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'This is Not Empty Forest': Africa's Palm Oil Surge Builds in Cameroon

March 30, 2016

John C. Cannon

This is the first part of a series on palm oil in Cameroon. The next will follow shortly and will be linked here when published.

Tucked amongst the hilltops of Yaoundé are the signs of a country and an economy on the move. Cameroonians fill high-end grocery stores, bars and restaurants, often spilling out onto the street in the capital city streets to watch the traffic and people pass, by while enjoying the tropical capital’s surprisingly temperate weather with a glass of beer and a grilled fish.

But it’s not all rosy economically for Cameroon, with growing pains evident in cities throughout the country: Poverty still abounds as the seams of cities like Yaoundé and Douala stretch beyond their infrastructures’ capacities. Cameroonians living abroad sent more than $150 million in remittances back to their country in 2013, about 0.5 percent of GDP, an indication that many of the country’s highest earners reside outside the country.

And while the unemployment level sits at around 4 percent, it’s almost double that for young people under 25 years of age. In Yaoundé and beyond, the government is resettling residents along roadways, razing their homes and shops to make way for presumably sturdier and more attractive dwellings.

To accelerate their nation’s rise, leaders have set their sights on income sources that they hope will buoy the economy – or at least bring more money in – and one of the founts they hope will pay off is oil palm.

Cameroon in many ways is a microcosm of the surge in oil palm investment set to take much of tropical Africa by storm. The country has a history with the crop dating back more than six decades to colonialism under the French. Many Cameroonians today produce palm oil for themselves and for sale on the local market, and a few international companies have begun to test the waters, developing large-scale industrial plantations, often with the blessing of key government officials who see the crop as a critical rung on the ladder toward Cameroon becoming an emerging nation.

But along with that development has come signs of the issues that have arisen with oil palm’s industrial application elsewhere in the world, notably in Southeast Asia. Poor coordination and opaque land laws have led to disenfranchised local populations, who have seen their forests appropriated by big companies and promises from those corporations often going unfulfilled.

One of the big questions that arises with any sort of agricultural development is where to put plantations that can be tens of thousands of hectares in size. The most sustainable option, and the one espoused by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) – thus far the only international sustainability certification system – is to select degraded land for development, rather than tapping into forested areas.

But protecting these forests – and the biodiversity, carbon stores and resources for local communities that they support – isn’t quite so easy. A lot of degraded land isn’t in the huge tracts that industrial-scale oil palm agriculture demands. It’s more often held by individual farmers in small plots. And in some areas, the degraded land that’s available to developers isn’t suitable for growing oil palm. As a result of these and other factors, monitoring reports indicate forests are still being targeted for palm oil plantations — even in places and by companies that have made zero-deforestation commitments.

Herakles moves in, stirs contention

Cameroon’s people haven’t been spared from the conflict that so often accompanies huge land developments for agriculture. In 2009, a minister in Yaoundé quietly awarded a 99-year lease of more than 73,000 hectares of land – an area larger than Singapore – in the country’s southwest to Sithe Global Sustainable Oils Cameroon, a subsidiary of U.S. agribusiness Herakles Farms. The move touched off a firestorm of controversy in the communities around the proposed plantation.

John C. Cannon

The concession has been contentious from the start. Legally, a minister should not have signed a contract for that amount of land. According to land tenure laws dating back to 1976, the “Minister in charge of lands” can only temporarily grant areas of land smaller than 50 hectares in size. More than that, and the grant must be done by presidential decree, which did happen in 2013 – four years after Herakles arrived in Cameroon.

Between 2009 and 2013 is when Herakles really became embroiled in controversy. Greenpeace published a report asserting that 89 percent of the land Herakles intended to develop held “dense natural forest.” Subsequent surveys of the land found a plethora of endangered primates and other mammals living in the area – red colobus monkeys, Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzees and forest elephants among them.

And environmental groups cried foul when the Cameroonian government lifted an earlier suspension of Herakles’ activities in mid-2013, before the presidential decree was signed. By that point, it had become clear that the company didn’t plan to meet the requirements of the RSPO – the world’s primary international certification organization.

But from early on, it wasn’t just government leaders in Yaoundé who saw the promise of the type and size of investment that Herakles represented.

“When they started working, we were very happy,” said Chief Philip Wangoe of the village of Fabe, about 13.5 kilometers from Mundemba. He said the workers for the company bought goods and rented living space from people in Fabe. “We loved the company.”

The company’s managers came with promises of cash payments, scholarships and jobs for the locals – some of which have panned out, and some that haven’t, Wangoe said.

Recently, however, amid the company’s financial, legal and public relations problems, it has scaled back work on its plantation near Mundemba, leaving a skeleton staff in place to tend the nursery. But Wangoe said the company’s managers have promised to return, and he looks forward to that day.

Others living in the area have endeavored to stop Herakles’ work completely, with some paying a high price for their dissidence. Nasako Besingi, director of the NGO SEFE, which stands for Struggle to Economize Future Environment, started holding community meetings shortly after he noticed the arrival of the company in the Mundemba area, about 7 years ago.

Besingi said that since then, he has spread the word about the company’s intentions through information-sharing meetings with communities, to which he said representatives were always invited. His efforts have been supported by Cameroonian and international NGOs, including watchdog groups such as Greenpeace and the Oakland Institute.