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Palm oil in West africa (by NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC )

In Gabon, one of Africa’s most forested countries, palm oil is coming home, and a boom may be on the horizon. Situated on the Equator and on the continent’s west coast, Gabon is roughly the size of Colorado with a third of the people. More than 76 percent of the country is covered in forest, with 11 percent of its land area protected in national parks. It’s a wildlife wonderland.

“It’s exactly the kind of large, intact forest you want to protect from any kind of development,” says Glenn Hurowitz, CEO of Mighty Earth, a Washington D.C.-based environmental organization that has criticized Olam’s palm oil operations in Gabon. “There’s so much degraded land [across the tropics]. Why would you send your palm oil plantations to countries that have so much existing forest?”

One answer is that Gabon wants them. The former French colony has the fourth highest GDP per capita in sub-Saharan Africa, but much of the revenue comes from petroleum. It needs to diversify. Hurowitz argues that Gabon should be developing ecotourism instead. A relatively safe country with spectacular parks and wildlife, it has few airstrips, barely passable roads, and scant lodging. There’s a huge opportunity for more tourism—one that Gabon’s parks agency, the Agence Nationale des Parcs Nationaux (ANPN), is pursuing.

Tourism is only part of what the country needs. Gabon imports much of its food: Wheat and milk come from France; beef is flown in from India and Brazil. The government of President Ali Bongo Ondimba, who won a controversial election in 2016 to a second seven-year term, wants to add commercial agriculture—including palm oil—to Gabon’s economy. That requires cutting down trees.

Recognizing the conflicting demands on its land, the government has embarked on a project few other nations have tried: a national land-use plan.

Lee White, ANPN director and one of the president’s closest advisers—British born, he has lived in Gabon since 1989 and has dual citizenship—oversaw the process of mapping the country’s land and wildlife and determining which areas should be developed for agriculture. The government granted two new oil palm concessions to Olam and later sold the company an existing plantation. Olam now operates on 500 square miles, or 0.5 percent of Gabon’s land area. Some 215 square miles are planted in oil palms.

On a bright January morning, Christopher Stewart, Olam’s chief sustainability manager, maneuvers a Mitsubishi SUV along the potholed highway southeast from Libreville, the capital. Trucks whiz past carrying giant okoume logs—Gabon’s chief timber export, bound in large part for China and Europe. Beyond Libreville’s sprawl, tiny villages dot the countryside. Nearly every cluster of houses has a roadside stand, consisting typically of an overturned rusty metal drum and a wooden rack. The drums are covered with bananas or plantains, bowls of brightly colored jungle fruits, plastic water bottles filled with bathtub palm wine. Hanging from the racks, all along the highway, are furry and spiny carcasses: porcupines, blue duikers, the occasional monkey, a civet, a crocodile, the haunches of a gazelle.

Much of that bush meat is illegal—and also perhaps understandable, in a country without much domestic meat production. Illegal bush meat is offered at many restaurants in Libreville. Poaching is a big issue for Olam; locals and workers use the plantations as access points to the forest, where they have been known to hunt at-risk species. So Olam rangers patrol the protected forests. At the plantation gates, guards search exiting cars.

Two and a half hours from Libreville, we pull onto a red dirt road toward the Awala plantation. This area is secondary forest, one of the places where logging first began in Gabon. The government gave Olam roughly 50,000 acres here—of which the company has planted oil palms on about a third. Another third is conserved as one block of forest, and the rest remains standing in smaller parcels, some of it on steep hillsides.

Stewart, who has a Ph.D. in ecology, helped set up the RSPO program in Southeast Asia before joining Olam. On our boat trip back from the old-growth forest at Mouila, we talk about the devastation in Indonesia. He visited areas with biologists who had worked only a few years earlier in intact rain forest—and were returning to find it all destroyed. Stewart chokes up as he recalls this. He’s immensely proud of Olam’s conservation efforts in Gabon.

Atop a small hill within the plantation, we climb to the roof of Stewart’s truck. For 180 degrees, the rows of oil palms stretch nearly to the horizon. In the scorching sun, the monochrome view is dizzying. The map Stewart holds is even more sobering. This section of plantation covers nearly 40,000 acres; what we’re seeing is less than 7 percent of that.

As an ecologist, Stewart hates the idea of trees being cut. But, he says, “I know that this is actually in Gabon’s long-term interest for these projects to be in the right place and managed well and to show what well-planned, well-managed agriculture can do.” White agrees. Olam isn’t undermining protected areas, he says: “Olam is helping me create more national parks.”

Seven hours from Libreville, at the end of three hours of bone-jarring dirt roads, lies Lopé National Park—one of 13 national parks White helped create. He lived here for 15 years and still visits often to do wildlife research. One evening, sitting in the open-air living room of the research station, White sips whiskey as lightning makes purple streaks across the starry sky. In the forest around us, families of gorillas and mandrills are bedding down for the night. Leopards and caracals are waking up to hunt.

Once you start clearing forests for agriculture, it becomes easier to clear ever more. Does White worry about that? He smiles. “I’m not really a worrier,” he says, before reframing the risk: “If in 50 years’ time we can’t feed the number of human beings we have on the planet, then highly productive, humid, tropical places where you can grow vast amounts of food are going to come under threat.”

On hilltops near Lopé’s western boundary, French archaeologist Richard Oslisly has uncovered evidence of Stone Age and Iron Age communities—chips from the making of quartz arrowheads, iron tools and furnaces. Three thousand years ago, Bantu peoples began to migrate along the Atlantic coast to Gabon from Cameroon. They brought oil palms with them. Wading in a stream in Lopé’s forest, Oslisly scratches at the bank and pulls out domesticated palm nuts dating back two millennia.

By around 1,500 years ago, those early farmers had covered large parts of Gabon and northern Congo in palm groves. “Central Africa,” White says, “probably looked like Indonesia does today.” A drastic population crash—perhaps caused by an epidemic—wiped out those Iron Age people. The rain forest came roaring back.

“Now we are starting the cycle again,” White says. “Our management actions will tell whether once again we destroy the forests or if we can maintain an equilibrium.” For humans, balance is often an elusive goal


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