Powerful countries and corporations have targeted the African continent to become a commodity supplier for their industrial needs. This has led to intense land grabbing with industrial oil palm plantations becoming in recent years a new source of land grabbing in many African countries.
However, industrial oil palm plantations are not new in some African countries. WRM electronic book “Oil Palm in Africa: past, present and future scenarios” (http://wrm.org.uy/countries/Africa/Oil_Palm_in_Africa.pdf), gives an overview of how industrial plantations have been promoted in several African countries since colonial times:
“Wherever it grows naturally, oil palm has for centuries provided local communities with a large number of benefits such as palm oil, sauces, soap, wine, fertilizer (ashes), roofing (leaves), building material (trunk), medicines (roots). All of these traditional uses are until today very much part of the African culture in oil palm countries.
When the European powers invaded the continent, they quickly realized that they could profit from trading palm kernels and palm oil, initially from natural palm stands and soon followed by the establishment of large-scale plantations, in most cases based on either forced or slave labour and in the appropriation of communities’ lands.
Independence resulted in the further entrenchment of the plantation system –encroaching on local peoples’ lands- now based on state-owned enterprises with attached large industrial processing units.
World Bank and IMF-led structural adjustment policies imposed on African governments in the 90s resulted in the privatization of most of those industrial complexes and in the return of control over industrial palm oil production to foreign corporations.
During the entire process summarized above, the traditional system -based on the harvesting of fruits from natural or semi natural palm stands and their conversion into palm oil through manual techniques- managed to successfully coexist separately from the different centralized systems put in place by governments and corporations.
Over the last few years, the expansion of industrial plantations has changed its focus from edible palm oil to the production of agrofuels, mostly led by a broad array of foreign corporations eager to invest in the region”
Cameroon is no exception to the agrofuels boom. With already more than 76,500 hectares of industrial oil palm plantations, the government is planning to lease huge areas of land to set up more oil palm plantations.
The Malaysian big player in the oil palm sector Sime Darby has also set its eyes on the African continent to expand its business. The company has already been granted 220,000 hectares of land lease in Liberia for a 63 years period and it is now negotiating a 300,000 ha lease of land in Cameroon.
At an interview in the magazine The Ecologist, Samuel Nguiffo, from the Centre for Environment and Development (CED), said in reference to the Sime Darby deal that “even if they only develop on degraded forest, the deal is likely to involve farmland being taken away from local communities.” He also said that “degraded natural forests are located next to villages, and are considered as traditional land and ‘reserve’ for the future expansion of communities' farmland. But according to the State law (which prevails), the State owns part of the land, and is custodian of the rest of the land. The Malaysian company [Sime Darby] will therefore enter a deal with the State, and not with the communities, but will be taking what is still considered by the communities as their traditional land, according to their customs,” he says.
Furhtermore, the US based SG Sustainable Oils (SGSO) is planning a 30,000 hectares oil palm plantation in the South West Region in an area directly adjacent to the Korup National Park and Rumpi Hills Forest Reserve, and another 40,000 ha just to the east of that plantation and adjacent to Bakossi National Park and Banyang Mbo Wildlife Sanctuary.
SGSO is affiliated with Herakles Farms (a US-based company that is a subsidiary of Herakles Capital Corp) and Sithe Global (a US-based energy company, involved in the Bujagali dam construction in Uganda and the Amaila Hydropower project in Guyana). Sithe Global is 80% owned by the Blackstone Group, one of the largest investment firms in the world. In 2004, Bruce Wrobel founded Sithe Global Power. He is also the founder of Herakles Capital Corp. These companies share the same New York City mailing address as the NGO All for Africa, also founded by Bruce Wrobel. Mr. Wrobel and others founded All for Africa, in part, to help support and fund the oil palm development of Herakles and Sithe Global. In collaboration with these two companies, All for Africa is promoting its "palm out poverty" campaign arguing that planting oil palms will reduce poverty in Africa. They claim that this oil palm development will not only be socially responsible but also environmentally sustainable.
WRM was recently contacted by a group of US researchers working in Cameroon jointly with some local organizations that are strongly concerned about this project. The researchers have sent a letter to All for Africa and Sithe Global urging them to provide full information on the project on the grounds that it may have terrible social and environmental negative impacts. The letter -among other questions- raised the following concerns:
“The oil palm plantation will displace and disrupt the social and economic situation for over 30 villages (over 3,000 people). Their culture and way of life is closely tied to these forests, which provide these villages with clean water, food, and important income-earning capabilities. Most of these villagers rely heavily on farming to feed their families and earn an income. It is unclear how local villagers will be compensated for loss of their forest and farms. Some documents suggest that villages will be resettled and/or will be allowed to remain, but will be surrounded by oil palms.
To date, SGSO has operated in an unscrupulous manner. Villagers from various villages have discovered SGSO teams demarcating land, opening transects, and planting pillars in their farmland without consent. Complaint letters concerning SGSO have been sent to government representatives.These letters described informal meetings SGSO has had with village and tribal elites who have given their support for the development without consultation from people in their villages.
The original demarcation of the plantation in fact overlapped with existing forest titles and rights, including 2,500 ha of community forest, 5,415 ha of Council Forest, 132 ha with the Bakossi National Park, and 6,000 ha with the 3 km buffer zone to Korup National Park. It was only after complaints from various individuals and organization that the planned borders were changed.”
US-based researchers working in Cameroon informed us that, just a few weeks ago, the youths in one of the villages that will be directly affected by the oil palm plantation threatened a SGSO bulldozer as it entered their village to establish an oil palm nursery. Most of the village is against this development because it would mean losing their forests, and either being surrounded by oil palms or being forced to relocate. The chief of the village was approached by representatives from SGSO and agreed to give up village land to allow the plantation to proceed. He did this without consent from people in his village. There is now a tremendous amount of in-fighting in the village - and this is likely also occurring in each of the villages that will be affected by this plantation.
In addition to the social implications of this oil palm plantation, the US researchers notes that the majority of the land covered by the proposed plantation near Korup National Park is dense, mature, high canopy forest and the remaining being a mosaic of forest, agroforest, farmland, and settlements. Forest and hunter surveys have shown that this area is home to the Endangered chimpanzee and drill monkey and may be home to other highly threatened wildlife. This area might also be an important migration route for the forest elephant, which regularly uses Korup and the Rumpi Hills. This oil palm plantation will not only remove important habitat for threatened species but it will also further isolate these species inside protected areas. These protected areas will likely see increased bushmeat hunting as a result of the oil palm plantation and the conservation community will be ill-equipped to do anything about it.
Taken together, the US researchers argue that, “If this oil palm development is allowed to continue it will potentially have far reaching, long-term negative cultural and socioeconomic consequences for the affected villagers, who are being bullied into selling their forests. Additionally, the forests in South West Cameroon represent a stronghold for many kinds of endangered and endemic species. This oil palm development will destroy ecosystems and key habitat for threatened species and will be catastrophic for the wildlife inside the neighboring protected areas.”
Article based on information from: WRM Publication “Oil Palm in Africa, past, present and future scenarios”; and information from “The Ecologist” magazine available athttp://tinyurl.com/5rtef79 and further information received by WRM