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The environmental impact and sustainability of plantations in Sub-Saharan Africa: Ghana's experiences with oil-palm plantations

Overview of the plantation system in the Sub-Sahara
The evolution of plantations in Ghana
The posiffve impacts of the plantations
Adverse environmental impacts and sustainability


Edwin A. Gyasi


This paper discusses the environmental impact and sustainability of plantations in Sub-Saharan Africa, mainly on the basis of Ghana's experiences with oil-palm plantations. Sub-Saharan Africa refers to the approximately 22 million km2 region of some 451 million inhabitants in 1987, located generally south of the Sahara desert, excluding South Africa and Namibia (Goliber 1989; World Bank 1989; Population Reference Bureau 1990).

Agriculture has, traditionally, formed the principal economic activity in Sub-Saharan Africa. It generates the bulk of employment and incomes, and is the major land-use factor. In Ghana, for example, agriculture contributes 50 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP) and 60 per cent of export earnings, and occupies 57 per cent of the total land area (Ministry of Agriculture 1991). As the major land-use factor, agriculture exerts a powerful modifying influence on the natural environment, especially through vegetation removal, with profound implications for the living conditions of the Sub-Saharan inhabitants.

Agricultural practices may be categorized as three major systems: the more or less pure livestock and cropping systems, and the mixed system, which integrates both livestock and crops in significant proportions (Benneh 1972; La-Anyane 1985; FAO 1991). The cropping system includes small-scale indigenous methods such as the classical shifting cultivation and its offshoot, land rotation or bush fallow, and exotic methods, notably the large-scale plantation system, whose environmental impact and sustainability in Sub-Saharan Africa form the central subject of discussion in this paper.

Plantations are distinguished not only by their large size but also by their monocultural character, systematic layout, and advanced infrastructure. Their other typical characteristics include: corporate and factory-like organization; high capital outlay; mechanization; extensive use of hired labour; and high reliance on artificial external inputs, notably agro-chemicals, for biological regeneration. These characteristics stand in sharp contrast to the small peasant farms that usually surround the plantations; these employ intercropping and a mosaic layout, are less capitalized, have low artificial external inputs, and are more nature based, labour intensive, and family operated.

Economies of scale are the major advantage of the plantation system. The sheer level of farming enhances efficiency by permitting greater specialization or division of labour, systematic research, utilization of by-products, access to capital and markets, and mechanization, especially of processing. As a result, plantations often yield a higher return per hectare and per worker, generate steadier and more regular high-quality produce, and provide greater and more readily taxable income than do smallholdings. Other major advantages include: carbon and oxygen cycling and minimization of soil erosion by the densely distributed plants; and rural development in the plantation areas through provision of modern infrastructure, introduction of advanced agricultural and other technical skills, and reduction of rural out-migration by the employment generated by the plantation. These advantages underlie the perception of plantations as a better alternative for agricultural development in the tropics, their long-standing central economic role in several countries, and growing popularity in others (Courtenay 1965; Hasselman 1981; LaAnyane 1961; Ruthenberg 1971; Symons 1966; Udo 1982).

However, the advantages must be balanced against various social, economic, and environmental problems associated with the plantation system. The problems include exploitation of the indigenes in the plantation areas and of the massive numbers of African slaves and indentured Asiatic labour imported to work under cruel conditions on the plantations in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in tropical areas of the Americas, the Far East, and eastern and southern Africa. Other problems include the racial, political, and land rights conflicts associated with the abrupt juxtaposition of large numbers of culturally different foreign and native plantation workers. Additionally, the plantation system tends to involve higher labour costs, is often plagued by labour disputes between workers and management, and appears less adaptable to short-term changes than the small-scale diversified systems. Plantations may also dislocate local people; create land shortage and land tenure problems among them; weaken local food security by export crop specialization; reduce biodiversity; and cause pollution and general destabilization or disturbance of the socio-economic system, including the land or natural environment that supports the plantations and the other economic activities (Jones and Darkenwald 1954; La-Anyane 1961; Courtenay 1965; Gourou 1966; Symons 1966; Ruthenberg 1971; Hasselman 1981; Udo 1982; Dickenson et al. 1983; Thomas 1984).

Overview of the plantation system in the Sub-Sahara

Plantations were introduced into the tropics during the sixteenth century by European colonists as a system of cheaply exploiting the hot humid environment and the native labour as well as slave and indentured or contract labour, for the purpose of producing tropical crops such as sugar cane for export to temperate countries, especially Europe. Initially the plantations were concentrated in South America and the West and East Indies. Subsequently, they spread to SubSaharan Africa and other areas of the tropics, with their mode of ownership evolving from paternalist resident planters, through absentee landlords and limited liability companies, to transnational or multinational corporations and national or state enterprises.

The plantation system grew in importance in Sub-Saharan Africa following the partitioning of Africa among the European colonial powers in 1885. This was particularly so in the Belgian Congo (now Zaire) where, in 1911, Lever Brothers, the giant transnational conglomerate, acquired vast freeholds and concessions of land, portions of which were developed into oil-palm plantations. The spread of plantations slowed during the depression years between 1920 and 1940. However, following the return of peace and favourable conditions for international trade and investments after the end of World War II in 1945, the plantation system started expanding once again, especially in Zaire, Nigeria, Cameroon, Cote d'lvoire, Liberia, and Angola, with Lever Brothers playing a leading role. The expansion continued through the following two decades. It accelerated during the immediate post-independence era, about 1960-1965, which saw direct involvement of the national governments of the newly independent states in the establishment and running of plantations. Thereafter, the expansion slackened, mainly because of a decline in external investments following the growing political instability and state control of the national economies and the attendant erosion of foreign investors' confidence in them (Courtenay 1965; Gourou 1966; Udo 1982; Dickenson et al. 1983; Dinham and Hines, 1983; Halfani and Barker 1984; Thomas 1984).

Of late, most especially since about 1975, the plantation system has witnessed rejuvenation as a strategy for stimulating agricultural production, which has, since the mid-1960s, fallen below the average population growth of 3 per cent per annum (Dinham and Hines 1983; Halfani and Barker 1984; World Bank 1989; Gyasi 1987, 1992a; Goliber 1989; Population Reference Bureau 1990).

The rejuvenation of the plantation system, notably in Cameroon, Cote d'Ivoire, Nigeria, Kenya, and Ghana, poses several important issues, including its impact on production, employment, and incomes. Others include its environmental impact and sustainability, which this paper examines mainly on the basis of the experience with oil-palm (Elaeis guineensis) plantations in Ghana. More specifically, the paper addresses the following questions:

(a) what have been the impacts of the plantation system, especially on the environment;

(b) what do the impacts imply for the sustainability of the system; and,

(c) assuming that the impacts are generally negative, how might the system be rendered sustainable, or what other farming system might be recommended as a better alternative?

As used here, the term "impact" means effect, which implies change; "environment" describes the biotic and abiotic world within which human society lives and derives sustenance; while the term "sustainability" refers to the capacity to ensure survival or continuity of an activity, event, phenomenon, or situation such as the environment and the resources therein.

The paper is justified, firstly, by the need to gain better understanding, for planning purposes, of the significant impact that the growth of the extensive and monocultural plantation system is likely to have on the environment and its living conditions, particularly in the wake of increasing population pressure and the attendant diminishing supplies of land, the basic source of livelihood in Sub-Saharan Africa. Secondly, growing reliance on the plantation system as a strategy of agricultural development calls for critical analysis of its sustainability as part and parcel of the general search for an optimum way of increasing agricultural production at minimal environmental cost.

The evolution of plantations in Ghana

Ghana is 238,000 km2, a predominantly agricultural country of some 15 million inhabitants located on the Gulf of Guinea in western SubSaharan Africa. There are four principal agro-ecological zones in Ghana, namely: the dry interior Guinea-Sudan savanna; derived savanna or forest savanna; humid forest; and the dry coastal savanna where the plantations reportedly started before spreading to the more favourable humid forest zone in the interior.

The Dutch were the first to introduce the plantation system in Ghana about the beginning of the eighteenth century. Dickson (1969) reports the establishment or attempted establishment of several Dutch plantations near the coast during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Other plantations included those established by German, British, and other European interests about the end of the nineteenth century and in the early decades of the twentieth century, particularly after the passing of the Oil Palm Ordinance of 1913, when "Numerous oil-palm plantations [including those at Butre, Sese, and Winneba] were made" (Dickson 1969: 148). The Ordinance empowered the government to grant a mill operator the exclusive right to extract oil, by mechanical means, from the pericarp of palm fruits produced within 16 km of the mill. But the plantation system failed to gain a significant hold, partly because of the internal political insecurity engendered by inter-tribal warfare and by rivalry among the European powers seeking territorial hegemony, and also because of the negative attitude towards the system by the British Crown, which, from about 1850 onwards, gained the upper hand in the European struggle to colonize Ghana (Dickson 1969; Howard 1978).

It appears that, despite pressure by external private commercial interests, plantations were not very much favoured by the dominant British colonial administration. This was partly because of the fear that, by dispossessing the owners of their land, the extensive land acquisitions necessary for the plantations would alienate the peasants, seriously disrupt their export production system, and precipitate local opposition of the kind provoked by the abortive Crown Lands Bill of 1894 and the Land Bill of 1897, which sought to vest in the British Crown all "waste" or unoccupied lands, forest lands, and minerals. Another reason was the conviction among British government advisers that the indigenous small-scale peasant farming system was more resilient economically than the exotic large plantations. Furthermore, the peasant system was considered to be a tried and inexpensive method of producing tropical export crops. The official ambivalence towards the plantation system had been reinforced by a decision much later against the system at a conference on the West African oil-palm industry in 1926 in Nigeria (Shepherd 1936; La-Anyane 1961, 1963; Johnson 1964; Usoro 1974; Udo 1982; Kotey 1990). Consequently, plantations did not make much impact on the environment and agricultural production during the colonial era in Ghana.

The inability of peasant production to keep pace with the growing demand for palm oil and other agricultural products arose from the rapidly expanding population, the government's import-substitution policy, and its desire for accelerated socio-economic improvements. After 1957, during the post-independence period, there was a policy change involving greater emphasis on the plantation system centred on the oil-palm and rubber, Hevea brasiliensis (Ghana Office of the Planning Commission 1964; Ghana, Republic of, 1987; ILO 1989; Ministry of Agriculture 1990). The policy change, up to the time of the 1966 military coup d'etat, favoured state-owned and state-operated plantations.

However, mainly because of capital constraints, political interference, poor planning, mismanagement, and the rigidity of the centralized state control system, these state-owned farms did not prove economically viable (Miracle and Seidman 1968). They succeeded only in worsening rural living conditions by dispossessing the peasants of their most fundamental natural resource, the land, with little or no compensation (Gyasi forthcoming), and by the deforestation and other forms of ecological and economic disturbance associated with the removal of natural vegetation to make room for monocultural plantations (Gyasi 1990). Subsequently, some of the state plantations were sold. Others were abandoned, sometimes after felling of the palms, a practice that invariably left behind derived savanna or even grass in place of the original forest cover, as in the case of Kwamoso, 60 km north-east of Accra. Attempts were made to reorganize the remaining plantations into viable economic units under decentralized state control.

On the whole, however, the new policy, especially after the 1981 coup d'etat and the subsequent liberalization of the economic system, has sought to promote plantations through private enterprise, foreignaided government ventures, and joint government-private projects. The resultant plantations include the three major ones established by the government-owned but foreign-assisted Ghana Oil Palm Development Co. (GOPDC) located around Kwae; the government/privately owned Twifo Oil Palm Plantations Ltd. (TOPP) located around Twifo Praso/Ntafrewaso; and the government/privately owed Benso Oil Palm Plantations Ltd. (BOPP) located around Benso/Adum Banso (fig. 18.1). They were to grow oil-palms for the purpose of producing oil from the fruit of the palm, "probably the heaviest producer of vegetable fats" (Van Royen 1954: 166). This agro-industrial crop, which has a wide variety of uses, was a leading foreign exchange earner for Ghana, mainly on the basis of small-scale peasant production in an oil-palm belt near the littoral, from about the mid-nineteenth century to the beginnings of the twentieth century (Gyasi 1992a).

The three major new palm plantations (GOPDC, TOPP, and BOPP), which have engaged my research attention since 1988, form the primary basis of the following discussion of the impact and sustainability of the plantation system in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Managed on modern corporate agro-business lines, the plantations have been developed on land compulsorily acquired from peasants by the government in the humid tropical environment of the interior, which favours the oil-palm. In addition to developing the acquired areas into palm plantations, the companies involved were to encourage palm fruit production among the peasants in the plantation hinterland through the nuclear or nucleus estate system to help sustain their huge palm-oil-processing mills located inside the plantations.

The posiffve impacts of the plantations

Since about 1977, when they started, the three plantations, GOPDC, TOPP, and BOPP, have developed rapidly and contributed significantly towards the expansion of Ghana's oil-palm hectares from 18,000 to 103,000 between 1970 and 1990 (Gyasi 1992a). This growth of 24 per cent per annum has resulted in the re-emergence of the palm as a major commercial crop rivalling cocoa; has served as a basis for the fast-developing palm oil and other agro-industrial processing industries; and rendered the country more than self-sufficient in palm-oil production.

Fig. 18.1 The location of the GOPDC, TOPP, and BOPP plantations (Source: Gyasi 1992a)

During 1989, GOPDC, TOPP, and BOPP contributed about 20 per cent of the national palm hectares and 40 per cent of the palm-oil output, which traditionally had been dominated by small home-based producers. The three companies, which directly engaged over 4,500 people in their farming, milling, and other operations, were the largest single employers in their localities.

By 1989, the companies had organized over 2,700 farmers into outgrowers operating more than 6,700 oil-palm hectares with the companies' support. Additionally, GOPDC and TOPP were assisting 409 smallholders, peasants dislocated by the plantations, to grow 2,250 ha of palms on leased portions of the plantation concessions.

It appeared from my field study, including interviewing the companies' management, that the new job opportunities were registering a positive rural developmental impact in the plantation areas through:

(a) income, expenditure, and investment enhancement;
(b) reduction in migration out of the rural areas; and
(c) improvement in agricultural and other technical skills through experience acquired on the job and training programmes mounted by the companies on the plantations.

Employment and income improvements were consistently ranked by both the company management and the small farmers as the most important benefits accruing from the plantations.

Other benefits included improved medical services, transportation, and education provided by the companies. Rural development had been further enhanced by backward linkages with the areas adjoining the plantations, particularly through palm fruit purchases from the small farmers to feed the plantation mills, which, together with the large number of smaller village-based semi-mechanical mills and manual establishments, generate substantial amounts of income from the value gained by processing the palm fruit into oil. Other benefits had accrued by forward linkages through palm kernels, a by-product used by rural women for making kernel oil. Other beneficial forward linkages had been through the selling of palm oil to sustain the big import-substituting and increasingly export-oriented soap, margarine, deodorized cooking oil, vaseline, and related products manufactures located mostly in the urban centres.

Thus, to the extent that the three plantations had achieved their principal objective of boosting oil-palm and palm-oil production, and had generated highly significant ancillary socio-economic benefits, particularly within their rural setting, the plantation system could be said to be an appropriate strategy for development in Sub-Saharan Africa. A major factor underlying the significant positive socio-economic impact registered within the short time-span by the three Ghanaian plantations, as well as others in Kenya, Cameroon, and Nigeria, is their nuclear or nucleus estate method. This involves a core estate with an agro-processing mill together with other modern infrastructure. From the nucleus estate, advanced farming methods and other forms of assistance are extended to enable the peasants dislocated by the plantations to grow palms on leased portions of the estate, and to enable the "outgrowers" to grow the same crop on their own land within a specified radius. These smallholders and outgrowers are jointly called "contract farmers" because they are under a contractual obligation to sell the harvested palm fruit to the nuclear estate companies in exchange for their assistance. Other factors underlying the plantations' positive impact include:

the large-scale production methods facilitated by mechanization, foreign-assisted capitalization, and modern corporate management;

the plantations' higher oil extraction rate of 95-100 per cent, compared with 75-80 per cent for the medium-scale mechanical mills, and 50-60 per cent for the small-scale manual or semi-mechanical processors;

easier access to land, credit, and other inputs facilitated by Ghana government support;

worker incentives such as bonuses, free medical care, and subsidized housing on the estate;

minimization of harvesting, transportation, and management costs by the provision of road networks inside the estates, and the location of outgrower farms near motorable roads;

the systematic phasing of development (Halfani and Barker 1984; Gyasi 1987, 1990, 1991, 1992a).

These factors had allowed the GOPDC, TOPP, and BOPP to operate profitably, unlike the strictly state-controlled plantations, notably NOPL (National Oil Palms Ltd.) at Pretsea (fig. 18.1).

Adverse environmental impacts and sustainability

However, the question is whether the gains can be sustained. An answer was sought by examining the plantations' adverse impacts, particularly on the natural environment.

Traditionally, the natural environment, including the land, has constituted the basis of the farming, hunting, and gathering economies in the plantation areas. Consequently, the expropriation of over 16,000 ha of peasant lands for the plantations, with little or no compensation for the cottages, camps, and farms lost, together with various land-use or proprietary rights, could be expected to precipitate social resistance. This, indeed, had been the case, as illustrated by the dramatic refusal of the migrant Ningo farmers of Atobriso and Okaikrom to grant government and GOPDC officials entry into their acquired land. As in the case of land expropriated for the RISONPALM nucleus estate in Nigeria (Gyasi 1987,1990), other manifestations of the peasants' resistance had included: a group petition to the government and to the management of the plantations; threatened court action; pilfering of palm fruit from the plantations; and acts of sabotage, which had necessitated a tightening of security at considerable cost to the plantation companies. The insecurity engendered by the compensation factor partly accounts for the companies' inability to establish effective control over portions of their concessions used illegally by land-short local people, including squatter farmers.

But perhaps the most serious adverse effect has been the rapid transformation of the forest ecosystem and its resilient diversified ecologically based traditional economy into a vulnerable artificial monocultural system. Instability, risks, or uncertainties are inherent features of the natural environment, which the peasant farmers recognize. Traditionally, the peasants try to minimize these environmental risks, combat soil erosion, optimize utilization of the different soil nutrients, and enhance food security by intermixing crops of varying degrees of environmental sensitivity and different nutritional value, and by other forms of agricultural diversification and risk minimization. The resilient, diversified indigenous agriculture, modelled on the forest ecosystem and based on eco-farming principles borne out of the peasants' intimate knowledge of the natural environment, is being replaced by the risk-prone monocultural system, with devastating consequences for the forest ecosystem.

Of a sample of farmers, 47 per cent perceived a trend towards palm monoculture as a result of the activities of the plantation companies in their locality; 62 per cent of the farmers considered the monocultural trend desirable, because they saw the palm as lucrative, dependable, and a steadier income-generator owing to the high value placed on it, its robust character, and its bi-monthly fruiting habit. However, a significant 38 per cent of the farmers did not consider the trend towards palm monoculture desirable, primarily because it was leading to shortages of local staple foods, a problem also reported by the management of the plantations. A second reason was the vulnerability of the monocultural palm farms to insect pests and diseases (table 18.1), an agro-ecological problem most vividly demonstrated by the unusually massive and destructive insect invasion of the monocultural palm farms in 1986-1987. A third reason was the difficulty of marketing palm fruit and oil associated with poor marketing facilities for the increased output, and the higher production cost in Ghana, related to the less favourable moisture conditions and less effective radiation utilization by the palm (BOPP 1990), which has led to the growing premature felling of the palm trees for production of the local gin, akpeteshie. Other reported or observed adverse effects were:

deforestation, and the associated growing cost and scarcity of forest products such as "bush meat" (game), medicinal plants, and wood, an important constructional material and the basic fuel source;

the high cost, erratic supplies, and polluting effect of the agrochemicals used to boost palm yields and to control pests and weeds, especially in the large plantations;

environmental pollution by the palm fruit and palm oil effluents, a potentially rich source of organic fertilizer.

Although these reports or observations require further investigation, they nevertheless point to the environmental shortcomings of the system.

On the one hand, the plantation system, especially the nuclear estate version, appears attractive as a development strategy in the Sub-Sahara because of its ability to accelerate agricultural production and generate other important socio-economic benefits, including employment, income, agro-industrial growth, and modern infrastructure, especially in the rural areas. On the other hand, the system does not appear attractive because its vulnerable character and adverse effects on traditional landholding and land-use rights, on food and fuel security, and, above all, on the natural environment throw its sustainability into serious doubt.

Perhaps the plantation system might be rendered sustainable by encouraging its modification into smaller diversified farms on the basis of organic and other eco-farming and the principles of low external inputs that underpin proven sustainable systems such as modern agro-forestry and traditional African systems, notably:

the bush fallow system, which intermixes diverse crops amidst selected uncleared trees and bushes in the form of proto-agroforestry;

the more or less permanent farming system on compound land, which often integrates both livestock and assorted crops around the household or living compound (Benneh 1972; Benneh and Gyasi 1991; Gyasi 1992b; Kopke and Schulz 1992).

Table 18.1 Insect pests and diseases of the oil-palm

Scientific name Common name Category
Coelaenomonadera minuta (Coleoptera: Hispidae) Oil palm leaf miner Primary pest
Pimelophila ghasquieri (Lepidoptera: Pyralidae) African spear borer Primary pest
Temoschoita quadripustulata (Coleoptera: Curculionidae) Oil palm weevil Primary pest
Phynchophorusphoenicis (Coleoptera: Curculionidae) Red striped weevil Primary pest
Oryctes spp. (Coleoptera: Dynastidae) Rhinoceros beetle Primary pest
Latoia viridissima (Lepidoptera: Limacodidae) West African slug caterpillar Secondary pest
Zonoceros variegatus (Orthoptera: Acrididae) Grasshopper Secondary pest
Augosoma contaurius (Orthoptera: Dynastidae) N.A. Secondary pest
Adoretus umbrosus (Coleoptera: Dynastidae Rutelidae) N.A. Secondary pest
Schizonycha africana (Coleoptera: Nololunthidae) N. A. Secondary pest
Parasa viridissima (Lepidoptera: Limacodidae) West African slug caterpillar Secondary pest
Spodoptera litura (Lepidoptera: Noctuidae) N. A. Secondary pest
Phenacoccus spp. (Hemiptera: Coccoidea) Mealy bug Secondary pest
Pinnaspis marchali (Hemiptera: Coccoidea) Scale insect Secondary pest
Sufetula nigrescens (Lepidoptera: Pyralidae) Oil palm aerial root Potential pest
Metisa plana (Lepidoptera: Psychedae) Oil palm bag worm Potential pest
Leptonatada siostedti (Lepidoptera: Notodontidae) N. A. Potential pest
Monolepta apicicornis (Coleoptera: Chrysomelidae) N.A. Potential pest
Cercospora leaf spot

Source: Gyasi (1991).
N.A. = not available.

The principles underlying the native African systems have much to recommend them because they derive from intimate knowledge of the local environment, form an integral part of the traditional culture, and, as such, offer a strong basis for agricultural development. Other possibilities for improving the environmental impact and sustainability of plantations include the "i'th" or "n'th" row method whereby every second, third, etc. row in the plantation is reserved for crops other than the primary plantation crop. Another is the arrangement whereby the outgrowers and the smallholders devote a portion of their land to the industrial crop required by the nuclear estate mill and the rest to food or other crops. Others include the intermixing of the principal plantation crop with other crops.


To sum up, what one may envision on the basis of this preliminary enquiry is a network of smaller diversified plantations of the nucleus estate type at appropriate locations, whereby modern ecologically based farming methods are extended to surrounding contract farmers to sustain agriculture and the environment in Sub-Saharan Africa.


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