According to the FAO definition, rubber plantations are “forests.” Recently we visited one of these “forests” in Kribi, Cameroon and talked with the workers and local population. Unlike the FAO “experts,” nobody, absolutely nobody there perceives these plantations as forests.
In fact, if there is anything in the world that looks less like a forest it is precisely a rubber plantation. To the normal monotony of plantations comprised of parallel lines of thousands of identical trees – eucalyptus, pine, acacia – is added the array of small pots hanging on the tree trunks into which the latex is gathered. Along the paths there are other, larger pots where the latex is poured to take it to the processing plant. Added to this is the penetrating and disagreeable smell of rubber.
The plantations we visited belong to the Société des Hévéas du Cameroun (HEVECAM), a company set up in 1975, with plantations covering a total of 42,000 hectares in a region that was previously covered by dense tropical forests, hosting some of the most varied biodiversity in the world. Today one can still see the enormous stumps of native trees between the rubber trees and even large tree trunks rotting in the middle of the plantation. That is to say, this plantation –this “forest” according to FAO– was the direct cause of the total destruction of the forests previously growing there.
This is well-known by the Indigenous Bagyeli People (“pygmies”) who have been the worst affected. The Bagyeli are nomad hunters and gatherers who used to find in their ancient forest all they needed for their welfare. According to the group of Bagyeli we interviewed, they used to live decently on their territory that covered what is now the HEVECAM plantation, in addition to other adjacent areas. The forest no longer exists and the Bagyeli are considered to be intruders on their own territory, now controlled by the company. Although they are “allowed to enter” the plantation, the same cannot be said for the children as they might “damage the rubber trees”.
The possibility of obtaining food and income by hunting is very remote. To the disappearance of fauna due to the effects of the plantation is added the presence of hunters with fire-arms – usually HEVECAM workers – who advantageously compete with the traditional arms of the Bagyeli. The possibility of getting a job on the plantation is also unlikely. The company hires them sometimes for weeding, but pays them very badly. The result is that now here is a demoralized, poor, underfed, exploited and oppressed human group, cornered by the plantation and with nowhere to go.
However, the Bagyeli are not the only ones to have been adversely affected. We also interviewed the inhabitants of the village of Afan Oveng near the HEVECAM plantation, where two years ago a company truck had an accident and the contents of latex and ammonia it was transporting ended up in the river running through the village. As a result animals died, people were sick and the fish died. They sent letter after letter to the responsible authorities and to the company and so far the only “compensation” they have received have been some tankers with water, not even fit for human consumption.
However for these people the problem is not limited to an accident, but goes much further and implies that their traditional rights over the forest have never been recognized. For example, the place were the company hospital is located used to be land belonging to these people. They insist that “the forest belongs to us” and denounce that the “forest that still is left is being destroyed by HEVECAM”.
In fact, the company continues its “savage” felling of the forest, apparently in connivance with the mayor of Kribi, who owns the saw-mill where the timber is processed. The local community receives no benefit, but is left with the damage implied by the disappearance of the forest and of the products obtained from it.
Company workers – brought from other regions of the country – would then seem to be the only ones to benefit from these plantations. However, this is not the case either. “HEVECAM is slavery”, affirmed a person who had worked 7 years for the company. He spoke of very low wages, very hard work, respiratory diseases, blindness, tuberculosis, death, arbitrary redundancy and the impossibility of trade union organization.
We visited one of the villages built by the company and talked with various workers. There they told us that they had continuous problems with drinking water; that the latrines were overflowing, that this led to abundance of mosquitoes and subsequently to diarrhoea, cholera and malaria. They are crowded in these dwellings and it is not easy to find a two-roomed house. Consequently, most of the families must live in a single room. As the houses belong to the company, if the workers are fired, or even if they retire, they automatically find themselves homeless.
They also told us about the transportation system for the company workers, done in hired vehicles that are obliged to comply with a set timetable to cover the 40 km from the village to the plantation, resulting in frequent accidents. They told us about the application of weed-killers and fertilizers with no gloves or protective equipment. They explained that there are people who have gone blind because in that climate the eye protection equipment provided by the company cannot be used and it has done nothing to find a solution to the problem.
If the above would seem to confirm that effectively “HEVECAM is slavery”, this conviction was further strengthened when the workers told us that when the company was privatized in 1996 (the International GMC Group of Singapore is the present owner), they learnt about it when different cars from those used by the previous managers appeared. “They bought us in the same way as they bought the rubber trees.” Just like in times of slavery.
Ricardo Carrere, based on information gathered during a visit carried out to the region in December 2006 with researchers Sandra Veuthey and Julien-Francois Gerber. The author thanks the Centre pour l'Environnement et le Développement (CED) for its support which made this visit possible.