Backed by a multinational agro-giant, a Nigerian palm oil company is causing “grave impacts” in Edo State

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For the majority of the world’s population, palm oil is only a minor ingredient in countless consumer products, but the crop can mean disaster for the local communities that live next to oil palm plantations, as well as for the lush rainforests and rich biodiversity within these areas.

It is worrisome to know that so many oil palm plantations stretch over the graveyards of rainforests. In that sense, the field report published earlier this year by Rita Uwaka, a project officer for Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria (ERA/FoEN), is an eye-opener.

It exposes the consequences of decades-long investments in the mass production of palm oil and the invasion of communal forests by large oil palm plantations that are built upon bulldozing rainforests and cutting the lifeline of local communities in Edo State, Nigeria.

A line from the report reads: “Over 60,000 people across 30 communities in three local government areas of Edo State risk grave impacts due to deforestation and land grabbing for industrial oil palm plantations by Okomu Oil Palm Company PLC.”

The report also decries land grabs while supporting locals’ claim to their ancestral lands: “With a population of over 60,000 people, Oke-Irhue, Ekpan, Umokpe, Orhua communities make up the Irhue clan as community people share the same ancestry and speak the Bini and Ishan languages in their over 400 years of peaceful co-existence.”

The Okomu Oil Palm Company PLC operates large oil palm estates and is a member of the Belgian-French-Luxembourg tropic agriculture investment group Socfin. In addition to 53.32 per cent of Okomu PLC’s shares, Socfin owns oil palm and rubber plantations across south-east Asia and Africa in countries including Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Indonesia with similar agribusiness models.

Okomu PLC has since grown to become one of Nigeria’s leading oil palm companies, lifting its profit to record highs for the last five years. Yet, its operations have carried a high price for the environment and for the rights of local communities.

Uwaka’s field report paints a clear picture of the land grabbing – “which contravenes the Forestry Laws of Nigeria” – and the circumstances threatening the existence of local communities.

“Over 60,000 forest dependent people (with 10,000 already impacted) are [on] the verge of losing their sustainable livelihood rights as well as spiritual essence due to the activities of this Belgian oil palm mogul.”

Under the former Edo State governor Adams Oshiomhole, the sale of the land in contention, covering an estimated 13,750 hectares spread through Okomu and Owan forest reserves, was reversed. However, Okomu PLC has deliberately disregarded the government order for two years.

On 21 June 2017, ERA/FoEN and representatives of the Owan and Okomu communities made a statement based on Uwaka’s report and appealed for better law enforcement, better compensation of local communities as well as for action against deforestation.

A letter has been delivered to the state administration, urging it to uphold Oshiomhole’s revocation order. The action followed a protest march dubbed the “People’s March Against Land-grabbing and Deforestation in Edo State”. You can support the campaign by signing ERA/FoEN’s online petition.

A longer version of this article was first published on The Ecologist.