Cables reveal US gov’t role in Herakles Farms land grab in Cameroon

August 30, 2016
Source
Mongabay

Mike Gaworecki

Cables obtained by the non-profit Oakland Institute through a Freedom of Information Act request reveal that U.S. government officials pushed the Central African nation of Cameroon to approve a deeply controversial oil palm development owned by Herakles Farms despite full knowledge of the project’s negative impacts on the environment and local communities.

Sithe Global Sustainable Oils Cameroon (SG-SOC), a subsidiary of U.S. agribusiness firm Herakles Farms, signed a convention with a Cameroonian government minister in 2009 to develop a large-scale palm oil plantation that included a 99-year lease for 73,086 hectares (about 180,600 acres) of land in the Ndian and Kupe-Manenguba Divisions in southwest Cameroon. The development was contentious from the start, as the convention was likely illegal, given that land in excess of 50 hectares can only be granted by presidential decree under Cameroonian law.

Nonetheless, the company began clearing forest and developing nurseries in 2010, converting pristine tropical rainforest into monoculture oil palm plantations despite massive local opposition, according to a report released today by the Oakland Institute. The area where SG-SOC began operating is considered a biodiversity hotspot, and its operations allegedly put the livelihoods of 45,000 people at risk.

Herakles Farms ignored local court orders to cease these operations, “one of which specifically ordered the company to cease work until a proper environmental impact assessment was conducted, compensation was made to those directly affected by the project, and a Memorandum of Understanding was negotiated with local indigenous peoples,” the report states.

Then, four years later, SG-SOC got the decree it needed. President Paul Biya signed three decrees in November 2013 green-lighting the project, though it had been scaled back significantly, from a 99-year lease to a three-year probationary lease for just 19,843 hectares.

“It was shocking that President Biya signed the decrees despite the mountain of evidence exposing the vast social, economic, and environmental consequences of the project,” Frederic Mousseau, Policy Director at the Oakland Institute, said in a statement. “We now know that behind the scenes, US government officials were applying serious pressure to the Cameroonian government to grant Herakles Farms the land.”

Industrial-scale oil palm plantation on the road to Edea, Cameroon. Photo by Flore de Preneuf/PROFOR.

In at least three meetings in May 2013, for instance, Cynthia Akuetteh, then-Deputy Assistant Secretary for African Affairs at the U.S. State Department, pressed President Biya, Prime Minister Philémon Yang, and other Cameroonian officials to end the “investment dispute” with Herakles.