David Kikoola and his family before him have been residents of the Ssese islands in the Ugandan part of Lake Victoria for generations. As outgoing district chairperson and successful oil palm farmer he is very interested in agricultural sustainability and in the discussions that have emerged since the development of the Bugala oil palm plantation.
This plantation, which has seen a third of Mr Kikoola’s island converted to oil palm, has attracted NGO community criticism for perceived poor environmental monitoring and mitigation, adverse impacts on the cost of staple food crops, and loss of ‘land as a safety-net’ for local people.
However Mr Kikoola says that generations of his family have “lived and died in abject poverty” and the 84 islands of the Ssese archipelago need productive engagement. He says “we have to preserve for present and future generations but if we do not develop then the future is no brighter. The plantation has negative impacts but these are weighed up against the positives”.
Last year I travelled to Uganda to investigate the environmental and social impact of increased production of agricultural commodities. The complexities of the political and practical trade-offs were soon apparent.
The Government of Uganda, IFAD and private investor, Bidco, initiated planting on Bugala for the Vegetable Oil Development Project in 2003, in order to improve access to affordable vegetable oil throughout Uganda and increase consumption from 2-3 kg per capita per annum to FAO recommended standards of 15 kg per capita per annum. The Ugandan Government was spending US$90-150 million per year on vegetable oil imports and the Kalangala project was a way to reduce expenditure and encourage development in an isolated but resource-rich area. According to Bidco, production from the island is currently matching growth in demand.
The island was identified as having favourable soil and climate conditions for oil palm in the 1970s. Oil palm is popular because of its high yields per hectare, but the climatic and soil conditions required for optimum yields are similar to those of rainforests. The expansion of oil palm plantations has resulted in large-scale deforestation and environmental degradation in countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia.
The scale of the project in Uganda has been contentious. A government representative stated “Bidco was initially rejected as a private partner because of the amount of land their proposal required”. But Bidco argued that because palm oil is an internationally traded product, production had to be large-scale to compete.
The plantation on Bugala will eventually cover 10,000 ha; 6,500 will be owned and managed by the private sector and 3,500 by smallholder farmers who form part of the Palm Oil Growers Trust. The project is due for expansion onto other islands on Lake Victoria, increasing land conversion in phase two.
My study revealed many positive impacts: improved transport and communication networks have encouraged business, a monthly wage enables oil palm famers to send their children to school, and because Bidco pays farmers through the island’s only bank, farmers have opened accounts and are now saving.
Nonetheless some inhabitants are not benefitting from the changes. Conversions of vast tracts of forested and agricultural land have resulted in some residents losing access to land for food crop cultivation and collection of fuel wood. Plantation workers coming to the island have exacerbated problems of prostitution and HIV and local government is struggling to deal with the increased demand on public services.
Monitoring and protection of environmental resources by local authorities is also suffering. A National Forestry Authority representative argues “having regulations without funding is useless”. NGOs believe that the island has encountered dramatic biodiversity loss and that the surrounding lake is suffering from fertiliser leeching due to poor adherence to protective mitigation measures. On neighbouring islands I saw deforestation and planting before the compulsory environmental impact assessment was carried out.
Research on Bugala indicates that the project would benefit from legislative and financial provisions for addressing adverse impacts from the start. Furthermore, agriculture should be developed in conjunction with other sustainability mechanisms, such as: distribution of fuel-efficient cook stoves to limit deforestation; improved links to international organisations such as the RSPO smallholder task force which would assist in compliance to environmental guidelines among smallholder farmers, ensuring adequate agricultural land is set aside for food crops, improved access to education and to fertilisers to improve food crop yields.
Mr Kikoola argues that the real question to be answered about the inevitable expansion of agriculture in developing countries is – how do you successfully mitigate the negative effects in order to limit the damage? I believe we should avoid condemnation of innovative projects such as Kalangala. Instead we should learn from mistakes, communicate and improve; this would allow the complex shift to sustainable agriculture to evolve and advance through trial and error.
Sophia Gnych is a graduate in Biology from Imperial College London and recently completed a masters in Environmental technology also from Imperial. She is soon to begin working for the Zoological Society of London on their Biodiversity conservation and oil palm project in Indonesia.
Sophia’s report/study is available as an executive summary and also in full.