Ten African countries have committed to better ways of producing palm oil in a bid to save forests.
This follows the signing of a joint declaration at the ongoing COP22 climate talks in Marrakech, Morocco.
Palm oil is the most widely used vegetable oil globally, with half of all packaged products containing the ingredient.
It is estimated to be worth $50 billion and projected to rise to $88 billion by the year 2022.
The product is used in manufacturing of consumer goods such as bread, soap, shampoo, cereal and cosmetics.
But to produce the oil, a lot of forest land in the tropics is cleared. The World Wide Fund reports that an area equivalent to 300 football fields of tropical rainforest is cleared every hour around the world for palm oil crops.
In Africa, top palm oil producing countries include the Central African Republic, Cote d’Ivoire, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Liberia, Nigeria, Gabon and Congo-Brazzaville. Together, they are home to more than 70 per cent of Africa’s rainforests, which is 13 per cent of the global total.
Nigeria is currently Africa’s largest palm oil producer and the fifth in the world, with 2.5 million hectares under production.
Over the years, the palm oil industry has been accused of massive deforestation, pushing many indigenous species into extinction.
“These governments recognise the significant market signal that global businesses are providing through their desire to source sustainable palm oil at scale,” said Dominic Waughray, the Head of Public-Private Partnerships at the World Economic Forum.
“Palm oil, if produced sustainably, can play a key role in poverty alleviation by helping farmers thrive economically,” said Paul Polman, the chief executive officer at Unilever, a major buyer of palm oil, welcoming the move.
The practise has been linked to climate change, because cutting down native forests often involves burning of invaluable timber and remaining forest undergrowth, thereby emitting immense quantities of smoke into the atmosphere.
In addition to environmental consequences, entire communities have been displaced all over the world, and many animal and human rights abuses reported.
Whereas the environmental impact is not as bad in Africa as it is in South East Asia, there are concerns that multinational palm oil producers have now fixed their eyes on Africa as their next spot for growth.
Over the years, campaigners have been pushing for a total ban on use of palm oil in order to save the forests.
In Uganda, Kenyan-based consumer goods manufacturer Bidco was recently cleared of charges of environmental breach, offering reprieve to the firm that has been fighting claims that it is involved in malpractices.
Uganda’s High Court dropped the case against the manufacturer for alleged deforestation for a vegetable oil farmland in Kalangala.
The case had been filed by three environmental groups which claimed that Bidco had influenced Uganda National Forestry Authority to de-gazette forest reserves on Bugala Island for the firm to grow palm oil.