22 November 2012

Cameroon: Facts On the Ground Undermine Herakles' Cameroonian PR Offensive

press release

Bruce Wrobel, the CEO of Herakles Farms, has long claimed that his company has a positive presence in Africa.

Indeed it seems impossible to pick up a newspaper in the Cameroonian capital Yaoundé without reading about one minor miracle or another taking place in the southwest of the country that can only be attributed to the company and their benevolence -- Minor miracles that the company is paying for themselves to advertise.

But flying over the same southwest region, the real effect of Herakles Farms' presence in the country becomes all too evident. Like ugly pockmarks, craters of forest clearing are easy to spot -- there to make way for new palm oil plantations in what is otherwise a sea of trees.

The 73,000 hectare concession is still in the early stages of development, yet forest clearing continues despite the fact SGSOC, the subsidiary of Herakles Farms in Cameroon, is operating without a land lease required by national law.

If not stopped, the plantation, which is in an area bordered by five protected areas and home to vital biodiversity, would cause significant environmental damage. Worse still, the livelihoods of thousands of people currently living off the land would be severely affected.

A majority of these people are openly opposed to the project. They claim they have had little or no consultation on what is to be done with their land, land that in a lot of cases has been worked by their families for generations. Bruce Wrobel, on the other hand, says he is addressing a "dire humanitarian need". There is evidently a difference of opinion.

Nasako Besingi can testify to feeling the presence of Herakles in Cameroon. The director of local NGO Struggle to Economise Future Environment (SEFE), his persistent and peaceful opposition to the palm oil project has often seen him harassed, both physically and emotionally.

This culminated on November 14 when he and several of his colleagues were unceremoniously dragged away by local authorities in the town of Mundemba and held for two days with no charge before being released. Their only crime was preparing a peaceful demonstration to point out what is increasingly visibly obvious: the Herakles Farms plantation is the wrong project in the wrong place.

Information received by Greenpeace International shows that this is a prevalent viewpoint in the area, even by some people employed by SGSOC and Herakles Farms who complain of poor working conditions and not being paid.

As pointed out recently by Greenpeace International's executive director Kumi Naidoo, any claims of a company improving the lives of people can only be taken seriously if they seek the approval of the people whose land they are developing and whose lives they claim they are improving.

Herakles Farms and Bruce Wrobel may think that a sustained PR offensive will eventually quell any dissent to their project. But their twin claims that the project will not cause any environmental damage and that it will bring only development are increasingly being shown up for the hollow statements they are. The project must be stopped immediately.

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