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Cameroon: From Africa’s Palms l People and Power | 26 Feb 2015

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Film by Nidhi Dutt and Daniel Boaden

People & Power investigates the environmental consequences of palm oil plantations in equatorial Africa.

There are few products so ubiquitous as palm oil. You can find its derivatives in chocolate, shampoo, toothpaste, detergent, ice cream, floor polish and a host of other products filling supermarket shelves.

Extracted from the fruit of the tropically-grown oil palm tree (Elaeis guineensis), it has become so versatile and sought after that the growing economies of Indonesia and Malaysia, the world's two largest producers, make some $40bn a year from its production and export.

Given that by 2020 global demand for palm oil is expected to double and then triple by 2050, it is no wonder that other developing countries, especially in sub-Saharan West Africa where the tree originates, have been looking enviously at Southeast Asia and hoping to emulate that success.

But palm oil cultivation does not come cost-free. If not done sustainably, say conservationists, it can have disastrous consequences for people and the environment. In Indonesia, for example, it has played a major role in deforestation which has seen the loss of more than 6 million hectares of primary forest over the last 15 years.

As rainforests are home to least half of this planet's species of plants, animals and insects, the negative impact on global biodiversity can only be imagined. In addition, indigenous communities are also destroyed as people who have lived happily off the forest's resources for generations, often do not own the land (at least not in a form recognised by governments, corporations and their lawyers) and are frequently displaced to make way for new plantations.

Boosting Cameroon's economy
It is against this background that the Central and West African state of Cameroon has been trying to get a palm oil industry off - or rather into - the ground. Its President Paul Biya, who has held office since 1982, has been looking for ways to give Cameroon's economy a boost.

His country is not as poverty-stricken as some on the continent. It has some modest oil resources and favourable conditions for agriculture and is comparatively stable politically, but it is not immune from many of the problems associated with developing nations, from chronically high unemployment and an inequitable distribution of income to corruption and inadequate public infrastructure.

Cameroon is also over-reliant on imports, which makes it susceptible to rising prices and food insecurity. According to the UN, more than 40 percent of the population are living under the poverty line, while over one-third of its children are suffering from chronic malnutrition.

Palm oil then, would seem to offer good prospects for additional growth. The tree is native to the region and the climate is perfect for its cultivation. And of course, there are plenty of international agribusiness conglomerates looking for suitable places in West Africa in which to replicate the stellar profits enjoyed by the industry in Asia.

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