- The World Rainforest Movement claims that the Olam oil palm operations in Gabon do not respect the voluntary commitments to zero deforestation and fail the local communities.
- Olam says that his plantations are fully sustainable and have been developed in full cooperation with the local population.
- The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is expected to investigate the sustainability of the plantations this year following a separate complaint filed in 2016.
The World Rainforest Movement (WRM) has accused Singapore-based agri-food company Olam of making meaningless “zero deforestation” promises regarding a major oil palm development in Gabon and neglecting the rights of local communities.
In a report published last month, the WRM also indicates that Olam is not honoring commitments made to villagers in Ngounie province, in the south-central region, before the creation of tens of thousands of hectares of new oil palm plantations.
Oil Palm Gabon, a joint venture between Olam and the government of Gabon created in 2011, has total concessions of 144,000 hectares (355,800 acres); 56,000 ha (138,400 acres) have been planted with oil palms and 72,000 ha (177,900 acres) permanently protected. No new plantations have been developed since 2017 and there are currently no plans for more, said Olam.
Forest clearance for oil palm by Olam, in Kango, Gabon. Image of Alexander De Marcq.
WRM claims that Olam’s claims of having high conservation or high carbon value protected forests and having planted only on mapped sites such as “grassland, secondary regrowth or degraded forest areas” are false.
“In fact, Olam hired a logging company to cut timber of any commercial value,” said WRM, “[and] the profits generated were then shared between the forestry company, the Gabonese State and the communities. Oil palm plantations could then develop on these “degraded” lands.
Olam said the allegations raised in the report are “factually inaccurate and false”.
Olam Group chief external affairs officer Steve Fairbairn said WRM appeared to have confused what he described as a “rescue benefit to local communities” with commercial exploitation.
The degradation is the result of repeated timber harvesting cycles repeated over decades by other companies, he told Mongabay, although Olam recovered “low-quality marketable timber that had been overlooked by loggers.” ” Olam made no profit from these sales, said Fairbairn.
WRM said there was no way to verify Olam’s account as to when and by whom the land was originally mined, as it withholds documents that can establish the evidence beyond a doubt.
The WRM report, which was produced in collaboration with a Gabonese NGO, Muyissi Environment, also cites many anonymous villagers describing the impacts, including the destruction of areas where villagers previously collected fruits and medicinal plants, the fragmentation of habitats leading to an increase in conflicts with elephants, and contamination of water sources by agrochemicals used in plantations.
The report said that access to a forest was restricted after Olam adopted its zero deforestation policy in 2017. Other villagers told researchers that the roads are controlled by checkpoints, where the guards do not pass only those who have permits issued by the company. “If an Olam security officer finds you in possession of something you have hunted or tools used for fishing, he will confiscate the meat or expel us from the places we traditionally use,” said one villager.
The report indicates that women are particularly affected because fishing is a traditional activity for them. “The OLAM people have damaged our waters and we often catch them defecating in the lakes that still exist,” said a woman to the researchers.
The WRM said it was necessary to keep the contributions of the villagers anonymous to protect their identity. “We did this for several years when producing reports that exposed a particular company, like Olam,” said international coordinator Winnie Overbeek.
Fairbairn told Mongabay that she maintains regular dialogue with residents of 60 villages near her plantations. The plantations are part of a process aimed at carefully balancing Gabon’s development needs with the need to conserve the country’s unique forests, according to the company.
“Given the number of villages and thousands of people in the area, there may be individuals who feel frustrated by the decisions of the majority, or who can repeat questions and problems that have already been resolved, and well Sure, some community members will legitimately raise new issues, ”said Fairbairn. “However, we believe that the views expressed in the report are not a balanced representation of the views of the wider community.”
Lee White, Gabonese Minister of Water and Forests, also rejected WRM’s findings, saying that Olam has complied with the standards of the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) and should have certification 100% by next year. Peer-reviewed studies have shown that Olam palm groves are carbon neutral, while Gabon, with 88% forest cover, has an overall deforestation rate of only 0.025%, he said.
It is not the first time that Olam’s activities in Gabon have been highlighted. A report produced by Mighty Earth and the Gabonese NGO Brainforest in 2016 accused the company of sourcing palm oil from suppliers who had cleared 20,000 ha (49,400 acres) of forest to create plantations since 2012. Mighty Earth has filed a complaint with the Forest Stewardship Council. (FSC), with which Olam has a “policy of association”, but this was suspended during the ongoing discussions between the two parties.
“Olam was initially not very happy with the report,” said Phil Aikman, campaign manager for Mighty Earth, “but after various interactions with the company and its shareholders, they agreed to a moratorium on further compensation. in palm oil and rubber operations. “
Aikman says that the FSC complaint should be investigated in the coming months. A panel appointed by the FSC will examine the amount of forest cleared; whether it had a high conservation value or, as Olam says, degraded secondary forests; and what has been the impact on local communities. This last aspect will be difficult to demonstrate objectively, he adds.
“These are common problems in the Congo,” says Aikman. “It is not because they have reached an agreement with a village chief that everyone is happy. With the development of palm oil, some communities think it is a good idea but do not realize the impacts it will have. WRM has produced a useful report which should be evaluated by the BOI. “
The WRM says that voluntary deforestation commitments, such as those made by Olam, rarely work because they give the impression that an industry is properly regulated and that something is being done to reduce its impact on the environment. “They allow destructive activities to continue and expand, divide communities, weaken resistance and allow those responsible for deforestation and land grabbing to operate with impunity,” said WRM to Mongabay in an email.
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Banner image: Oil palm fruits. Image of Dave Barce via Wikicommons (CC BY-SA 4.0)