Assessing the socio-economic impacts of the palm oil sector in the Republic of the Congo

The Republic of the Congo is one of the largest forested countries in Central Africa. Despite the fact that the country still has a significant amount of forest (24 million hectares (ha), or 70% of the national territory), deforestation trends and the context of climate change are making the protection of forest cover a priority for territorial planning and agricultural development. In 2018, the Congolese government adopted the National Development Plan 2018-2022 (PND 2018-2022), which promotes the diversification of agriculture in a sustainable manner.

One of the key agricultural sectors in this planning is palm oil. Congo joined the African Palm Oil Initiative (APOI) when it signed the “Marrakech Declaration” at the 2016 session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, at the initiative of the Tropical Forest Alliance (TFA) 2020. The aim of the initiative is to transform the palm oil sector in 10 West and Central African countries into a sustainable driver of development, reducing carbon emissions while delivering social benefits and protecting the rich biodiversity of these countries’ tropical forests. TFA 2020 is a partnership that brings together governments as well as key consumers, businesses, traders and producers, civil society, and groups representing local communities and indigenous peoples.

At the first national TFA APOI workshop in August 2017, stakeholders in the TFA APOI process in Congo endorsed 10 national principles on responsible and sustainable palm oil production in the Republic of the Congo. The first two principles deal with the importance of developing the palm oil industry in compliance with current legislation, which is essential to ensure the development of a responsible and sustainable industry. At the second national workshop in December 2017, stakeholders in the TFA APOI process identified concrete activities to achieve these two core principles.

At the request of stakeholders in the TFA APOI process, the European Forest Institute (EFI) supported an activity to assess the socio-economic impacts of land-use scenarios with a focus on oil palm, in order to optimise its development trajectory. The study was conducted under the supervision of the Directorate-General for Agriculture (Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries – MAEP), which chairs the APOI platform.

Three agricultural departments in the Republic of Congo (Plateaux, Pool and Cuvette-Ouest) with high potential for producing palm oil were targeted for this assessment.

The Land-use Planner, a tool developed by the European Forest Institute as part of the EU REDD Facility, was used to model and represent the impact of future land-use choices, to facilitate participatory land management.

Photo 1 : Stakeholders of the APOI Platform

To develop various scenarios for 2050 with the Land-use Planner, data were collected from administrative documentation (mainly the Agricultural Sector Development Plan (PDSA) and departmental monographs), and interviews with experts and professionals in the field: agronomists, administrative managers, agricultural sector supervisors and palm plantation operators. Several types of data were collected for each crop (yield, production costs, benefits, biodiversity and crop or rotation cycles).

Figure 1: Yield profile for oil palm cultivation by smallholders in the savannah zone. Productivity in tonnes per hectare by year (25-year cycle).

Three scenarios were developed for each department:

(1) Business as usual (BAU):

agricultural yields are stable, cultivated areas keep pace with demographic trends, and oil palm and other cash crops are not developed beyond existing levels.

(2) Uncontrolled development of oil palm:

in this scenario, cash crops, particularly palm oil, develop rapidly with the support of public development programmes and private investment. This development is sometimes to the detriment of other agricultural systems or ecosystems that are not exploited and/or protected, such as forests, without respecting the sustainability criteria of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). By 2050, 755,000 hectares of oil palm will have been cultivated, including around 400,000 hectares from deforestation. Sugar cane and soya are also expanding in the Plateaux and Pool departments respectively, where these crops are already present.

(3) Controlled development of oil palm:

oil palm is grown in a controlled and moderate manner, primarily to meet the needs of the national market. Oil palm expansion is limited to areas meeting RSPO standards and PDSA national zoning. Other crops are being improved, and the increase in yields partly meets the needs of the growing population.

In Cuvette-Ouest, for example, the Land-use Planner’s analysis shows that:

  • The uncontrolled scenario (expansion in all PDSA expansion zones) involves potentially 17 times more oil palm acreage than the controlled scenario (expansion only in favourable zones, according to CIRAD).
  • The uncontrolled scenario involves a 100% industrial model, extending over both forest and savannah. This theoretical scenario is deliberately not aligned with the policy of the Republic of Congo.
  • The forest area decreases sharply in the uncontrolled scenario, and there is a slight decrease in the BAU and controlled scenarios.
  • CO2 emissions due to deforestation and forest degradation are therefore very high in the uncontrolled scenario.
  • Similarly, biodiversity decreases significantly in the uncontrolled scenario, which is not seen in the other scenarios.
  • The uncontrolled scenario produces more market value, but is also much more destructive to the natural environment and its ecosystems.
Figure 2: Overview of the estimated impacts of the three scenarios for the Cuvette-Ouest department on a number of economic, social and environmental indicators.

The trends in the other two departments are similar. The main lesson to be learned from this study is that the scenario of controlled oil palm development, while sparing the forests, enables the national demand projected for 2050 to be covered, thanks solely to the combined production of the three departments studied.

This work also shows that this coverage of national demand can be achieved by plantation models deployed in savannah areas, close to the main consumption basins and in compliance with the decree (2018) of the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries guiding agro-industrial investments of more than five hectares in savannah areas.

The implementation of such a “controlled” scenario in the other departments of the Congo would also make it possible to develop exports, once national needs have been covered. In particular, this would be based on RSPO certification, which would enable operators located far from the consumption basins in the south of the country to balance their economic models by increasing the value of their production for export.

In addition, thanks to the work carried out as part of this study, all spatial planning facilitators can now rely on consolidated data tailored to the national context.

For more information, contact:

Mrs Judith-Flore Youdi-Malanda

TFA/APOI Focal Point, Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries (MAEP), Congo.