Update from Nigeria with Gerome Tokpa

Working with Wilmar’s Biase Plantations Ltd to find the balance between development and conservation

In our latest #PeopleOfPalmOil series, TFT’s Gerome Tokpa supports Biase Plantations Limited in Nigeria and looks at the factors other palm oil investors in Africa need to consider and address

My father taught me how to use a machete when I was seven. That will sound strange to people in other parts of the world, but not in Africa. More than half of the population in Sub-Saharan Africa live in rural areas, with many earning their living through farming. Like me, growing up in Ivory Coast using a machete to maintain the cocoa plantation, they do so without machinery. It is the same with palm oil in Nigeria. But with an increasing global demand for palm oil African governments look for investors.

Understanding the challenges

There is a growing demand for palm oil globally, and Africa is no exception. In Nigeria, the deficit is estimated at 600,000 metric tonnes. Businesses are trooping into the region to help bridge this supply gap. However, a detailed understanding of the social and environmental challenges is required if these investments are to succeed and meet local expectations. Elsewhere, oil palm expansion has led to land expropriation, further impoverished rural communities and destroyed forests. These must not be repeated in the growing industry in Africa. In Nigeria, Biase Plantations Limited (BPL), a subsidiary of Wilmar International is working with TFT to overcome some of these challenges. TFT has supported BPL to build better relations with local communities and conserve forests and biodiversity areas.

Gerome (far left) in a discussion with local chiefs

Gerome (far left) in a discussion with local chiefs

Protecting forests and biodiversity

Our work with BPL at their new project site at Calaro Extension in Cross River State, Nigeria began with High Carbon Stock assessments according to the High Carbon Stock Approach Toolkit[1].This helped us to identify which land to conserve and which to develop. We found that isolated forest patches with small core areas, (less than 10 hectares), totaled an area of 846 hectares.  As a result a conservation corridor (838.5 ha) passing through the Calaro Extension, and joining two forest reserves, was proposed to preserve a large swampy area. This will help protect the environment of wildlife. Research has suggested the presence of the Slender-snouted Crocodile (SSC) which are very rare, and other locally endangered species like Sitatungas. To ensure that the identified species continue to exist in their preferred habitat areas, Wilmar proposes to reforest degraded patches in the corridor with indigenous species.

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Gerome talking with youth leaders in Atan Odot

Understanding land tenure

BPL already had a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the local Government in Nigeria. TFT supported the company in its engagement with the communities that surround it. This was essential to help the company understand the complexities of land tenure, which in the African countryside are mostly customary rights. It’s necessary to get in touch with the communities, investigate the environmental and social challenges and jointly identify priorities. That way local people’s amenities and other areas that are culturally important for them can be identified and protected.

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The leader of Atan Odot signing the final map as sign of agreement

Free, prior and informed consent (FPIC)

The process associated with making sure the rights of people are respected is called Free, prior and informed consent (FPIC). Not doing FPIC is not an option for companies like BPL with international links. FPIC is not about perfection, it’s an ongoing process that needs to be readjusted with time and context. Mistakes may be made. What’s more important is that any mistakes are recognised and improvements are then made as a result. We supported BPL to have a MoU with all surrounding communities. We worked with BPL  to set up a social team to lead on the engagement with the local communities.

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Gerome is a passenger on what was the local road

Dedicated community liaison officers coming from the different surrounding communities were hired.  With TFT’s help, they led the discussion on the FPIC process in the three landlord communities around the concession, which were: Atan Odot, Uwet and Ekot Eyidot Family.  We spent time explaining both the negative and positive sides of the project in the three communities. This was also done in the guest communities of Effifion Uwet, Ekopedi and Akpa Uwet, which had been given to them by their hosts to plant cassava. Some of the guest communities were still farming within the concession area, so the landlord communities conceded land outside the concession in the north, where they can continue farming. By 2016 we saw that since BPL informed communities about the palm oil planting in 2017 most of the community members had started farming outside the concession.

Better roads for the community

I once spoke to a villager in Effefion who told me that no matter what the negative aspect of BPL was, their presence in Calaro Extension could only be a positive thing. Now at first that might sound like a load of green wash, but the point here is that through FPIC the communities requested better roads to be built by the company. In the past there was no road at all, it was just a pathway. This man’s son was very sick. He lost him on that pathway while they travelled on motorbike on the way to the hospital in the next big village (Jonction) which is about 30 km away. So if FPIC is done well it can mean significantly improved conditions and facilities for communities.

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The new road

Today those Nigerian communities know more about BPL and BPL tries to be more open about what they are doing – they post job adverts throughout the local villages. Projects to develop the resilience of surrounding farmers need to be encouraged by the company though, otherwise they will be entirely relied upon for employment in the area. Another challenge is to continue doing FPIC, which is not a signed contract, but a process that will go along with the palm business in Calaro Extension. Contact with local communities through the Community Liaison Officers must be kept, too.

Impact and results so far

For a total amount of 912 inhabitants (625 children) in Ekopedi and 184 inhabitants in Effefion a total of 330,50 hectares were secured with the consent of the landlord communities. For Akpa Uwet community, a small guest community at the periphery of the concession, but mostly within it, 94 hectares were set aside from the area to be planted. BPL will support them with good agricultural practices to help increase their crop yields. From the initial 2,367.45 ha of Calaro Extension, BPL has left 35.31% for communities and conservation purpose.

After the company shared the land use map with the different communities, a final map was drawn and validated by them. Although it still needs to be validated by the HCS committee, we can proudly say TFT’s work has found a happy compromise between BPL and the communities, not only to preserve land but also to have a harmonious business model in Cross River State. Most people within those communities are happy with BPL being there. This is good news, but as I said, FPIC is an ongoing process – so we need to come back and make sure both parties are continuing to talk and listen to one another.

Original concession area (ha) 2367.45
HCS/HCV conserved area (ha) 836.54
Akpa Uwet village secured land (ha) 94.31
Effefion/Ekopedi secured land (ha) 16.88
Plantable area 1531.28

[1] http://highcarbonstock.org/