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Landgrabbing in Cameroon

By Julien-François Gerber

Since 2000, foreign governments and corporations have bought or leased over 56 million hectares in Africa, an area almost the size of Kenya.1 Palm oil is a major driver of new land acquisitions. Rapidly increasing demand for palm oil for food and agro-fuels is currently leading to a new wave of large-scale planting in Africa. Those who resist risk being sued.

Cameroon is among the areas of future expansions. After the scandals around the Socapalm plantations,2 a new palm oil company has recently attracted a lot of attention: the US-owned Herakles Farms. The project covers 73,086 hectares of forest and farmland home to about 14,000 people, mostly small farmers. Most of the local inhabitants are opposing the plantation, fearing it will deprive them of their farmland and access to forest products. International and Cameroonian NGOs and scientists are also critical of the project on the grounds of ecological destruction, illegality and socio-environmental injustice.

Located in Southwest Cameroon, the Herakles plantations would cover most of the land linking five important protected areas, including Korup National Park. This region is part of the Guinean forests of West Africa, identified as a biodiversity hotspot – one of the world’s top 25 critical areas for biodiversity conservation. A map compiled by Greenpeace3 shows that the plantation includes 62,433 hectares of dense forest, almost 90% of the proposed concession.

On top of that, Herakles has shown its non-respect of the law. In 2010, without a presidential decree authorizing the concession, Herakles started clearing forest to establish oil palm nurseries. Herakles also violated a court decision, made in the town of Mundemba, to suspend all activity following a complaint filed by local people. Furthermore, the company was found guilty of illegal logging.4

Its environmental and social impact assessment is inadequate: it acknowledges “major” future impacts on local livelihood but makes no provision for mitigation. Residents report that they were not consulted, farmland was demarcated without consent and false promises were made orally

When residents protested against the plantation in the summer of 2012 they were met with intimidation and arrests. In August 2012, Nasako Besingi, the director of Cameroonian NGO SEFE (Struggle to Economize Future Environment), was physically assaulted by people associated with Herakles, while he visited the area with French journalists.5 In November 2012, while preparing a peaceful demonstration, Besingi and other members of SEFE were arrested at the organization’s headquarters and held without charge. They were released following international criticism, including an appeal from the World Organization Against Torture and the International Federation for Human Rights.

On December 31, 2013 Besingi was summoned, at the request of Herakles, for “publication of false news via the internet”. Besingi’s court case begins on March. He could face up to 6 months imprisonment and thousands of US dollars in fines. Herakles’ lawsuit is based on an email relating the August 2012 events. Besingi and four colleagues are also facing other charges for organising “an undeclared public meeting” while distributing anti-Herakles t-shirts to locals. Besingi is not the only target of intimidation by Herakles and the Government of Cameroon: the local NGO Nature Cameroon is another example.6

Greenpeace called Herakles’ plantation “the wrong project in the wrong place”.7 It is imposing its version of development without consent of the communities that will be directly affected and that protest accordingly. The plantation would take a large part of their land, undermining local food sovereignty and forcing people into wage labour. It would also have a disastrous impact on biodiversity. Following this model will send Africa’s forests down the path seen in Indonesia and Malaysia where oil palm plantations have caused millions of hectares of deforestation.

4 Forestry officials issued reports detailing these activities: Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife (2012) ‘Rapport de Mission de Contrôle – Report on inspection of SGSOC site at Talangaye’ Delegation for the South West, Regional Brigade for Control, 27 April 2012; and Observateur indépendant au contrôle forestier et au suivi des infractions forestières au Cameroun (2012) ‘Rapport de Mission N°040/OI/ AGRECO-CEW’, June 2012.

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