Palm oil production in West and Central Africa is growing rapidly. As global demand grows, it is estimated that up to 22 million hectares of land in West and Central Africa could be converted to oil palm plantations over the next five years. Whilst this growth could boost the economy of the region and its people, there is also a risk that it could bring negative consequences in the form of deforestation, loss of biodiversity, land conflicts and human rights violations.

The challenge to governments and other stakeholders in the region is how to balance the potential for economic development with conservation and social protection. The Tropical Forest Alliance 2020’s Africa Palm Oil Initiative (APOI) seeks to address this challenge by developing a regional dialogue and guidelines to govern palm oil production in the region.

Proforest has been coordinating the Initiative since April 2015 with six palm oil producing countries currently engaged in the Initiative – Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Liberia, Nigeria, Gabon and Cameroon – and three further countries – the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Republic of Congo and Sierra Leone – have publicly stated that they would like to join.

Bringing people together

Government commitment is important, but other voices need to be heard too. A key role of the Initiative is to facilitate conversations with all stakeholders, including the public and the private sectors, civil society, smallholders and local and indigenous people’s groups, via national and regional platforms.

In 2015, stakeholders were brought together in national workshops in Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia and Ghana, enabling representatives from each of these groups to jointly identify the issues surrounding palm oil production in their countries. Following these events national principles have been agreed, to guide the development and expansion of oil palm in each national context The next step for these countries is to agree time-bound action plans – often following public consultation- and to agree on an implementation framework.

The TFA 2020 APOI’s first regional workshop took place in March 2016, when key stakeholders from Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Gabon, Ghana, Liberia, and Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Republic of Congo and Sierra Leone met in Accra. As with the national workshops, this event enabled participants to build a shared understanding of TFA 2020 and APOI and to develop a framework for a set of regional principles for sustainable palm oil development in Africa including a timeline for reaching a regional agreement. The delegates aim to sign a Regional Accord at the UN’s Climate Change Conference COP22 in Marrakesh (November 2016).

Why is a regional approach important?

By joining together, the palm oil producing countries are better able to negotiate with foreign investors over the social and environmental safeguards needed for palm oil cultivation to take place. A Regional Accord, in place across all producer countries, should minimise ‘leakage’ of palm oil investment to countries with less responsible production policies in place.

At the national APOI workshop held in Ghana last year, Gabriel Opoku-Asare, Unilever’s head of corporate affairs said: “Palm oil has the potential to be the next gold for Ghana, creating jobs and improving the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of Ghanaians.”

TFA 2020 APOI is harnessing the talents of governments, the private sector, civil society and communities to ensure that the industry develops in a way that minimizes deforestation, benefits local communities and protects the rich tropical forests of the region.