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Strengthening Community Struggles against Industrial Oil Palm Plantations in Africa

Updated: Sep 3, 2020

Devlin Kuyek, Senior Researcher from GRAIN, and Dr. Funada Sayaka, researcher at the International Peace Research Institute (PRIME), Meiji Gakuin University (February 2020). Credit: Beatrice Melo. 

On February 24th 2020, KASA Sustainability and GRAIN in collaboration with Citizens United for Development in Mozambique and Japan International Volunteer Center organized a workshop under the theme Strengthening Community Struggles against Industrial Oil Palm Plantations in Africa at Sophia University.  Devlin Kuyek, Senior Researcher from GRAIN, was the main speaker of the workshop. The workshop brought together about 100 attendees from different walks of life. The attendees were very engaged with the presenter during the Q & A session and asked many incisive questions.

      The workshop sought to throw light on the contemporary wave of land grabbing sweeping across the African continent and elsewhere. Significantly, the presentation showed efforts of resistance from below, by local communities across the continent, to land concessions. Coalitions at the local, national, and international levels have led to the exposure of corruption and illegal activities by governments that have fueled and abetted land grabbing. Alliance building among local grassroots resistance movements to land grab has been keen on incorporating women’s voices while at the same time formulating strategies, generating relevant tools, and building synergies through the transnationalization of struggles. One such alliance that has been active in uniting fronts against land grabbing is the ‘Alliance against Industrial Oil Palm Plantations in West and Central Africa.’ This alliance’s primary objective is to stop the expansion of oil palm plantations in Central and West Africa, return the lands to the communities, and promote food systems based on the needs of small farmers, agroecology, and food sovereignty.

On the one hand, local resistance to land grab has been characterized by pressuring national governments to promote, protect, and restore equitable access to land for communities including the respect for communal land rights. On the other hand, the transnationalization of land struggles has made it possible for resistance movements to undertake joint actions against companies, put pressure on foreign government and development partners, and to pose legal challenges to land grabbing.

Since 2007, land concessions with African governments have enabled the use of corporate capital to secure long-term leasehold rights over vast tracts of agricultural land by multinational corporations. More than 4.7 million hectares of land were granted to foreign agricultural companies through concessions in West and Central Africa. A bright spot, however, is the significant rollback of some of these concessions due to growing resistance resulting in abandoned and failed projects. As of 2019, big oil palm plantations in Africa accounted for 2.7 million hectares under concessions, this represents a significant reduction from 4.7 million hectares in 2014. The number of concessions between 2014 to 2019 has also reduced sharply from 65 to 49 large-scale concessions, respectively (GRAIN, 2019).

Communities have had to unwillingly endure the grim consequences of these large-scale land concessions. Communities’ lands have been taken from them without consultation or their consent. Their forests, local biodiversity, and water sources have been despoiled and polluted. They have lost land for cultivating food crops and have been subjected to cheap and unsafe work as wage laborers. Meanwhile, opposition to concessions face routine harassments, intimidations, among other forms of mistreatment. The benefits supposedly directed to communities in the form of social services (schools, clinics, and basic infrastructure) are few and often not forthcoming. Local communities where concession operations are conducted hardly benefit from rental payments made by concessionaires to national governments.       

More specifically, the presentation aimed to illuminate the role of Japanese companies in the grand scheme of land grabbing in Africa. Japanese companies’ involvement, although not always direct, has been primarily done through downstream activities, including trading, resource processing, and financing (bank financialization). Through joint ventures like Mitsubishi shareholding in Olam, Mitsui and Adeka with Felda, and Fuji Oil and United Plantations. For example, Olam, a Singaporean company, has a joint venture with the Government of Gabon in which Mitsubishi owns 20% shares. According to the presentation, Olam is the fastest-growing oil palm plantation in Africa and constitutes 15% of the total large-scale oil palm plantations in Africa. There was an indication that the importation of palm kernel to Japan has experienced a significant increase. This means that Japan may be playing an expanding role. The moral message that  Kuyek’s presentation sought to hammer was that, when citizens and people in developed countries benefit from cheap products from abroad such as palm oil to make their daily meals, there are people in Africa whose livelihoods and entire way of life are being destroyed. 

Baba Sillah, Ph.D. student at Sophia University (February 2020). Credit: Beatrice Melo.

As a discussant, my concerns were directed towards understanding how local communities utilize their agency in devising mechanisms for expanding their livelihood opportunities amidst a coterie of challenges. Local oil palm producers who harvest wild palm trees routinely experience losses in their yields due to the lack of more efficient methods. Additionally, the inaccessibility of markets due to bad infrastructure, and scant support for small producers from national governments converge to undermine their productivity and livelihood opportunities. However, the resiliency of local communities is being demonstrated for example, through women’s cooperatives that pool their resources to purchase small oil palm milling machines to enhance their productivity. Instead of working in silos, local people are rapidly realizing the power in their collective work.

     Finally, the workshop left me with the impression that there has to be a sustained pushback against land grab at the local, national and transnational levels. The eyes of academics, and scholar-activists must not be taken off the ball. Additionally, support from the publics in developed and developing countries, in understanding the devastating impacts of land grabs on local communities, cultures and their entire way of life is crucial for protecting the land rights of rural people.  Lastly, for all intents and purposes, the workshop achieved its objectives and was a success. I observed that the discussions were cordial and very engaging and sparked the interests and passions of many to dig deeper into understanding the intricacies of land grab and perhaps, to even become advocates against the menace.  

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