Synopsis: Research shows that oil palm expansion in Kalangala District, Uganda, has had severe negative effects on food security and the environment. Based on these research results, the Government of Uganda has improved the planning of oil palm expansion in other parts of the country.
Uganda’s Kalangala District consists of 84 islands in Lake Victoria. These islands were once covered with diverse landscapes consisting of savannah, lush green forests and agricultural fields, where farmers would grow a variety of food crops, such as sweet potatoes, cassava and bananas. About two decades ago, however, the central government started acquiring land in the district, among others by buying up land from small landowners. The government then leased the land to a private company, which converted it to oil palm plantations. This was part of an ambitious government programme to grow substitutes for vegetable oil imports. Today, Kalangala’s landscapes are dominated by oil palm, and in the coming years the government plans to further expand oil palm plantations to other parts of the country.
Ecological Trends Alliance (ETA) — TBI’s partner in Uganda — has been researching the impacts of oil palm expansion in Kalangala for several years. They found that biodiversity and other ecosystem services had decreased tremendously, and also discovered numerous injustices, including land grabbing and unfair pricing by the company. Moreover, most local people seemed disappointed with the developmental outcomes of oil palm expansion. For example, although many people could earn income as labourers on the plantations, their access to affordable food products had decreased significantly. Because so many food crops had been replaced by oil palm, Kalangala District could no longer produce enough to feed its own population. As a result, the district became dependent on more expensive food crops that had to be shipped in from the mainland. This showed that the approach to oil palm expansion in Kalangala had many negative effects.
ETA then started to build awareness among the communities in the district, providing them with evidence of negative effects, and empowering people to speak up against oil palm injustices and its further expansion. At the same time, ETA opened up a dialogue with the company, and with government departments at the district and national level. One of the ways they did this was by organizing multi-stakeholder field visits that included representatives of the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries, which is responsible for the country’s oil palm programme. From the field observations, participants could see how uncontrolled expansion had affected the environment and local livelihoods. These field visits had positive results. Although at first the ministry had downplayed the impacts of oil palm on people and environment, their attitude gradually changed.
With this change of attitude, the ministry even started asking ETA for support. Staff from ETA actively engaged with government staff to improve land-use planning and mapping, which are crucial to ensure that oil palm expansion does not take place at the cost of important food production areas and forests. ETA was also asked to provide input to the government’s new oil palm programme document (including its gender strategy), which sets out a better approach to oil palm expansion for the coming years. Under the new programme — which was launched in 2020 — the government can no longer purchase land for private investors. Instead, the emphasis is on organizing communities to produce oil palm on their own lands, while making sure that people still produce enough food locally. Moreover, the programme no longer focuses just on oil palm, but also supports the production of other crops, such as coffee and banana, to ensure a more varied landscape. This is a significant break with the past, and it is hoped that the mistakes made in Kalangala will not be repeated.
This article is part of the TBI Annual review 2020,
due for release in May 2021