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Herakles Farms Reinvents Itself

January 25, 2013
Modern Ghana

Since 2009, Herakles Farms (HF) through its Cameroon affiliate Sithe Global Sustainable Oils Cameroon PLC (SGSOC) registered in Cayman Islands has been involved in a controversial land deal to clear 73,000 hectares of pristine rainforest in the South West Region of Cameroon for an oil palm project.

At first, SGSOC Cameroonian consultant, late Dr. Issidore Timti led the company into the error of believing that the land was up for grabs and HF was going to have a smooth ride unopposed. HF went ahead to plant its beacons and pillars in forests around Nguti, where it was pretending to own over 42,000 hectares and in Mundemba where it claimed 31,000 hectares.

After a lopsided Establishment Convention with the Cameroon Government signed by the Minister of Economy and Regional Planning, Louis Paul Motaze, HF claimed it had sealed a 99 years land lease from the government of Cameroon.

Whereas HF had to wait for the signature of the President of Cameroon for the proposed concession, HF took the establishment convention as the ultimate authorization to do as it wished in Cameroon.

During the period of confusion, think tanks were set up in Nguti subdivision under the auspices of NGUSCUDA (Nguti Sub-divisional Cultural and Development Association) to brainstorm on the proposed HF oil palm project. Many memoranda were written to President Paul Biya requesting him to reject the HF oil palm project.

Hon Ashu Mbanda, MP for Nguti wrote to the President telling him that the communities of Nguti were against the project. Mboum Nsuanse, a cultural and development association of the 11 villages that make up the Bassossi tribe told anybody who wished to hear that they did not have any land to give HF as the Bayang Mbo Wildlife Sanctuary had already taken 75 percent of their land.

Some village chiefs acting as overlords welcomed project, while over 80 percent of their subjects rejected project.

The champion of HF stubborn advances on the ground, the second class chief of Talangaye claims he personally invited SGSOC to come and do its nursery and plantations in his village. Chief Dr. Atem Ebako claims he has 60,000 hectares of forest to offer HF. It has been proven that his village is less than 5,000 hectares in size.

Chief Eben Nkongho of Manyemen who is also in support of project says even his village which is larger than Talangaye has only 3,147 hectares to give HF. But Chief Nkongho regrets that his village will be losing its only source of non timber forest products as the forest will be cleared.

“You cannot have omelets without breaking eggs.” Chief Eben said, quickly adding that, “If conservation movements were going to pay me carbon credits, I will stop my community from cutting even a single tree.”

Next door in Talangaye, Chief Dr Atem Ebako says the Government of Cameroon has failed his people. “My people have no roads and are dying in abject poverty. SGSOC is already creating roads in the village, building houses, and employing over 450 people. Any Talangaye person who wished to work for SGSOC is earning at least FCFA 60,000 a month. The population of Talangaye is growing.” Chief Dr. Atem added.

Speaking to him on Tuesday 22 January 2013 at his Kumba offices, Chief Dr. Atem Ebako proudly says he is the only one who decides for his village. “I decide for my people as I am well informed.”

“I have ordered my subjects not to talk to any enemy organization like WWF, Green Peace and other environmental organizations which come and cause disorder.” Chief Dr. Atem said.

Taunted whether he was depriving his community of its constitutional rights to freedom of movement, freedom of expression and freedom of gathering, Chief Dr Atem said, “I do not want some white people coming and telling lies to my people. So I have ordered my subjects to stop them, until I say yes.”

The vehicle I was traveling with was actually stopped from using a road being resurfaced by HF. A white South African controlling the infrastructure development of HF said “we do not want bad organizations like WWF, Green Peace and Oakland Institute coming here.”

I asked John Edwards if he knew the Cameroonian law about public facilities like roads. He blushed and said, “Yes! It is a public road but it is on Chief Dr. Atem Ebako's property.”

The road HF has started from Talangaye heading towards Sambaliba to eventually reach Mundemba over 70 kilometers away is following an old timber road provided for the communities. If HF chose to resurface the road, it is not authorized to prevent the public from using it.

Even white people who are presented as enemies when they try to ask questions around Talangaye are equally welcomed to use this public facility.

Viewing its activities and weighing the hostility of the communities to its way of doing business, SGSOC is trying to reinvent itself.

The CEO of HF, Bruce Wroebels claimed in his open letter that there was no opposition to the oil palm project in Nguti and Mundemba. Bruce has realized that opposition based on environmental concerns, social rights and the traditional rights of the communities has reached fever pitch.

From initially showing its goodwill and inviting HF for negotiations and realizing that HF is not predictable and fair, most of the communities turned their backs on the project.

Government reacted by ordering the SDO of Kupe Muanenguba to remove all HF beacons and pillars from Nguti forests. Government also asked HF to proceed by seeking the consent of the communities.

HF is now recruiting people like Dr. Atanga Ekobo to address the concerns of international environmental NGOs. Some voices hold that HF is presently hiring people who could influence Yaounde and the international community.

One positive thing in the last month is that HF is actually ready to recognize its past errors and renegotiate. Instead of telling the people that “We want 73,000 hectares of land and must get it since it is government land,” they are now involving the communities in participatory mapping, and refrain going where they are not welcomed.

As to Formal Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) the communities have no way to get the right information.

Some chiefs have expressed their need for contract lawyers, as the establishment convention with the government of Cameroon basically gives away all the forest for nothing in return. They want adequate information so as to better decide.