In December of last year, a small group of government officials took a long arduous trip to visit the site of a remote palm oil plantation in the Republic of the Congo. The Atama palm oil concession, covering 470,000 hectares (1,815 square miles) of forest — an area larger than Rhode Island — is billed as the largest in the Congo Basin.
But when the officials arrived, accompanied by a World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) employee, they got a surprise: the plantation site appeared to have largely been abandoned.
According to Ludovic Miaro, the Regional Palm Oil Program Coordinator at WWF-Africa who was on the trip, only 700 hectares (2.7 square miles) had been planted, and most of this was in a bad state. The company had said it would develop 180,000 hectares (695 square miles). The plantation was practically empty of personnel, including the manager, who the officials were told were “on vacation.”
But the site wasn’t completely quiet: the team observed significant logging activity, with heavy machinery stacking logs that had been cut from forests known for their remarkable populations of gorillas, chimpanzees, forest elephants and many other species.
Now, government officials are left wondering what happened and what to do next.
Does Atama have any intention of completing its plantation? Or was this operation mainly meant to get at the valuable timber in the deep Congo? Or did something go wrong for the company involved, causing them to shift their business plan from industrial agriculture to logging — a scenario not unheard of in the palm oil industry?
Government officials plan to meet February 8th to discuss the mystery, and to decide how to move forward on Atama’s “cahier des charges,” the government agreement signed by the investors who originated the project.
But no matter the outcome of that meeting — whether the Congo cancels the Atama project or not — considerable damage has already been done by logging, and the subsequent inflow of people, at the site.
When the Atama palm oil plantation was first announced in 2012, conservationists were immediately put on guard. “When you overlay the boundaries of the project on a map of the Congo Basin rainforests, it is like someone has taken a shotgun to the heart of those forests,” said Sam Lawson, the Director of Earthsight an environmental investigative consulting firm that has followed the plantation’s development. “We are talking about an area three times the size of Greater London.”
The Atama concession was largely covered with primary rainforests, swamp forest and rare Marantaceae forests known to have the highest densities of gorillas in the world. Conservationists not only feared the large scale clearance of the region’s forest habitat for palm oil — as has occurred in Malaysia and Indonesia over the last two decades — but they also expected that the project would offer increased access to poachers and illegal loggers.
Raising further alarms: project developer, Wah Soeng Berhad, a Malaysian company, had zero experience with monoculture plantations or agriculture. Instead, it had built its business providing services to oil and gas pipeline projects. Neither Wah Soeng Berhad nor Atama returned repeated requests for comment for this story.
“Given that the company involved had no previous experience in the palm oil business, there was always a suspicion that it was at least intending to profit from the sale of trees cleared from the land that supposedly would become a plantation,” said Simon Counsell, the head of the Rainforest Foundation UK, which has tracked the project since its start.
Since its inception, the Atama palm oil plantation has been shrouded in secrecy and a lack of transparency. Aside from pipe-coating company, Wah Soeng Berhad (which allegedly paid $25 million for its majority share in the project), Atama is also partially owned by two mystery corporations.
The project’s “true ownership is shielded through some obscure shell companies in secrecy jurisdictions like the British Virgin Islands,” said Earthsight’s Lawson, who added that this could be a sign of possible corruption in the establishment of the plantation.
Observers also noted a number of infractions as Atama started clearing forest. Officials visiting the site in 2012 found evidence of illegal logging and fraudulent labeling of wood, according to Seeds of Destruction, a report by Rainforest Foundation UK. Officials also caught the company clearing forests many kilometers outside of its concession and operating without an Environmental Impact Assessment.
If the investors had planned to use timber sales to fund the development of the plantation, Counsell said, it may have come up short: “It appears that that part of the plan has failed because there simply aren’t enough export-grade trees in the area to make much money from.”
A vast habitat and home to many gorillas
In 2008, scientists with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) surveyed a huge swamp and Marantaceae forest in the Congo — a portion of which included forests that would eventually become the Atama concession. What they found there astonished them.
They didn’t see gorillas, but they counted gorilla nests. Lots of nests — an indicator that this region could house some of the highest gorilla densities on earth. The researchers estimated that the entire region could contain some 80,000 western lowland gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla), boosting the national total of this Critically Endangered species to around 125,000 at the time. It was a rare bit of good news for great ape conservation, which has seen few large-scale success stories globally.
Today, around 15,000 of those gorillas are protected within the Ntokou-Pikounda National Park, established in 2013. But other portions of unprotected habitat in the region are now under assault, an attack that includes the logging operations and infrastructure development connected with the Atama project.
David Morgan, a great ape expert with WCS-Congo, recently traveled through the region, noting that development there is unmistakable. “This was the first time I had observed clear cutting on such a large scale in [the] Congo,” he said. “It was surprising how quickly such land conversion can take place.”
Morgan, a Conservation Research Fellow at Lincoln Park Zoo and also with the Goualougo Triangle Ape Project, noted that gorillas can’t survive the transition from native forest to monoculture palm oil plantation — just like their orangutan relatives in Indonesia and Malaysia. Gorillas rely on “ground herbs” for survival, plants that are eradicated to make way for plantation seedlings.
“Although the complete clearance of habitat [for the plantation] would have been disastrous for the area’s apes, if the operation now degenerates into widespread, chaotic felling of trees across the area [of the concession] then it could still have a serious impact,” said Counsell.
It is possible that gorillas living in the areas traversed by Morgan may have survived the initial clearance by shifting their territory to nearby intact forests. Moreover, if the Atama project ends not with a habitat-ruining plantation, but with a disruptive but not devastating logging operation, the gorilla population may one day return to the land as the forest re-grows. Research has even shown that in some cases gorillas can persist in well-managed logging concessions.
An uncertain future for gorillas, chimps and more
While Atama is clearly bad news for Critically Endangered gorillas, it’s likely even worse news for the region’s chimpanzees — even if the plantation never happens. The area’s chimps are members of the central chimpanzee subspecies (Pan troglodytes troglodytes), listed as Endangered by the IUCN. They face much the same threats as gorillas: habitat destruction, poaching and disease. But unlike gorillas, chimps don’t migrate easily.
“Because chimpanzees are territorial, it is very difficult for females [and] offspring to just relocate into a neighboring community, and [it’s] impossible for males,” explained Morgan. “So whatever portion of the chimpanzees home range that was located [where Atama logging occurred] has been lost.”
The project could also lead to an uptick in poaching of hugely-imperiled forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis). Many researchers argue that forest elephants — though not yet recognized by the IUCN as a distinct species — possess genetic and morphological differences that make them distinct from the more familiar savanna African elephants. Forest elephants have born the brunt of poaching over the past decade; a study in 2014 found that their populations in Central Africa had dropped an astounding 64 percent in just ten years due to relentless poaching.
Another notable animal living in this part of the Congo is Bouvier’s red colobus (Piliocolobus bouvieri). Thought extinct for 40 years, the species made big news last year when two researchers, Lieven Devreese and Gaël Elie Gnondo Gobolo, rediscovered the monkey in the newly-established Ntokou-Pikounda National Park. Devreese, a young Belgium primatologist, also took the first photos ever of a living P. bouvieri. It is believed that part of the habitat for this rarely seen species falls within the Atama concession. Listed as Critically Endangered, no one knows how many of this Lazarus species still survive.
Even if the government cancels the Atama concession, experts agree that haphazard development in the area, with its timber cutting and logging roads, will continue harming wildlife by bringing more people to the region. Some may come to poach animals for bushmeat or for commercial sale to the pet trade, or to log illegally outside the concession or in nearby protected areas.
Last year, Devreese told Mongabay about the already flourishing wildlife trade in the region: “There is an active trade of bush meat using the rivers as highways. When the forests are not inundated, only a couple of months a year, commercial hunters shoot whatever they can and empty the forest.” The trade, he said, was not to serve locals but urban dwellers in the Congo capital of Brazzaville.
Conservation lessons not learned
The history of the Atama plantation — its inception in secrecy, its vast scale, its numerous logging infractions, and now its possible abandonment — is particularly alarming to conservationists because it may signal that the oil palm industry has learned little from its experiences in Malaysia and Indonesia. There numerous companies have destroyed large swathes of pristine forest and endangered countless species, all while conducting a running legal and ethical battle with environmentalists.
“We must at all cost avoid making the costly environmental mistakes that have been documented elsewhere, particularly now that there is more scientifically based information at hand to learn from,” said Morgan. “The rehabilitation of old palm plantations that exist should be an important priority.”
Experts note that there are abandoned oil palm plantations in the Congo that could easily be brought back into production with very little environmental impact, if only they secured investment. There is another option as well. WWF and ProNAR — the Republic of the Congo’s agency tasked with reforestation — have conducted a study looking for suitable palm oil plantation sites in savanna, rather than forest.
WWF’s Ludovic Miaro said that his NGO has identified around 290,000 hectares (1,120 square miles) of savanna in the departments of Cuvette and Cuvette West that would be good for growing oil palm, with a much smaller environmental impact. Miaro noted that it had even been recommended that the Atama plantation be moved in its planning stage from its current location to savanna in order to reduce the project’s “ecological footprint and loss of habitats and biodiversity.”
Similar alternatives have been proposed in Indonesia, but have largely failed for a simple reason: many oil palm companies want to clear rainforests. They sell the trees they cut, making millions of dollars and providing start-up money for the new plantation. And if a proposed oil palm plantation never happens? The companies still walk away with a profit, though they leave behind serious habitat destruction and access to forests that were once impossible for most people to reach. With this access often comes poaching, illegal logging and sometimes even settlements.
Better national protections for forests could curb this practice. Morgan said that conservationists and governments in the region also need to take a look at logged forests — even those that have been logged over several times — to consider them as potential habitat for great apes and other species.
Morgan currently fears that many logged forests in the Congo could soon become monoculture plantations, if logging companies deem there aren’t enough valuable trees left to make it worth their while. Yet, research has shown that even thrice-logged forests, especially if well-managed, still contain considerable biodiversity — including great apes. But if these logged forests are turned into monoculture plantations, whatever biodiversity remained there will be lost.
“Already several large scale logging companies working in the region are thinking of diversifying their activities [toward plantations],” Morgan warned.
As goes Atama, so goes the Congo?
The fate of the Atama plantation remains up in the air, but likely to be decided by the government shortly. Counsell noted that Atama’s obfuscation is not unique, but simply emblematic of problems across the Congo Basin.
He called the region “particularly challenging” for watchdog conservation groups to track, given that government “decisions are made on an arbitrary and sometimes purely self-interested basis, where opaque corporate structures, shielded by offshore registrations are used, and where even the relevant laws governing the deal might be hard to locate. And implementation can be ‘flexible’.”
The only real way to know what’s going on, he said, is to investigate on the ground, but such investigation to remote areas can be time consuming and costly.
“The decision-makers and agencies concerned are often, to all intents and purposes, unaccountable,” he concluded bluntly.
Conservationists fear that Atama could be a harbinger of things to come. Unless government oversight of oil palm plantation development is improved in Africa, secretive companies could remain secure in their speculative ventures, knowing investors may still earn a nice payout from logging even if a project falls through. The major victim of such deals will be the continent’s wildlife legacy, as more forests fall to the saw, and more western lowland gorillas, chimpanzees, forest elephants, and thousands of other species lose their habitats and homes.