During the second week of the UN Climate Change Conference in Marrakesh, West and Central African governments, consumer goods companies and producers, with indigenous peoples and civil society will come together around the future of sustainable palm oil. Together, through a country-led process they have developed a regional pledge on how this precious ingredient of our daily use can benefit economical growth in Africa, feed our dependent consumer industry without destroying Africa’s tropical forests. These countries represent more than 75% of Africa’s tropical forest.

Oil palm – the plant which produces the world’s most popular edible oil – originated in West Africa and it grows well there. But until recently, its cultivation in the region has been relatively small-scale. But now, oil palm investors and producers are increasingly looking to West and Central Africa as production land in Southeast Asia becomes depleted.

The economic benefits such as job creation and rural poverty reduction offered by oil palm development unfortunately also come with risk of significant negative social and environmental impacts, including land tenure issues, child labour, social conflicts and other human rights abuses, deforestation and the destruction of High Conservation Values.

So, how does a region in need of economic investment embrace the potential that palm oil development brings in a sustainable way?

Since 2014, the Tropical Forest Alliance 2020’s Africa Palm Oil Initiative (APOI) has provided a multistakeholder regional platform to develop a shared vision for sustainable palm oil development in the region. The vision of the APOI is a prosperous oil palm industry that brings jobs and wealth to local communities in a way that is environmentally and socially sustainable and protects the rich tropical forests of the region.

10 Africa countries are currently part of the Africa Palm Oil Initiative, representing 78% of global tropical forests and through coordination of Proforest and the TFA 2020 Secretariat,  work at national and regional levels to develop national plans to be guided by underlying principles for sustainability, good governance, transparency, recognition of community and human rights, partnerships, and equitable benefit sharing.

These principles provide the foundation of the Marrakesh Declaration.

The regional principles laid out in the Marrakesh Declaration are, by necessity, high level and aspirational, so it is crucial that there is interpretation, adoption and implementation of the principles at the national level. The long-term vision of the APOI is to support the widespread implementation of responsible oil palm principles adopted in Marrakesh by the national governments to deliver real impact on the ground.

At the annual RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) meeting in Bangkok this week, the Chief Executive of RSPO, Darrell Weber, described the Marrakesh Declaration as ‘big’ for the region and the palm oil industry. It certainly feels like the 16 November will be a historic moment for regional cooperation, for public-private partnerships and for the protection of Africa’s rich tropical forests.

Piece produced in partnership with Proforest, a non-profit group that has been working on the initiative with companies, governments and civil society organisations. They include the Consumer Goods Forum and its members Unilever and Nestle; oil palm producing companies, such as Sime Darby and Wilmar, and a wide range of civil society organisations, including the World Wildlife Fund, Solidaridad, Conservation International and the World Resource Institute.

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