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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 29 2013: The trouble is that companies like Herakles Farm falsely market and publicly campaign to apparently meet sustainability criteria. In this way they get past governmental red tape. Once having gained a foothold on the land and once having formed a trust with community members, these companies quickly clear land and install plantations with little to no regard for the verbal agreements they make with people. These people generally do not understand legal processes and are naturally blindsided by this.

    Here are links to the companies owned by the same entrepreneur, Bruce Wrobel, who owns Herakles Farm.

    Herakles Farms Website http://heraklesfarms.com/

    Herakles Farms is partnered with the nonprofit, All for Africa, which funds projects focused on agriculture, clean water, community health, education, energy, environmental impact, micro-financing and skills training/livelihood creation.

    All For Africa Website http://www.allforafrica.org/

    In viewing these websites, it is plain that many would and have been persuaded by this cunning.

    Bruce and his associates also operate Sithe Global, a multinational conglomerate that is responsible for the controversial $860 million Bujagali Hydroelectric Project on the Nile River in Uganda and SEACOM, East Africa's first international fiber-optic connection to the rest of the world. They have been at this game for thirty years and have mastered their approach.
    Sithe Global Website http://www.sitheglobal.com/

    Herakles Farm is not some non-prof eco-entrepreneurial company with intentions of sustainability and partnership with community members, this is a world economic power that seeks to generate more profit for its stakeholders, a priori.
    • May 31 2013: On the link you provided, allforafrica.org, there is an “open letter” from Bruce Wrobel, the CEO of Herakles Farms in response to the Oakland Institute’s September 2012 report. Much of the letter is devoted to talking up Herakles Farm and its partners, or trying to discredit those who oppose them. Wrobel repeatedly calls himself and his supporters environmentalists but doesn’t demonstrate many ways in which they have supported environmental causes. That, however, does not seem to be their mission. They are supposedly more concerned with helping combat the problem of poverty. He provides examples of when Herakles Capital has helped struggling communities by providing access to modern technology and stimulating economic growth. Herakles farms is, according to Wrobel, already an economic boon for the people and he disputes the claim that they do not have public support. However, this letter smacks of a public relations effort.

      He address the environmental impact the plantation would have, saying that they conducted studies and did impact assessments in the area to determine how to proceed in an environmentally friendly way (I have a feeling these were not peer-reviewed studies). He also notes that the wildlife parks surrounding the area have not provided the local economy with the promised tourism income, and that poaching in these parks is a huge problem fueled by this reality of scarce economic opportunity. He argues that Herakles Farms will bring in revenue that can be used to better serve the parks.

      I do think Wrobel, whatever his true motivation, raised some interesting points in this letter that should be given more thought by both sides. I think social causes are often not given proper consideration by environmentalists and vice versa. A solution cannot be sustainable until both human and environmental needs are met in some way. The hard part is figuring out how.
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        May 31 2013: One thing to understand Chelsea, is that if you clear the forests to make way for palm oil and bring in money for the people (not all will benefit - see Borneo and Sumatra), people lose farm land. There is little evidence to show that people will not stop hunting simply because some people have jobs. Having jobs plus farms and alternative forms of protein will be the key. For example, in Rwanda tourism to see mountain gorillas has brought in millions of dollars to the country, but hunting and deforestation are still an issue because everyone does not benefit. Herakles will not benefit everyone, they are engaged in an industry that has shown very little ability to prevent negative environment effects. Another point about the wildlife is that with hunting so rampant in the national parks, to eliminate the adjacent forest areas would only exacerbate the hunting pressures in the national park. These companies stand to make 100's of millions if not billions, so if they care about the environment like they claim, front the money to ensure protection in those areas and that all the sustainability requirements will be met. The thing is they haven't and they won't because they will say what they want to get their cheap land contracts. For more on this, feel free to talk with Josh Linder at JMU. He's a primatologist who works in this region and has been dealing with Herakles every step of the way.
        • May 31 2013: Those are great points. It’s also true that the problem with the jobs provided by outside corporations or tourism are not necessarily permanent. If the demand for palm oil goes down and the money dries up, or if some event occurs where tourists are no longer interested in visiting that country, the people would be stranded and their land would now be unusable.

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