A huge palm oil project in Cameroon's rainforest, led by a U.S.-based agribusiness, Herakles Farms, is stirring up controversy. Environmentalists warn it will destroy precious forest and displace local people from their land, while others, including some village chiefs, say it will boost development.
Palm oil, one of the cheapest edible oils, is being used increasingly by the commercial food industry, and is a key ingredient in some biofuels. As a result, global demand has rocketed and agricultural corporations are buying up large tracts of forest land to expand production.
According to a report from the U.S.-based Oakland Institute in collaboration with Greenpeace International, Herakles Farms' local subsidiary, SG Sustainable Oils Cameroon, Ltd (SGSOC), signed an agreement with the government in 2009 to establish a 73,100-hectare (180,600 acre) palm oil plantation, one of the largest on the continent, in Cameroon's Southwest Region under a 99-year land lease.
"Being developed without the consent and adequate consultation of many local communities, this project exemplifies how the scramble for land in Africa threatens sustainable development and human rights," said the report, released on Sept. 5.
Herakles Farms, an affiliate of investment fund Herakles Capital, will pay only $0.50 to $1 per hectare per year under a contract which amounts to "ripping off Cameroonians", Greenpeace campaigner Frederic Amiel said in a statement.
"This palm oil plantation would wreak environmental havoc and dislocate communities who rely on the forests," he added.
Herakles Farms plans to partner with All for Africa, an NGO headed by Herakles' own chairman and CEO Bruce Wrobel, to channel palm oil revenues into development projects that will benefit local communities.
But campaigners, including WWF and Cameroonian civil society groups, have said the investor's promises of sustainable development projects to help feed the world without damaging the environment are little more than a smokescreen.
The Oakland Institute report said local farmers - who grow cocoa, millet and cassava, among other crops - fear they will lose their land and livelihoods to the U.S. company and its local affiliate.
"SGSOC has not presented any maps indicating the inner boundaries of the proposed palm oil concession, leaving villagers in the dark as to how much farmland they actually stand to lose," the report said.
The company began operations by establishing tree nurseries in 2010 without a presidential decree granting the land lease and in spite of two decisions by a local court ordering the company to cease work, "making recent activities of the U.S. company in violation of national laws", the report added.
Back in April, Cameroon's forestry ministry declared SGSOC's operations in the area to be illegal. After carrying out an inspection, it issued a report saying the company "has not respected the administrative ethics regulating such activities". It recommended "a strict follow up of the illegal activities of SGSOC by the competent administrative authorities in the region".
Herakles Farms has also been criticised for withdrawing from the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) in August, after several NGOs and researchers complained the Cameroon project breached the certification scheme's criteria.
Herakles' Wrobel said in a statement released shortly after the Oakland Institute report that many of the comments made about the project under the RSPO application process were "subjective" and "difficult to respond to as not enough of the area was studied".
"Our concession in Cameroon was provided with the expectation that our investment would quickly generate employment in a region with some of the poorest demographics and that our efforts would eventually help eliminate the importation of palm oil from Asia," Wrobel said.
"We have yet to plant a single tree into the field," he added, blaming the lengthy RSPO approval procedure.
Herakles left the RSPO because the body is too young and lacks the technical expertise needed to vet palm oil projects, Wrobel said. Nonetheless, the company intends to meet or exceed the RSPO standards, as well as the World Bank's International Finance Corporation performance standards for commercial agricultural projects, he added.
Wrobel noted that Herakles had committed to preserving stands of virgin forest inside its concession, and is developing only secondary degraded forest that had already been logged.
LOCAL CHIEFS HAIL PROJECT
The Oakland Institute report includes letters from some local chiefs saying they do not have enough forest land to contribute to the project, which covers Ndian and Kupe-Manenguba divisions and is surrounded by protected nature zones. But not all share the concerns of environmentalists.
Chief Norbert Mbille of Batanga in Ndian believes opposition campaigners are acting out of their own self interest.
"The fear of these environmental NGOs is that without forest they will have no project to execute in our country, and that will mean an end to their mission here," Mbille told Alertnet in Yaounde. "We have given our blessing to the palm oil project because we want development that will eradicate poverty in our community."
Chief Atem Ebako of Talangaye village in Kupe-Manenguba dismissed claims that locals are against the project.
"We are not opposed to any project that brings development in our land. Local indigenous people are sometimes offered drinks and T-shirts with anti-palm oil plantation project slogans written on them, to give the impression that there are protests coming from the local community. This is false and we know the people behind such gimmicks," Ebako told a press briefing in the capital.
Constantine Chienku, a Cameroonian doctor from Ndian who practices medicine in the United States, recently questioned in Cameroon's press why environmentalists want his country to remain an undeveloped nature reserve.
"The World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF), Greenpeace and other environment protection NGOs are blocking access to healthcare and education in one of the poorest countries in the world," Chienku wrote in op-ed.
"It is an interesting phenomenon that every time a big development project is announced in Cameroon or anywhere in Africa, a large phalanx of environmental movements rears its collective head and starts protesting about the dangers such a project would pose to the environment. Their primary concerns are in the following descending order: the forests, the animals, and at the tail end, the local populations," he argued.
Either way, environmentalists urge local communities not to underestimate the role of forests in their survival, and to be aware of how cutting them down contributes to climate change by releasing the carbon they store.
"People need to know the importance of trees and forest around them," Samuel Njem, an environmentalist who works for the government, told AlertNet. "They help to regulate our climate by absorbing the huge amount of carbon dioxide we exhale, as well as that coming from charcoal burning, car engines, fossil fuels and other industrial activities."
Elias Ntungwe Ngalame is an award-winning environmental writer with Cameroon's Eden Group of newspapers.
You can also watch a documentary, The Herakles Debacle, by Paris-born filmmaker Franck Bieleu who grew up in Cameroon, on the Oakland Institute website.