Will an avalanche of private money help or hurt Africa?

"TRADE NOT AID".  Increasingly that's the catch-cry of some politicians and rock stars such as Bob Geldoff, when discussing Africa's future.  But will trade and private investment save Africa -- or merely open it up to predatory exploitation?

Tough choices ahead...  (photo by William Laurance)

Tough choices ahead... (photo by William Laurance)

That's a pressing question because Africa is in the midst of an investment gold-rushChina is investing over $100 billion annually just in African mining

Investors from India, Brazil, the USA, Canada, Europe and Australia are now pouring funds into ventures ranging from minerals and oil to infrastructure and timber. 

In the midst of this tidal wave, it's worthwhile to consider the trials and tribulations of one major effort to bring private investment to Africa -- a campaign that ultimately precipitated the suicide of the main investor, who had been heavily criticized for his efforts.

In a recent article in Foreign Policy magazine, writer Christiane Badgley tells the story of the U.S. corporation Herakles Farms and its ongoing attempt to establish a massive oil palm plantation in Cameroon.

But despite the almost-messianic leadership of its director Bruce Wrobel, Herakles Farms has come under fire both within Cameroon and internationally.

ALERT member Joshua Linder played an important role in this story, with help from other ALERT researchers including Tom Struhsaker, Tom Lovejoy, Corey Bradshaw, Lian Pin Koh and Bill Laurance. 

These scientists helped to raise the alarm about this project and its potential to have grave environmental impacts in a global biodiversity hotspot.

The issue of aid versus private investment for developing nations is not a simple one, but anyone thinking seriously about this issue needs to read Badgley's article. 

For Africa -- in the midst of an investors' feeding frenzy -- there are few easy answers and many dangers ahead.

Using old smart-phones to fight eco-crimes

Guarding nature is tricky... there's a lot of nature out there and many illegal loggers, poachers and gold-miners who are eager to pillage surviving natural areas.  What are we to do?

Smart phones get a new lease on life -- helping to save nature.

Smart phones get a new lease on life -- helping to save nature.

One innovative solution might be to use old smart-phones to detect illicit encroachers in the act.  A nonprofit group called Rainforest Connection has begun using the phones to set up monitoring stations in endangered forests -- keeping a sharp ear out for growling chainsaws or the bang of a poacher's gun.

As reported on the leading environmental website Mongabay, the group has tested out their system in Sumatra, Indonesia.  It worked a treat, allowing authorities to catch illegal loggers in its first two weeks of operation.

Now Rainforest Connection is scaling up.  Partnering with the Zoological Society of London, they are using 30 of the devices with solar-power units to monitor 10,000 hectares of vulnerable forest in Cameroon. 

Rainforest connection reckons their devices work far faster than monitoring of forests by satellite.  Their system can alert authorities within just 5 minutes of detecting illegal activity, they say, whereas satellite systems can take a week. 

It's heartening to see good minds working on creative solutions for serious environmental issues.  Let's hope the old smart-phones can do the trick.


Massive oil palm project threatens biodiversity in Cameroon

Oil palm plantations continue to spread like a tsunami across large expanses of the world's humid tropical regions, often driving large-scale deforestation.  Initially widespread in Southeast Asia, the crop is now spreading apace to Latin America, Africa and beyond.

Things are not looking up for wildlife in Cameroon (photo by William Laurance).

Things are not looking up for wildlife in Cameroon (photo by William Laurance).

ALERT member Joshua Linder has been very concerned about the impacts of a massive oil palm project in Cameroon.  Advocated by Herakles Corp., a New York-based agroindustrial firm, the plantation could eventually span over 70,000 hectares and destroy large areas of habitat in the buffer zones of three of Cameroon's most important national parks.

In a recent article, Linder decries the tactics of Herakles and explains how the project could impact on endangered primates and other wildlife species.  Other observers are also expressing great concern about this huge project, both for its environmental impacts and potential effects on local communities.

The challenges to nature conservation in Africa will surely increase dramatically this century, as its human population continues to grow rapidly.  The United Nations estimates that Africa's population will quadruple this century, and the continent is also experiencing an explosion of mining, infrastructure and other development pressures.