The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is carrying out an investigation into whether Singapore-based agribusiness giant Olam deforested more than 25,000 hectares (62,000 acres), in contravention of sustainability criteria it had signed up to, in order to develop oil palm plantations in Gabon.
A complaint that Olam breached FSC rules was first filed in 2016 by the campaign group Mighty Earth on the back of a report it published in December that year.
Olam is bound to FSC regulations because it owns the forestry company Congolaise Industrielle des Bois (CIB). CIB manages 1.3 million hectares (3.2 million acres) of FSC-certified concessions, with a further 800,000 ha (2 million acres) undergoing certification, in the Republic of Congo. Its oil palm plantations in neighboring Gabon are a joint venture with the Gabonese government, with Olam owning a 60% share.
The dispute centers on whether the land cleared for the plantations should have been classified as high carbon stock (HCS) forest, as Mighty Earth claims, or, as Olam has told Mongabay, “highly logged and degraded secondary forest.” A second investigation into a similar issue relating to Olam’s rubber plantations will be carried out separately by the FSC.
“The bottom line is that Olam cleared nearly 40,000 hectares (100,000 acres) of Gabonese rainforest to make way for vast oil-palm and rubber plantations in Gabon,” Mighty Earth senior campaign director Etelle Higonnet said in a statement. “This undoubtedly violated FSC standards.”
Olam’s group head of external affairs, Steve Fairbairn, said in an email that the company strongly rejected allegations of “irresponsible deforestation or land conversion,” claiming that all the areas of high conservation value (HCV) were left alone and are now strictly protected. “This left about 50% of the most severely-impacted forest and low-value regrowth areas available for plantation development,” Fairbairn added.
HCV and HCS are not exactly comparable. HCV is a measure of the biodiversity value of a habitat, whether that is the number of endemic or rare species within it, the ecosystem services such as watershed protection it provides or the requirements of local communities it meets. In contrast, HCS aims to distinguish forest areas meriting protection from degraded ones by classifying them into one of six categories, ranging from “high (medium and low) density forest” to “scrub” and “cleared/open land”.
The FSC investigation has taken since 2016 to begin because it has twice brought Olam and Mighty Earth together to find a mediated solution. This process resulted in Olam — described by the campaign group as the “world’s largest farmer” with commercial interests in 47 agricultural commodities across 70 countries — agreeing to a moratorium on clearing any land for plantation developments until at least 2022.
Another report published in February by the World Rainforest Movement accused Olam of making meaningless deforestation commitments and of neglecting the rights of local communities.
Mighty Earth campaign director Phil Aikman told Mongabay in an interview he believed Olam wanted to develop the Gabon plantations because they contained good quantities of commercial timber. “When you clear land, you generate timber revenue and it helps to front-load your costs,” Aikman said. “If there had been no commercial timber there, I don’t think they would have been that interested in the area.”
Olam has denied it profited from selling the timber, saying any money earned was put into social funds managed by local communities to improve education, health care and access to water.
Lee White, Gabon’s minister of water and forestry and previously head of the country’s national parks agency, told Mongabay in an email that the developed area had not been considered forest by the Gabonese government. What it classified as forest contained approximately 150 tons of carbon per hectare — the area that was cleared for Olam’s plantations “was ‘forest’ with a carbon stock below 118T C/ha (the average for secondary forest),” White said.
Simon Counsell, the former director of the Rainforest Foundation UK and now of the monitoring group FSC-Watch, told Mongabay that Olam had clearly breached FSC policy. “The FSC has no credible alternative but to disassociate from Olam and cancel all FSC certificates held by Olam group companies,” he said. “Failure to do so would effectively establish that companies with egregious deforestation records can still be FSC-certified.”
Aikman said Mighty Earth hoped Olam would be held accountable for breaching FSC rules and be required to fund an equivalent level of conservation restoration projects or additional protection to compensate for the environmental harm it had caused.
Research published in 2017 by scientists from Duke University, in collaboration with the National Parks Agency of Gabon and others, found that the country could protect HCS and HCV forests and still leave between 1.2 million and 1.7 million ha (3 million and 4 million acres) for conversion to oil palms.
According to the lead author of that study, Kemen Austin, now a senior policy analyst with the research institute RTI International, the dispute between Olam and Mighty Earth illustrates the difficulties of classifying forests. Previous research has shown, she said, that there is a great deal of subjectivity as to what counts as HCV forest and what doesn’t.
One paper, published in Conservation Letters in 2011, highlighted these problems. A forested area, the paper said, can qualify as HCV if it fulfills certain criteria: this could be its overall size or because of its “outstanding concentrations” of rare species. Such a term, the authors argue, “is open to interpretation by the assessors, potentially leading to differences of opinion with dangerous consequences for biodiversity.”
Environmentalist Jonathon Porritt, an adviser on sustainability issues to the U.K. government between 2000 and 2009 and former co-chair of the High Carbon Stock Science Study, visited Olam’s Gabon plantations in 2015.
Following that visit, he praised the company’s “impressive operation” in a blog on his website, saying a small percentage of Gabon’s forests — “albeit the least valuable forest, according to the surveys that have been done” — would be destroyed in order to support the country’s diversification strategy into palm oil.
In a statement sent to Mongabay, Porritt added: “I believe that Olam’s partnership with the Government of Gabon remains in the interests of the people of Gabon as the country seeks to reduce its dependency on extracting oil — including allocating a small percentage of its land to palm oil cultivation. I had no problem with that strategic commitment back in 2015, and I have no problem with it now.”