up to their promises, so they seized the company’s equipment and nurseries. Now they await their government’s decision whether to allow Herakles to proceed or not. If Harakles’s oil palm plantation is allowed to proceed, it will majorly impact 45,000 indigenous people in 88 villages.

Africa is the next prime target of palm oil development. If this happens, Africa will likely experience the same fate as Asia in regards to deforestation and primate decimation. So, why palm oil? Palm oil is primarily used for household products. It’s farmed due to its low cost, superior production, low space requirements, and the promise of generating jobs. However, in light of the social and ecological impacts of palm oil farms in Africa, should these justifications satisfy consumers of palm oil products? Can consumers make decisions (e.g. petitions and product research) that will empower the indigenous peoples of Africa and protect the remaining biodiversity?


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    May 30 2013: I wrote a paper in a conservation bio class I took last year about palm oil plantations on Borneo. Indonesia and Malaysia provide 86% of the world's supply of palm oil with Indonesia being the world's main supplier. Here is a National Geographic article about deforestation in Borneo with an emphasis on palm oil plantations and orangutans. http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2008/11/borneo/white-text/1

    Here is a link to the photo gallery as well. It tends to make more of an impact when you can actually see the devastation. http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2008/11/borneo/klum-photography

    Here is a specific paragraph from the article I find interesting. It talks about the perspective of the locals: "When Meijaard spends time in villages discussing the choice between forest conservation and oil palm plantations, he never mentions orangutans. "People get bored with that in five minutes. To them it's just another monkey in a tree that Western people want to come and look at. But if I talk to them about fish in the rivers or pigs in the forest, then they pay attention, because those are resources they can harvest from the forest."

    Robert or Ryan: Do the locals around the Ivory Coast in Africa have the same view as those from Borneo?
    By same view I mean how do they view the local monkeys and apes? I believe a really important step in conservation is educating the locals on how important it is to conserve their natural setting while still allowing them to the freedom to harvest the resources they need.
    • May 30 2013: Thanks Laurel. I read the article and viewed the photos. The notion that "hungry people can't appreciate nature" or that "an orangutan is just another monkey" are not views that I encountered in my limited research. However, Ryan did his research in Tai National Park. He may have a first hand sense of this through talking with locals. I think that the Red Colobus in Ivory Coast is the best analogy for the chimpanzee in Borneo. Hopefully Ryan comments on this.
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      May 30 2013: I think the people in Ivory Coast feel the same way because they are not interested in primates for their aesthetic value, but they like what the forest has to offer them in the way of resources. The issue there is, they have never been educated on sustainable practices so most do not have any concept of extinction. Many people claim that when an area appears depleted of monkeys that the monkeys have simply "moved to another part of the forest". I do believe there could be ways to allow locals to utilize the forest, but we need to educate the people and also establish a system, which great management, to ensure sustainable practices are followed.
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        May 31 2013: Well, I tried really hard to find it but there was an article I once read about a country with a large population of endangered sea turtles in which a program was set up to teach the locals about how important conservation of the turtles was. The program was intended not only for education but if I remember correctly, it created paying jobs for the locals to protect the turtles in different ways (educate tourists, patrol the beaches, etc.) It ended up working really well and I believe they were able to stop the population decline. I'm sorry for the vagueness. If anyone knows the article/program I am talking about please post it!
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          May 31 2013: Well in cases where the community is educated and actively engaged you can see successful conservation results.


          Constant evaluation is also necessary to ensure conservation goals are met and the socio-economic benefits remain for those involved.
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          May 31 2013: In conservation bio we learned that the more you can involve local inhabitants into a plan, the more likely it is to be successful. It is nice to see a real example of where this is being implemented and the positive results that have come from it.

          However, it looks like the Namibian government played a big role in the success of this process. Do you think the government of Cameroon will be as likely to have the same interest in benefiting its citizens and wildlife?
      • May 31 2013: Perhaps not. Historically resource rich countries do not always follow sustainable growth plans in the interest of personal enrichment which often leads to corruption in the government and further explotation of natural resources without regard to the long term impact.

        If the government of Cameroon supports the Herakles Farms against the wishes of the locales in the area who have since halted the development of such plantations. This would then suggest that a bigger problem of needing to work with the government of Cameroon to explain the short term benefit versus long term losses the country may experience if they uphold such a contract. Other African countries such as Botswana have renegotiated contracts with private (in this case mining) companies:


        I think it is important to help countries such as Cameroon in assessing the value of its natural resources to the benefit of all in its borders (wildlife included) to help it develop in a more sustainable matter so that this concept of "Resource Curse" dissipates
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      May 30 2013: Hi Laurel- Wow, you're right, those pictures are really powerful. thanks for posting the link.

      On a brighter note, while I was researching for our presentation I came across some information about collaborative efforts to protect wildlife in Sarawak, Borneo.
      They have been developing what is known as the "Master Plan For Wildlife in Sarawak", and it includes dedicating more land to protected areas, educational programs, and regulating shot gun cartridge availability and wildlife transport in logged areas.

      Here's a link to a brief summary of it. It talked about hunting and logging, but unfortunately I didn't see anything about palm oil regulations or reductions

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