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Stick the words “palm oil” into google and a quick scan will paint a pretty bleak picture of what was once known as “the golden crop”. Facebook groups urge you to not buy products with oil palm in them (you’d be surprised how many products that is!). NGOs decry the spread of plantations. Newspapers run articles listing the ills of palm oil production. All of this might leave you a bit queasy about supporting another NGO that works so closely with palm oil. However, as with a lot of things on the internet, the story is a bit more complex than just “Palm oil? Oh that’s bad”.

blog post 2 - sunsetpalmsThere is no doubt that the concerns and issues raised about palm oil by the multitude of voices are legitimate and well founded. Yet there is nothing inherently bad about oil palm trees or plantations. However the same cannot necessarily be said for the people and companies that manage plantations and financially benefit from their expansion.

The issues surrounding palm oil are currently largely centred on Malaysia and Indonesia (where as much as 90% of the world’s palm oil is produced). But as demand for palm oil continues to increase – who doesn’t love cheap cosmetics or getting rid of trans fats in food? – it is important that the problems of South-East Asian plantations are not exported along with the trees.

Activists’ concerns fall into two broad categories: environmental – namely deforestation and it’s associated ills; and social – displacement of local populations and relations in general with native people. The approach of Seed Change and our partners to developing the industry in Kigoma tackles both issues head on and attempts to remove the possibility of SE Asian mistakes being repeated here in Kigoma in the future.

As this issue is long and complex and my attention span is short and simple, I have divided this post into two sections. This post will discuss the environmental issues and in the thrilling conclusion to “But wait…I thought palm oil was bad?” Part Two will look at the social issues.

So to the environment and deforestation… Many of the anti-palm oil campaigners point to the destruction of rainforest habitat for Orang-utans and the declining numbers of these gentle giants as a result. The way Seed Change helps our farmers avoid this issue is by operating in Africa, a naturally Orang-utan free continent. There is a 100%, watertight guarantee on all Kigoma palm oil to be orang-utan habitat destruction free; not one of our orange friends was even remotely put out by a Tanzanian farmer. But flippancy aside, the deforestation issue is a live one. And live on many fronts than just palm oil – urban sprawl and the need for more food production are just two others.

blog post 2 - villageAt the risk of massive oversimplification (a risk this blog post runs a few times), there are two major forms of deforestation – that committed by small-scale operators and that by large-scale companies. Both are destructive and both are increasing. Besides just knocking down trees, small-scale and large-scale deforestation shares a commonality in a desire to increase profits – just on a markedly different scale. Small-holders clear forest for free firewood or to expand their low intensity agriculture. Companies clear forest to ramp up their agricultural activities at an industrial scale. Individual effects are huge (and so are potential profits), but thankfully there are few perpetrators – small-holder individual effects are small (a shock I know; and their “profits” are small too), but there are many many thousands of them so the cumulative effect is large. Both types of deforestation need attention. As Seed Change’s operations are firmly focused on small-holder farmers we obviously have to address deforestation carried out by small-scale operators.

There are many NGOs and organisations who work directly with communities to teach how to monetise their forests rather than just clear the land. As far as I am aware, the number of organisations of this type that have achieved some success are still sadly quite small (for one good looking example see Mpingo Conservation & Development Initiative) and delivering comparable financial returns for conserving forests rather than clearing and using the land for something else remains a policy goal much more than a lived reality (I would love to hear of some examples of where this has happen). We are not a forestry conservation NGO per se, but there is no doubt that our work has the added benefit of reducing deforestation while improving farmers’ livelihoods. By greatly increasing the income derived from small existing farms, our work prevents deforestation by reducing farmers’ need to expand into new areas. They don’t need to clear forest in an effort to increase income by expanding the area they ineffectively farm. I would just note here that any forestry conservation organisation worth their salt (or bark) know that intensifying agriculture goes hand in hand with stopping deforestation.

Of course that leads to the question “Well won’t Seed Change small-holders just be incentivised to clear forest and plant high-yielding trees and make more money and clear more forest and plant more trees in a never ending spiral until Kigoma is de-nuded of trees?” And well the answer is, more or less, yes (although with the very strong caveat that the farmers in Kigoma are starting from such a low economic base it would take at least a generation to cause the kind of deforestation caused in a few months by large scale operators. And if the world doesn’t seriously tackle climate change in the next generation we could have much larger issues to deal with than the trees in Kigoma). Constant agricultural expansion is exactly what caused the vast swathes of forest across the globe to disappear over the last 150 years – from the US to Russia to Brazil to Australia; actually pretty much everywhere. The answer to stopping or preventing this is fiendishly hard to put into action – coherent, interdisciplinary land-use and economic development policy. Forest reserves need to be delineated and enforced but equally small-holders need to be able to earn a decent living from farming. To achieve both of these desirable outcomes the false dichotomy of conservation on one side and “progress” on the other must be avoided.

blog post 2 - kids with palmsWithout very severe land use restrictions (and possibly unenforceable given the number and spread of small-holders globally) the only way to stop deforestation in the long run, is to make it economically attractive – for small-holders and large companies alike – to not bulldoze trees. Seed Change does this by increasing farmers’ incomes from their existing lands. It is not oil palm trees that cause forests to be felled. It is the pursuit of the profits that palm oil can bring, just as it is other with all crops in other parts of the world (or houses in Atlanta). No one could seriously suggest that we fight climate change, largely a problem created by the now-affluent world, by actively holding those not lucky enough to be born in a wealthy country (that cleared it’s forests before we had a problem with clearing forests) in perpetual poverty – unless, I guess, if they were willing to join them in subsistence. Certainly some may say that if we don’t stop deforestation there may not be a world for the farmer to eventually live comfortably in but until a sustainable global market for forests comes into existence or governments start to place a higher priority on their forests than they currently do, deforestation – whether by crops or by suburbs – will continue. In the meantime out here in Kigoma we will continue to hold deforestation at bay by helping farmers extract more income from what they currently farm, leave all other trees standing, and support efforts at creating a global solution to this vexed global problem.

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