Could oil palm save the chimps?



Many years ago, I read a popular science article warning of the social and ecological costs of palm oil production in the Congo Basin. I was alarmed to learn that the rights of indigenous people and the habitats of endangered species such as chimpanzees and forest elephants were at stake. I began religiously vetting every item that I purchased to avoid consuming palm oil. Moreover, I began telling my friends, family, colleagues, or anyone who would listen, “Do you know the biscuit you are about to eat is driving chimpanzees towards the brink of extinction?” Aghast, my elder sister embarked on her own moral crusade taking every opportunity to spread the word. Some days later she telephoned in sheepish tones, “Russell, I feel like such a fool. I’ve been going around telling everyone that palm oil is extracted from the hands of chimpanzees!”

This anecdote carries a valuable lesson on the dangers of simplistic messaging. By cutting corners and selectively emphasising only certain parts of the story – all with the aim of spurring behavioural change – I was guilty of sensationalism. I left out important details on the chain of interaction between cause (demand for cheap edible oil) and effect (demise of endangered wildlife). Simply put, I was not sufficiently clear or comprehensive when communicating with my sister. Now many years later, I realise that the author of the original popular science article had committed a similar crime: he/she had failed to paint a full, fair or nuanced picture.

As Team MoJo Velo learnt in western Tanzania, palm oil production does not automatically equate to social calamity and ecological doom. In fact, the intensification of production may have quite the opposite effect: combatting poverty whilst reducing deforestation and protecting vulnerable wildlife. The main threat to endangered species such as chimpanzees is habitat loss. This is primarily driven by a land-hungry poor who use low-yielding crop varieties and inefficient farming methods. Improve their lot and the chimps will breathe a sigh of relief.

Seed Change, a startup in western Tanzania, believes that by distributing seeds of high-yielding Tenera oil palm to smallholder farmers in conjunction with training on environmentally-friendly farming practices, it is possible to strengthen indigenous livelihoods (by increasing household income) whilst curbing demand for new farmland. We visited the team in Kigoma District to hear their story.

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