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In palm oil, Liberia sees economic boom — but forests may lose

© CI/photo by Rob McNeil

Editor’s note: Surrounded by heavily deforested neighboring countries, Liberia resembles a green island in satellite images — yet this forest’s future is by no means guaranteed.

Liberia views palm oil development as a huge opportunity for economic growth and international trade. But embracing the booming industry is not without its costs. Without proper oversight, the country’s vast forests could be cut down and replaced by oil palm plantations, destroying critical natural resources and the benefits they provide for the communities who depend on them.

Once mired in decades of civil war, in recent years a more peaceful Liberia has emerged as a conservation leader focused on sustainable economic growth. To understand both the opportunities and the challenges that increased palm oil production poses for Liberia and its prized forests, Human Nature sat down with Liam Walsh, technical director for Conservation International (CI)’s Liberia office.

Question: Liberia’s forest resources are immense. Can you give us some background on them?

Answer: Liberia’s forests provide a wide range of significant benefits to the Liberian people and the international community, such as habitat for globally important biodiversity, a range of ecological services, ecotourism potential, timber and non-timber forest products and significant revenue for the country from commercial forestry development. To put it in perspective: Only one-tenth of West Africa’s original Upper Guinean rainforest remains, and 40 percent of that is in Liberia. Kept intact, this extensive forest has the incredible opportunity to help mitigate climate change.

CI started engaging with Liberia in 1999; the actual office here was set up in 2003. Initially, the focus was on helping Liberia create a network of protected areas across the country. The focus gradually shifted over time to include more work with communities living in or near forests that lie outside of the protected network.

Q: What role did forests play in Liberia’s conflicts over the last few decades?

A: During Liberia’s civil war, timber revenues were used to finance conflict. When the war ended, Liberia initiated a forest sector reform process and the United Nations lifted its three-year embargo on the sale of timber from Liberia. The goal now is to transform Liberia’s forest into an engine for sustainable development. Questions remain on how this will take place — and whether the vast majority of Liberia’s population will benefit.

Q: How are forests — and natural resources more generally — tied to Liberia’s economic development?

A: In the aftermath of an extended period of civil war, Liberia is facing some severe development challenges. Consider this: At least 60 percent of the country’s population lives in predominantly forested ecosystems and depends substantially on forests for their livelihoods, local food production and rural development. That’s nearly 700,000 households. However, poverty and the need for economic growth and development are significant drivers of degradation of natural resources in the country.

Q: What does the palm oil industry currently look like in Liberia?    

A: Palm oil production in Liberia is considered by the government to be one of the most important industries for the future. They believe Liberia will become a major exporter of oil palm products in the West Africa region in the next five years, and that, eventually, they can potentially export their products to Europe. Since 2009, four international palm oil companies have been granted concessions (areas of land the government grants companies to plant a crop) in Liberia for palm oil production on 620,000 hectares (more than 1.5 million acres) of land. The palm oil industry has grown substantially across the globe and has made tangible contributions to poverty alleviation in parts of the world such as Indonesia and Malaysia. However, palm oil production is also associated with a range of environmental issues including widespread deforestation.

Currently, palm oil development in Liberia is at a nascent stage, but given the scale of the concessions, the potential for growth is significant. Major land concessions in Liberia extend over vast areas that include forest that is high in biodiversity and provides valuable ecosystem services for communities such as flood regulation, carbon sequestration, timber and ecotourism. In both industrial and conservation terms, landscapes in Liberia are in high demand. (See drone footage of an oil palm plantation below.)

Q: What do palm oil concessions mean for Liberia’s forests?

A: Palm oil is responsible for large-scale forest conversion in many parts of the tropics, particularly Indonesia and Malaysia. There is considerable conservation-worthy forest across the different palm oil concessions in Liberia, and the potential for conversion of natural forest in these areas is very high. In fact, most deforestation that has occurred in the last 10 years in Liberia has occurred in areas where large-scale palm oil development is taking place.

So on the one hand, palm oil investment has the potential to support local agriculture and economic development — providing more jobs, economic growth and export opportunities. But on the other hand, the scale of these concessions raises concerns about potential negative impacts on communities, forests and ecosystems. How do we balance those two seemingly competing objectives?

Q: Where does CI fit in?

A: The position we take at CI is that palm oil is not the enemy — the problem is where and how it’s grown. And that essentially captures what we’re trying to do in Liberia; we want to influence where and how palm oil production takes place. Within palm oil landscapes, the first thing we want to do with palm oil producers and communities is to use the best possible science to map what we refer to as “go” and “no-go” areas for palm oil development.

“No-go” areas are ones we have identified as being best suited for conservation. These are areas that are important not only for biodiversity but for the ecosystem services they provide for people such as flood regulation, carbon sequestration, non-timber forest products and income from ecotourism. Once we’ve identified these areas and companies have agreed to set them aside, we then work closely with communities to conserve these forest areas in the long term.

“Go” areas are those areas where we think the sector can realize its economic potential. We identify degraded areas, or areas without much forest, that are suitable to be developed for palm oil —  both today and in the future, taking into account the climate change impacts predicted for the area. Once areas for responsible cultivation are identified, we want to support sustainable production practices on that land, and ensure that companies are employing best agricultural practices on the degraded land that they do cultivate, such as maintaining soil fertility and minimizing and controlling erosion.

We are also supporting implementation of better government policies that back sustainable palm oil production; ensure proper monitoring systems are put in place; and support national initiatives that bring different stakeholders within the sector together to discuss key issues and build consensus. This holistic approach will allow us to find a way forward so the sector can progress in an environmentally and socially responsible manner — and potentially be replicated in other countries involved in palm oil production.

Q: Outside of Liberia, what is CI trying to do in the larger context of palm oil?

A: In addition to mapping and identifying “go” and “no-go” areas for development, CI works with impacted communities and with governments to conserve forested areas within concessions and ensures the companies are following best practices within the areas that they do cultivate.

Crucially, CI looks at things from a broader governance perspective, recognizing that national policies play a big role in palm oil production. We also work directly with companies that source palm oil to improve their supply chains and strengthen demand for sustainable palm oil.

Q: What makes palm oil such an appealing and lucrative crop to grow?

A: When you compare palm oil to other vegetable oils, it’s quite a remarkable crop. It can be grown in a lot of different areas, it’s a versatile product that can be used in so many different things. And there’s the simple fact that if we were going to substitute palm oil for something else, we would probably need a lot more land to produce the same amount of oil that we need for all the consumer products that use it. So at CI, we’d rather see that people are focused on getting palm oil production right rather than forcing people to use alternatives that will pose even greater challenges to keeping forests standing.

Liam Walsh is the technical director of CI Liberia. Sophie Bertazzo is a staff writer for CI.

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