The Congo Basin is rich in biodiversity and stores an estimated 25%–30% of the world’s tropical forest carbon stocks. As agricultural land becomes increasingly scarce in Southeast Asia, and regulatory pressures continue to intensify, the Congo Basin could become the next frontier for oil palm expansion. Most of the roughly 280 million hectares (Mha) of additional land suitable for oil palm in the Congo Basin are found in the Democratic Republic of Congo (60%), Cameroon (11%) and the Republic of Congo (10%).
Many heavily forested countries in the Congo Basin are setting national targets to increase production to meet national and regional demands. Land area allocated to oil palm increased by 40% in the Congo Basin and five additional top-producing countries in Africa between 1990 and 2017. Without intervention, future production increases in the region will likely come from expansion rather than intensification due to low crop and processing yields, possibly at the expense of forest.
Sustainability strategies initiated by companies and aimed at certifying palm oil mills are unlikely to be effective at curbing deforestation in the Congo Basin. Smallholder farmers are an engine of growth in the region’s palm oil sector, and recent evidence suggests they are actively clearing forest to expand. Because of the proliferation of non-industrial processing facilities (artisanal mills), a substantial fraction of the palm oil produced by smallholders never passes through a company’s jurisdiction. Smallholders are also disadvantaged by power imbalances and limited access to technical and financial resources. Including smallholders in sustainability strategies offers opportunities to achieve multisectoral goals.
Recommendations to improve the sustainability of the palm oil sector in the Congo Basin include (1) improving access to finance for smallholders and non-industrial mill managers; (2) implementing policies to safeguard natural resources and facilitate access to appropriate market opportunities that offer incentives to prevent future deforestation; (3) intensifying production by replanting aging plantations, rehabilitating abandoned plantations with disease-resistant and high-yielding varieties, and increasing fertilization, without further expansion into high conservation value or high carbon stock forest areas; and (4) improving processing capacity and extraction rates by upgrading mill technologies. Sustainable palm oil development in the Congo Basin will require careful consideration of the governance, institutional, environmental and socioeconomic factors that underpin the complex regional supply chains.