Last December I was travelling with three friends (a Cameroonian and a Swiss couple) along the public route that crosses the oil palm plantations belonging to Socapalm (Société Camerounaise des Palmeraies) in the Kribi region. On reaching the control post installed by the company – that we had crossed earlier on – we were stopped by a private security guard who demanded our identity documents. On asking him why he wanted them he informed us that Socapalm “secret agents” aware of our visit had ordered him to do so. He added that he had been told to take us to the company’s information office. Of course we did not hand over our documents nor did we accept to be taken to the information office because the company has no legal right to demand this. However, the story serves to illustrate the power of the company and the police-type control it exercises over the inhabitants of the area.
In spite of its name, Socapalm is not a “Cameroonian society,” but belongs to the powerful French Bolloré group which also owns another large oil palm plantation in the Kribi region (the Ferme Suisse). Together these plantations cover 31,000 hectares.
In last month’s bulletin we published an article on the serious social and environmental impacts of a rubber plantation in the same Kribi region (belonging to the Hevecam Company). What is interesting is that the present article is almost identical to the previous one, the only difference being the name of the companies.
In fact, the indigenous Bagyeli (“pygmy”) people who live around the palm plantations told us practically the same story as the Bagyeli affected by the rubber plantations. Socapalm evicted them from their homes, promising them modern housing. The palms were planted, grew, gave fruit, were harvested, but the company has not built a single house.
Now these Bagyeli people are surrounded by plantations and banned from entering them. If they do so, the guards who catch them chase them out with whips. They are forced to live in a flood area where mosquitoes and associated diseases are abundant.
As to their livelihood, they are hardly able to survive. The company does not employ them and if it does, it pays them a lot less than the other workers. The only animals left in the plantation for the Bagyeli to hunt are rats. Only some hunting is possible in the surroundings of the plantation and further away in the mountain area.
All this is a consequence of the destruction of the tropical forest by the company to convert it to palm plantations. Previously the Bagyeli (expert hunters and gatherers), found all they needed in the forest (meat, fruit, etc.). Now they do not even have clean water as it is polluted by chemical fertilizers and sediment from erosion. Regarding health, problems related to poor nourishment, polluted water and the unhealthy place where these people live are becoming more serious as they no longer have the plants they used for their traditional medicines. The hospital belongs to Socapalm and as they are not on the company’s payrol, they have to pay if they are hospitalized.
Regarding the situation of the company workers, it is no different from that of the Havecam plantation workers. They also live in crowded housing belonging to the company, they also work for outsourced employers, they also have problems with their eyesight due to the lack of protection from the dust falling from the bunches of fruit, they also apply agrochemicals without the necessary protective clothing, they also have problems with drinking water and sanitation.
Regarding labour organization, the workers told us that there was no independent trade union and it is unlikely that one can be organized. In 1992 there was a strike in demand of better working conditions and an increase in the “miserable salary” they earn. The result was that the strike leaders were imprisoned and made redundant.
At a time when oil palm plantations are being promoted to supply fuel to the countries of the North, the consumers in these countries should realise that in no way can this fuel be considered “green.” Its true colour comes from a combination of social exploitation, violation of human rights and environmental destruction.
By Ricardo Carrere, based on information gathered during a trip 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 the support received that made this trip possible.