The main aim of introducing oil palm on islands in Lake Victoria is laudable - to provide cash incomes to impoverished rural people and to improve the national economy. But do these two objectives go hand in hand?
Projects packaged on perceived contributions to national economies do not always translate to improvements in the wellbeing of rural communities as relationships are not straight forward in such complex situations. The introduction of oil palm in Kalangala has certainly provided a number of benefits, but most new jobs pay less than prevailing wage rates in the area. This has thus attracted migrant labour with associated social costs, while local people still tend to prefer to carry on fishing, farming and using their forests.
The recent introduction of oil palm into Uganda's Lake Victoria islands has caused significant negative impacts, and eight background review papers commissioned by Tropenbos International have made a start in documenting them. These papers look specifically at the impacts of oil palm production that now occupy more than a third of the main island in Kalangala district, and implications for planned expansion here and in neighbouring Buvuma district where oil palm plantations are scheduled for half of the area. The eight papers cover land use changes, environmental impacts, gender-based impacts, economic and social benefits compared to those from central forest reserves, mitigating negative impacts, implications on the management of remaining forests, and of land tenure laws.
The 'oil palm project' in Kalangala district has seriously tested the commitment and resolve of the Ugandan government to enforce its own environmental laws. But unfortunately, evidence appears to suggest that the sanctity of lakeshores and natural forests have been violated. An assessment of the benefits of oil palm needs to be considered, and compared to actual and potential benefits from central forest reserves and private forests that are being replaced. Available evidence some of which is presented here indicates that natural forests can generate incomes and services to local communities in excess of those from oil palm.
As to the future? Plans are underway for growing more oil palm in Uganda, and experiences like those from Kalangala documented here are important and must be borne in mind when planning further expansion. It is reported that 3,500 hectares of forest will be cleared for the establishment oil palm plantations on Buvuma island, and which is likely to impact at least some of the many gazetted forest reserves.
Many positive success stories show that more sustainable systems of palm oil production are not only possible, but also profitable and more equitable, through the organization and empowerment of smallholder farmers rather than the expansion of multinational-owned monoculture plantations as the preferred business model. Specific recommendations include the need for repeated consultations and active participation of local communities and all stakeholders, thorough and environmental impact and gender assessments conducted prior to any implementation, and regular, independent and transparent monitoring.
The eight background review papers are part of the activities under the Green Livelihood Alliance in Uganda in 2017.