Dec 2, 2018
Samuel Avaala shakes his head as he dips his fork into a bowl
of red-red, a
traditional Ghanaian stew that gets its color – and name – in part
from red palm oil.
“It doesn’t make sense,” he says. “Oil palm evolved here. It’s
in our food; it’s in our medicine; but we built an economy on cocoa
with little attention to oil palm.”
Oil palm is the tree that gives us palm oil, and the people of
Western and Central Africa have been cultivating it for millennia
and processing the fruit for vitamin-rich oil, used in
food and soap, tapping the trunks for palm wine that is distilled
into medicinal alcohol, and using the biomass for green power
generation. Over the past half-century, the rest of the world has
discovered palm oil, too, and today it’s a $60
billion-per-year market that provides material for
everything from fuels to food to face paint.
But that money isn’t flowing into Western and Central
The Great Crop Swap
Instead, thanks to a fluke of history, it’s flowing
and Malaysia, which produce more than 80 percent of the world’s
palm oil, while the dominant cash crop in palm oil’s birthplace, is
cacao – a tree that evolved thousands of miles away, in the Amazon
forest, where the Incas used it to make cocoa.
It’s all part of an inadvertent crop swap that began when a
Ghanaian agronomist named Tetteh
Quarshie brought cacao beans home with him in the
19th Century, just as Dutch and British traders
were bringing African palm trees to South East Asia and migrants
from Spain, Portugal, and Japan were bringing Ethiopian coffee and
Asian soy to the Amazon. Today, 66 percent of the world’s cocoa
comes from Ghana
and Côte d’Ivoire, while Southeast Asia dominates in palm oil,
and the Amazon region produces massive amounts of soy and beef.
The Deforestation Boom
These lucrative crops have been a double-edged sword, bringing
economic wealth to some, economic devastation to others, and
environmental degradation to all. Indonesia, for
more than 10 million hectares of forest in just the past
30 years as oil palm plantations spread, becoming the world’s
sometimes third-largest) emitter of greenhouse gasses,
d’Ivoire has lost 80 percent of its forest in roughly the
same period to cacao.
Now Indonesian and Malaysian palm oil companies are expanding
into Africa, and many environmentalists are worried that could
accelerate deforestation if natural vegetation is cleared to plant
Avaala, however, says it doesn’t have to be that way.