This new publication of the WRM Series on Plantations (* ) examines resistances of populations neighboring two of Africa’s largest industrial tree plantations: the rubber monoculture Hévéa-Cameroun (HEVECAM) and the oil palm plantation Société Camerounaise de Palmeraies (SOCAPALM). The report intends to contribute to fill a lack of information on the situation around commercial plantations in Equatorial Africa.
Before the settlement of the two monocultures, the region – situated in Southern Cameroon near Kribi – was covered by coastal rainforest exceptionally rich in biodiversity. It was sparsely populated by Bantu peasants-hunters and Bagyeli hunters-gatherers (“Pygmies”), both of them tightly dependant on forest resources. With the arrival of the plantations in 1975 for HEVECAM and in 1978 for SOCAPALM, these populations were displaced and the forest was cut and replaced by monocultures. Today, the plantations are adjacent to about twenty Bantu and Bagyeli communities which are in more or less open conflict against these agro-industries, as the report explains.
By investigating the conflict, it appears clearly that the role of the government has always been central, notably through its determination of the legal framework within which the agro-industries operate (land property, terms and conditions, social and environmental laws). If it is true that the state must comply with the requirements of international actors (IMF/World Bank, French government), it remains nevertheless true that it is a key actor in the conflict, roughly speaking always on the side of the agro-industries. The relation between local populations and the state is in this respect ambiguous: on one hand, it is perceived as distant and authoritarian (“it is not your land but the land of the government” is the typical answer villagers receive from authorities), and on the other hand, the state is to a certain degree still respected (“we are not going to take up arms against our own government!”).
In this conflicting context, one may wonder why, in Cameroon, industrial plantations have so much been promoted by the state – while their economic performances often remained well below the expectations. An explanation consists in showing the vested interests of the national elite and/or the subordination of peasants to the requirements of capitalist accumulation seen as the unique way towards “development”. In short, the state has incontestably been positioned from the beginning of the colonization – and at the request of the mother country’s private sector – as the main actor imposing the transition to capitalism, and this, in spite of the resistances of many local communities. Incidentally, the first important nationalist movement – the UPC (Union des Populations du Cameroun) of the socialist Ruben Um Nyobé – originates from land ownership issues related to the French colonization.
Yet the conflict between local populations and HEVECAM–SOCAPALM is not only a struggle over the land: it is also – and perhaps above all, now – an environmental conflict. This is so because Bantu and Bagyeli do not claim the control of the plantations’ territory as such, since the latter has now, in their eyes, become useless. What they claim is: (1) a compensation in any form – monetary, village plantations, or infrastructure (roads, schools, etc.) – for the destruction of what they see as their forest; and (2) the non-extension of HEVECAM–SOCAPALM, that is, the preservation of their remaining customary forests. It is for this purpose that the neighboring Bantu commonly claim the employment of some of them among the high executives of the companies.
However, as it is often the case with rural impoverished populations, social conflicts remain largely latent, poorly organized and without a clear political dimension. Villagers often show a form of resignation. As the state is the “supreme chief of the land” as well as of the legitimate violence, there is an obligation of compliance. The protest’s ground often remains the discourse, a situation that R. Oyono names a “conflict of language”. In fact, the events described in the publication correspond quite well to what J. Scott calls the “everyday forms of resistance”. The latter refers to any act by members of lower classes aimed at mitigating or refusing the requirements (here: the land occupation and the obligation to respect private property) of superior classes (here: HEVECAM–SOCAPALM’s management and the state) or aimed at expressing their own requirements (here: a compensation in a broad sense). This kind of resistance went mostly unnoticed by historians and political scientists – because it generally remains without written traces – although it may represent the most common form of conflict among rural populations. The latter are therefore not what external observers have too often thought they were seeing, that is, globally passive social groups which would sporadically burst in violent riots. These everyday forms of resistance often are the weapons of the powerless. They can take different forms such as sabotage, theft, feigned ignorance, false agreement, concealment, non-commitment, slandering, arson, etc. In our case, the thefts of the plantation’s products as well as the fires are typical forms of resistance taking place around HEVECAM–SOCAPALM. This kind of class struggle requires no or little coordination and planning; it is generally anonymous and avoids all direct confrontation with authorities or superior classes in order to dodge repression. What is more, through their accumulation, these resistances can have serious effects on the interests of the ruling classes.
Regarding the relation conflict–effects, J. Martínez-Alier points out that “the focus should not be on ‘environmental conflict resolution’ but rather (within Gandhian limits) on conflict exacerbation in order to advance towards an ecological economy”. It is plausible indeed, writes this author, that these kinds of environmental conflicts – described as an “environmentalism of the poor” – will soon represent an important social force social towards sustainability.
Julien-François Gerber (JulienFrancois.Gerber@campus.uab.es)
(*) WRM Series number 13: "Résistances contre deux géants industriels en forêt tropicale. Populations locales versus plantations comerciales d’hévéas et de palmiers à huile dans le Sud-Cameroun" by Julien-François Gerber.
Only available in French.
It can be downloaded from WRM's web site at:http://www.wrm.org.uy/publications/Cameroun_fr.pdf
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