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U.S. Firm Accused of Greenwashing Cameroon 'Land Grab'

September 20, 2012
Final Call

WASHINGTON (IPS) - Environment groups are accusing a New York-based agricultural company, Herakles Farms, of going forward with plans for a 180,000 acre palm-oil plantation and refinery in Southwest Cameroon despite a lack of government authorization, two court injunctions, and in the face of significant community opposition.

The Oakland Institute and Greenpeace, two environment watchdogs based here in the United States, released a report Sept. 5 suggesting that the project, situated in what is described as a biodiversity hotspot between four major conservation zones, could negatively impact up to 45,000 people.

The groups warn that the project, which is linked to the Blackstone Group, a massive investment group, represents the vanguard of a new “scramble for land” in Africa by Western companies.

“Herakles claims to be engaged in improving Cameroon’s food security and humanitarian situation, but we have found this to be a total fraud. In fact, they are about to destroy the livelihoods of thousands,” Frederic Mousseau, the report’s author, said in a media call.

“Likewise, Herakles claims local support, but we found this to be a blatant lie. Finally, the claim that this land is secondary forest and degraded is misleading. In fact, large portions have never even been logged.” (By deadline, Herakles officials had not responded to requests for comment.)

The project, overseen by a Herakles subsidiary called SG Sustainable Oils Cameroon, is still at an early stage, currently consisting of three large nurseries. “We are now waiting for an official decision by the Cameroon government to proceed beyond these nurseries,” Mr. Mousseau says. “So this is an important moment—the project can still be stopped.”

The backlash against SGSOC took on new energy following the Aug. 24 notification that Herakles was removing the project from formal compliance with a set of eco-friendly industry guidelines called the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.

In explaining the move, Herakles, which describes itself as “committed to addressing the complex issues of food security through sustainable agriculture initiatives,” cited the length of time its application had been pending, while noting that it was “addressing a dire humanitarian need” in Cameroon.

The legality of the project’s nurseries has already been called into question. Although the company did sign a 99-year agreement with the government in 2009, Cameroonian law requires that the use of such large tracts of land have direct presidential consent.

Given that such a decree has yet to be given, activists suggest that the company had no legal basis on which to start bulldozing the forestland and cocoa and vegetable farms on which local communities depended.

A local judge has filed two injunctions against the company’s actions, but according to local observers the company has refused to comply.

“Not only do they not want to comply with existing law, but the company has clearly turned its back on sustainable practices,” says Samuel Nguiffo, a lawyer and director of the Center for Environment and Development, in Cameroon’s capital, Yaounde. “The government structure in our country is very weak, so we’re asking the U.S. to stop the company.”