Nguti — Communities in Cameroon's Southwest Region fear they could lose their land after environment groups warned that U.S.-owned palm oil firm Herakles Farms is seeking to sell off existing plantations in the face of local resistance and expand its activities in other areas.
But the government has reassured the people of Nguti sub-division that it is aware of the plans of the Herakles' Cameroon branch in their region, and will ensure the company operates within the law.
Representatives of the large forest community have said they fear being displaced from their land if Herakles Farms grows oil palm there on a large scale.
Chief Tabi Napoleon of Baro-Upper Balong, one of the villages located on the 2,532 hectares Herakles reportedly wants to exploit, said his people had not been informed about the realities of the scheme.
"We were only told a plantation was coming to our community, bringing employment opportunities to our youths. Now we realise our forest - which is our main source of living - is gradually being destroyed, putting the future of our children in jeopardy," he told journalists during a visit to the area in late July, arranged by three civil society groups that oppose the controversial Herakles scheme, including Greenpeace International .
Napoleon said the villagers are worried they could lose their land entirely. "This is quite deceptive because our children may not have land in the future to invest in, and the entire Nguti community, we have been told (by the three groups), risks being relocated to places where we might find difficulties adapting," he added.
Visiting the Herakles project sites in Nguti in late August, Cameroon's minister of forestry and wildlife, Philip Ngole Ngwesse, attempted to allay concerns about the operations of Herakles' subsidiary, SG SOC.
"We have sufficiently cautioned SG SOC against the dangers of felling trees and so most of their operations are limited outside the forest reserve zones," the minister told a working session with the local population. "We call on you to give them your support and collaboration to enable the smooth operation of their activities."
A report presented by Nature Cameroon, a local Nguti NGO, Struggle to Economise Future Environment (SEFE), an NGO based in Ndian sub-division, and Greenpeace said Herakles Farms was increasingly shifting its plantation development activity towards Nguti, after facing tough resistance from the people of Farbe in Mundemba Ndian division where it started its first tree nursery.
The company is now in the process of selling its Ndian nurseries to PAMOL, a state-owned palm oil company based in the area, the report said.
But Herakles' subsidiary, SG SOC, denied the claims. "Our nursery activities in Farbe are still intact, and I don't know where the report of selling nurseries to another operator is coming from," said Napoleon Nzanke, one of the firm's nursery staff, during the minister's recent visit.
Field activities in Nguti had begun as far back as 2011, he noted. "We admit that there are some problems - especially with resistance by the local community - to embrace our project, but we are negotiating and looking for the best ways of handling the situation," Nzanke added.
The Herakles Farms project in the SouthWest Region has been beset with controversy since it was first announced in 2009, and Cameroonian and international environmental groups have called for its cancellation.
The report from the three NGOs said the rights of local people are violated with impunity when it comes to allocation and classification of land in Cameroon.
Large agro-industrial investors find it easy to take forest land from its inhabitants, with the support of the government, the NGOs said. That leaves forest dwellers without land for farming and hunting, and forces them to migrate to other locations where they often struggle to survive, the report added.
Nasako Besingi, director of SEFE, said Herakles Farms - which has leased land from the government for a period of 99 years - plans to sell off its plantations in 2017 to interested investors in a move that would completely quash the indigenous community's hope of regaining ownership of the land.
ENDANGERED ANIMALS 'AT RISK'
In the meantime, the people of Nguti believe they may still have a chance of stopping the deal going through, as Herakles Farms has yet to secure a permit from the president giving complete ownership of the land.
A 1976 law governing the allocation of concessions on state lands requires that a decree be signed by the president and published for any concession above 50 hectares. According to the NGOs, a land deal agreed in 2009 between Herakles and the government has not been signed by the president and no decree has been made public.
But local people - especially in the thickly forested areas of Manyemen and Baro-Upper Balong - accuse Herakles of already felling timber, damaging the natural resources on which they survive.
"No animals to hunt, our medicinal plants have all been destroyed, and we can no longer make a living from traditional medicines because people have come to seize our forest land," lamented Martin Eyene Eyene, president of the Nguti youths group.
Herakles Farms has said its project in the Southwest Region would convert an area of little conservation value. But a new study, released in August by Dschang University, in collaboration with the University of Göttingen and supported by Greenpeace International, SAVE Wildlife and WWF Germany, branded that claim a "severe misrepresentation".
The research found the area to be home to the chimpanzee, forest elephant, rare primates such as the endangered drill and the critically endangered Preuss's red colobus monkey, plus a number of indigenous fish species.
"The U.S. government has invested heavily in recent years in the conservation of the 'elliot's chimpanzee'," Filip Verbelen, forests campaigner with Greenpeace International, said in a statement. "It is therefore both ironic and tragic that an American company is set to destroy a forest area that is vital for the survival of these chimpanzees," he added.
But Cameroon's minister of forestry and wildlife said there would be no destruction of the forest reserves, nor its plant and animal species.
"We have taken the necessary measures to ensure the mapped-out forest reserves in the Nguti area ... are sustainably preserved," Ngole Ngwesse assured local people at the meeting.
Elias Ntungwe Ngalame is an award-winning environmental writer with Cameroon's Eden Group of newspapers.