After massive deforestation of the Amazon and Indonesian rainforests due to plantation agriculture, economic growth in Congo is being stymied by some environmental groups’ opposition to any rainforest agriculture there. Palm oil production in particular has been held back in Congo by the debate now raging over any new large scale projects for biodiesel or other uses.
In 2007, soon after the election of President Joseph Kabila in Congo, the Chinese company ZTE announced their investment of $1 billion for the cultivation of palm oil trees on 3 million hectares of Congolese soil. By 2009, the company had reduced the plan to one million hectares, with 90 % of the palm oil produced slated for biodiesel fuel. To date ZTE has not explained this considerable scaling back of their plan and has been slow to indicate how they will produce palm oil in Equateur, Orientale, West Kasai and Bandundu provinces.
In the first half of the last century, Unilever pioneered in the production of palm oil with their Belgian Congo processing plants and plantations. They have now pulled out of Congo entirely. Apparently the largest producer of palm oil in the world plans to rely on its supplies in Malaysia and Indonesia, the two nations with 80 % of the world’s output today. The Cambridge World History of Food pays tribute to Unilever for maintaining its Congo operations through the turbulent post-independence years with the words, “Unilever managers remained in place following nationalization in 1975, and the company was allowed to take back full control of the estates two years later (Fieldhouse 1978: 530—45). But at a national level, the research effort was decimated, and new planting was very limited after 1960, in marked contrast to developments at the same time in Southeast Asia.”
A stark sign of the decline of Congo’s agricultural sector is the fact that the country imported 15,000 metric tons of palm oil in 2007, the year the first ZTE China plan was announced. Imported, manufactured vegetable oil is now cheaper and more widely used in Congolese cooking than locally produced palm oil. Myself and others who return to Congo after many years are disappointed by how rare “moussaka”, the palm oil sauce, is now used for flavoring of chicken, fish and manioc leaf dishes.
All who are concerned about the preservation of the Congo rainforest need to keep in mind two facts about Congo’s palm oil production. First is the fact that there are thousands of hectares of abandoned palm oil plantations in the country. No cutting of the rainforest is needed for the revival of the industry in Congo.
The second fact about palm oil cultivation in the country is the contribution of small householder plots to the historic growth of the crop in Congo and elsewhere. According to the Cambridge World History, at the close of the Belgian colonial era, smallholder plots under palm oil cultivation totaled 98,000 hectares while plantations covered 147,000 hectares. Today, Indonesia produces one third of the world’s palm oil and half of it comes from farmers cultivating fewer than 5 hectares.
Greenpeace International, whose Kinshasa office has led in opposing illegal logging of rainforest timber in the country, backs smallholder and plantation cultivation of palm oil in Congo on land that has already been cleared. With only 4 per cent of cleared land in Congo now under cultivation, the country has the potential to produce palm oil for foodstuffs and biodiesel as well as preserve the most pristine, least “developed” rainforest in the world.
We can applaud and should support the Congo Disciples plan to convert its coffee plantation in Bokungu to 20 hectares of palm oil production and the Boyeka post‘s palm oil project which is intended to fund education and health programs of the Church. For several years now, the Baptist community of the Church of Christ of Congo has been promoting palm oil cultivation with provision of seeds and training near their historic post of Vanga.