Oil palm expansion in Cameroon: Insights into sustainability opportunities and challenges in Africa

Oil palm production expanded 1.2 million hectares in sub-Saharan Africa since 1990, with expansion accelerating in several heavily forested countries since 2000. Despite a narrative of expansion driven by multinational corporations, we provide evidence of a dynamic non-industrial oil palm production sector linked to a burgeoning informal milling enterprise. Surveys were conducted with oil palm farmers in Cameroon (n = 546), the third largest palm oil producer on the continent with the greatest amount of deforestation due to recent expansion, to determine who is expanding into forest. Seventy-three percent of survey respondents reported clearing forest, the magnitude of which was explained by differences in milling strategies and supply chain integration. Large-scale, non-industrial producers played a disproportionate role in deforestation, many of which were engaged in informal supply chains through the use of non-industrial mills. Farms associated with more clearing tended to use high-yielding seedlings. Even the highest yielding farms, however, averaged only 7.7 tons fresh fruit bunches (FFBs) ha−1 yr−1, well below the potential 20 tons FFBs ha−1 yr−1 yield for Cameroon. We also found a strong relationship between deforestation and land claims. Most farms claimed ownership of their land, although only 5% had official land titles. Conservation challenges in the region arise from land tenure laws that incentivize forest clearing. This study sheds light on the role of informal supply chains in deforestation and highlights the need for strict implementation and enforcement of land use zoning policies.