Agriculture is Africa’s engine for growth. It accounts for nearly one-quarter of the continent’s GDP and employs almost two-thirds of its labor force, which is dominated by smallholders who farm for subsistence or grow cash crops. But changes are under way. The past 15 years have witnessed deals that have led to the allocation of thousands of square kilometers of land for industrial-scale cultivation of food, biofuels, and animal feed. Since much of the land suitable for industrial agriculture is in the forests of the Congo Basin and West Africa—which are also home to chimpanzees, bonobos, eastern and western gorillas, four of the world’s six great ape species—these changes threaten the future of species whose survival already hangs in the balance.
With international demand for oil crops such as castor, oil palm, sesame, and sunflower forecast to increase, the relative ease of access to land, lower setup costs, and government incentives are likely to fuel agricultural expansion in Africa, even in the face of challenges such as price fluctuations. Oil palm accounts for the largest portion of active investments on the continent. In Southeast Asia, oil-palm cultivation has led to the clearing of vast tracts of forested land, resulting in a dramatic decline in ape populations and, more broadly, in biodiversity. Another path must be taken in Africa if the continent is to conserve some of the world’s remaining, largely intact forest areas—which comprise nearly three-quarters of Africa’s forest cover and a significant portion of its biodiversity.