Communities lose out to oil palm plantations

by GRAIN | 22 Sep 2014

A scramble for lands | New frontiers for oil palm

Local communities can only lose from this new wave of land grabs for palm oil. They lose access to vital lands and water resources, now and for future generations. And they have to face all of the impacts that come with vast monoculture plantations within their territories – pollution from pesticides, soil erosion, deforestation, and labour migration. Experience also shows that the employment generated by the plantations often goes to outsiders, and that most of the jobs are seasonal, poorly paid, and dangerous. Certification schemes, such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), can only alleviate or postpone some of the worst excesses (See box: Why the RSPO facilitates land grabs for palm oil).

Villagers at the site of a new industrial oil palm plantation in Cameroon. (Photo: Greenpeace)

Experience also shows that the outgrower schemes, known as plasma programmes in Indonesia or nucleus estates in Africa, are not solutions. It has become standard practice for companies to offer to develop outgrower schemes on a portion of the lands within their concessions as part of their agreements with host governments. The farmers involved in these schemes have little control over production or the terms of payment, which are dictated by the company, leaving them vulnerable to all sorts of abuses. More than anything, the outgrower schemes are a means for the companies to capture supply and placate the local people who are ultimately being forced to give up control over their territories.

This is not to say that small scale palm oil production cannot support people's livelihoods. There are excellent examples from Honduras and West and Central Africa where small oil palm farmers have developed markets or organised cooperatives that provide them with a decent price for their production.1 But in these cases, the farmers have control over their lands and their farms, and they are not at the mercy of a single foreign or national company for the sale of their products. The current wave of plantations is a direct threat to these farmers-- taking away their lands and their local markets.

There is no demand justification for the expansion of oil palm plantations either. The growing global market for palm oil is not about resolving world hunger. It is mainly a product of new biofuel mandates and the substitution of cheap imported palm oil for locally produced oils and fats (whether animal or vegetable) in the production of processed foods by global corporations. People do not need more oil palm plantations; corporations do.

Why the RSPO facilitates land grabs for palm oil

Winnie Overbeek is the international coordinator of the World Rainforest Movement – an international network with a small secretariat in Uruguay that supports the struggles of communities and indigenous people who depend on tropical forests. He talked to GRAIN about his views on the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.

GRAIN: What is the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO)?

Winnie : The RSPO is an initiative that was founded in 2001. It is a partnership between the palm oil industry and a few NGOs - the WWF is a very important one. In my view, you can see it as a response of the palm oil industry to the conflicts and the environmental problems, especially deforestation, caused by the very fast expansion of the industry, especially in Indonesia and Malaysia, over the past 20 years.

The RSPO now has over 750 members and only 13 of them are NGOs, so the remaining 740 members are companies somehow related to the oil palm sector. You have palm growers, you have the palm oil processors and traders, you have the consumers' goods manufacturers, and some banks and investors. And in a process that is very similar to the Forest Stewardship Council certification system, the RSPO delivers certificates to palm oil producers, based on a set of principles and criteria approved by RSPO members. The RSPO states on its website that it has already certified about 1.6 million hectares of oil palm plantations as 'sustainable'. They call it "sustainable oil palm production", which is supposed to rest on legal, economically viable, environmentally appropriate and socially beneficial management practices.

GRAIN: In your experience working with communities, has the RSPO been a solution for them? Has it helped to make palm oil sustainable?

Winnie : It is true that the RSPO, according to some of the organisations we work with, has resulted in some benefits, and it is important also - I imagine it is for any certification scheme - that they can show some positive results. So, for example, they have been able to slow down deforestation a bit, or at least to make companies slow down their expansion rate. But it is also true that for those communities that have filed complaints to the RSPO, in Indonesia for example (the country with the most problems between communities and oil palm companies), none of these complaints have come to a satisfactory conclusion for the communities. And this is very worrisome, because the complaint mechanism is the last option to correct problems not solved in the certification procedure. If the complaints mechanism of the RSPO doesn't even function, what can we think of the whole certification process?

It's not easy for communities to access this complaint mechanism in the first place, and this has to do with the second point I want to make, which is the fact that the RSPO has been set up without any community participation. The RSPO has produced a number of procedures, of principles and criteria, and these are often very difficult for communities to understand. The language that they write these procedures in, even the complaint mechanism, is different from the language of the communities. I mean that they are written in a very technical way, not in a way that facilitates access to communities. It is written in the language of companies, consultants, scientists, and it is also the language of the NGOs that are participants, which are most often constituted of specialised workers with university degrees. They can easily understand the documentation. It is much more difficult for communities. This is a big advantage for the companies that are seeking a certification, and often a source of frustration for communities.

One example is how, within the certification process, they define forests that should not been planted with oil palm. They call them high conservation value forests (HCV), and they are determined by the identification of areas by consultants that are hired by the company - not by the communities. Most often, communities do not understand this concept because for them, their whole territory, oftenmade up of different forested areas that they use for many different things, like agroforestry, is important. All these different forested areas are very important for communities, and not just one single part of this area, like the RSPO proposes.

Another problematic aspect with the RSPO is that it's not an effective instrument to solve the increasing land grabbing problems in the global South, the planting of more monocultures for exports. It does not question the palm oil industry's logic of expanding plantations and markets. If this is not taken into account, how can there be talk of "sustainable" palm oil at the global level?

At the local level, there are two characteristics of plantations that are also not being questioned by the RSPO : their large scale and their monoculture production. These are two aspects that always have a lot of social, environmental, economic and cultural impacts. They require lots of pesticides and water, and they occupy a lot of territory that multiple people are living on - because they are most often settled on fertile land - so it is very problematic to call plantations that are large scale and monoculture "sustainable", and for us it's impossible. So when the RSPO puts a label on such projects, declaring them "sustainable", they give a false promise to consumers that the palm oil they consume is coming from a sustainable plantation, that it's benefiting people and benefiting the world. It's simply not true.

Clear cut to make way for an oil palm plantation in Sumatra, Indonesia. (Photo: H Dragon/Flickr)

A final important problem with the RSPO is that it is a mechanism, like other new trends like REDD+ , that is dividing us as a civil society formed by communities, social movements, and NGOs. Certification is being used as a tool to assist certain communities at certain times, while in other countries - or often in the same country - the same tool is being used to silence or overpower people and control their territory.

These mechanisms, like certifications or REDD+ projects, need therefore to be seen, to be understood in a broader context. We should reflect on our commitment to solidarity with those who are being abused by certification schemes and REDD+ projects. This is still, I think, not happening enough, and is very worrying. So now, for example, it's also a trend that mechanisms like RSPO and REDD+ are coming more together. The high conservation value forest areas I talked about earlier, that RSPO wants to protect, are now also being called "high carbon forests". This means that, eventually, a company certified by the RSPO could also sell carbon credits from its area, even as studies show that agrofuels produced from large scale, monoculture production can result in even more CO₂ emissions than using fossil fuels for energy generation.

Overall I think the limitations and the problems of the RSPO are much bigger and more significant than its benefits for communities, and I would say that the contrary is true for companies: I think they get much more benefit from the RSPO than what it costs them to put in. At the end of the day, companies get stronger with mechanisms like the RSPO and the struggle of communities to resist against landgrabbing, to defend their territories, gets more difficult.


Cameroonian activist risks prison for campaigning against a Wall Street land grabber

Nasako Besingi is a land grabber's worst nightmare. Nasako, a community organiser who runs an NGO called Struggle to Economise Future Environment (SEFE), interfered with an American corporation’s plan to get its hands on a large tract of land in southwestern Cameroon to produce palm oil.

Herakles Capital is a venture capital corporation headquartered in New York that has been using various tactics to acquire and develop oil palm plantations on over 80,000 hectares in West Africa and Central Africa. From the moment he heard about its plans for Cameroon, Nasako got down to researching the issue and raising awareness among the local populations as to the dangers associated with the project. As a result, resistance to Herakles has grown ‒ but at a very high cost to Nasako.

Nasako Besingi was travelling to a village to talk about Herakles' plans when he was ambushed by a group of men. (Screenshot: France24) “I first heard about the plantation project planned for our region from a government official in 2009,” he explains. “It was quite a shock. I responded, 'But there isn’t any land available here!'”

Later that year, during a meeting of the reigning political party, the region’s chiefs were asked to sign a blank piece of paper in exchange for 10,000 CFA francs. “None of them knew what they were signing,” said Nasako. “It was only later that we discovered that the document was used as proof of local consent for the plantation project.”

In 2010, the agreement between the government and the corporation became public, but it wasn’t very clear who was behind the project. “When discussing it locally they alluded to an American corporation, Sithe Global, but in official communication they referred to SCSOC, a company registered in Cameroon. It was as if they were trying to hide the true identity of the corporation,” explained Nasako. It was only after some time that it became clear that the corporation belongs to the American hedge fund Herakles Capital, which also owns Sithe Global.

An inside source gave Nasako a copy of the agreement.

“The agreement does not specify the area of the land concerned, nor the locations of any of the sites that were supposedly granted,” he points out. “But when the corporation showed up, it insisted that the land had been legally granted.”

SEFE held a meeting in August 2011 to get clarity on the proposed project. It invited all the affected villages, the government, and the corporation, but the corporation refused to participate.

“That’s when we realised they didn’t want to negotiate, they didn’t want anything to do with us,” recalls Nasako. “So we decided to pursue legal avenues.”

SEFE lodged a complaint against the corporation with the High Court of Justice for violations of domestic and international environmental and human rights law. The court ruled in favour of SEFE, concluding that Herakles did not have permission to operate in the region ‒ but that was not enough to discourage Herakles.

“The corporation ignored the court’s decision because it did not have the Prime Minister’s blessing,” said Nasako. “We considered the matter and we said: “If this corporation feels free to ignore a court decision, how can we expect them to listen to a bunch of poor villagers?”

So SEFE took its awareness-raising work to the next level. It held another large meeting in July 2012 in the village of Meangwe. In the days leading up to the meeting, agents of the corporation came to the villages to warn people not to attend.

“They told the villagers that the meeting was illegal and that people would be arrested if they attended,” says Nasako. “But that didn’t stop people from coming. It was the rainy season, yet more than 300 people came from all the villages concerned to take part in the meeting. For many of them, it was the first time they had heard of the project and the corporation.”

Nasako’s efforts nearly cost him his life. A month after the meeting, he was motorcycling to a village that had asked him to speak about Herakles’ plans when he was attacked by a group of men.

“They dragged me off the bike and started punching me,” Nasako remembers. “They were yelling at me, saying I was the one who had caused trouble for the corporation. I recognised them: they were lower-level managers of Herakles Farms.”

As luck would have it, a team of French journalists was not far behind Nasako that day. When their truck arrived, the men let go of Nasako and scattered.

Tensions between the corporation and the villagers continued to rise. But the corporation and the government continued to claim that the local populations approved of the proposed concession and to spread disinformation in the domestic and international media.

“A large majority of local people are opposed to what Herakles is doing, and we wanted the world to see that reality,” stresses Nasako.

At the request of the community, SEFE drew up an action plan. In November 2012, it produced hundreds of tee-shirts bearing the slogan: “No plantations on our land. SGSOC go home.” The plan was for the villagers to wear these T-shirts at the inaugural ceremony for the new regional prefect, and in that way to express their opposition to the Herakles plantations. But before the ceremony took place, a squadron of police and soldiers burst into SEFE’s offices, arresting Nasako and five villagers.

“They were trying to silence us and goad the villagers into violence,” states Nasako. “But we insisted that it was to be a peaceful demonstration and we urged people not to resist arrest, since that would just give them an excuse to make more arrests and file more complaints.”

Despite these bullying tactics, 400 people came to pick up the tee-shirts. While they were on their way to the ceremony, they were violently attacked and brutalised by police and soldiers, who prevented them from entering wearing the tee-shirts.

Nasako is still awaiting his court date and does not know the charges against him. The five others were arrested and charged with taking part in the organisation of an illicit public meeting.

Meanwhile, Herakles filed a separate complaint against Nasako, accusing him of defamation and suing him for damages and interest. This proceeding is also pending.

“I won’t be able to afford the damages if I lose,” says Nasako. “So in that case, I would have to go to prison.”

The risk of prison and the threats on his life have not managed to discourage Nasako. He is convinced that the communities are winning. Herakles Farms seems to be having financial problems now, and the government’s has forced the corporation to reduce the size of its project to 20,000 hectares.

But that’s not enough for SEFE and the villagers: they want to see the project canceled.

“We have to keep up our resistance,” cautions Nasako. “The corporation has been silent for a while, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. We can’t let down our guard until it is officially announced that the contract has been terminated. Other corporations are coming to the region. We know, for example, that Cargill is working with the international NGO Proforest to acquire land in a neighbouring district, just south of the project proposed by Herakles.”

A scramble for lands | New frontiers for oil palm



1 For examples from Honduras, see Tanya M. Kerssen, "Grabbing Power: The New Struggles for Land, Food and Democracy in Northern Honduras," FoodFirst, 1 February 2013; for examples from Africa, see World Rainforest Movement, “Oil palm in Africa: past, present and future scenarios,” 2010


Author: GRAIN
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