New oil palm project puts Cameroon indigenous communities at risk – again

By Ndi Eugene Ndi

Ebang Patrice*, an Indigenous Bagyeli forest community member, sits under a palm tree next to his dilapidated thatched house. With a broom in his left hand, he savours some fruits which he says his children harvested from a lush bushland, just a few meters away. Ebang uses the broom from time to time to chase away uninvited guests – notably flies and bees which attempt to join him in his feast.

The old man says, without any scientific backing though, that besides being a source of essential nutrients, the fruits are medicinal. But it may just be the last time the Bagyeli patriarch is enjoying such fruits as the source, a pristine forest where Indigenous communities live, is being deforested for a palm oil production and processing agro-industrial complex. 

Ebang’s community falls within a 60,000-hectare concession the Cameroon government has leased to a little-known domestic company, Cameroun Vert SARL (CAMVERT). The concession spans the Campo and Nyete subdivisions in the Ocean division of President Paul Biya’s native south region of the country.

Communities and local NGOs are sounding alarm bells that the project is dangerous to the livelihood of some 28 surrounding Indigenous communities – mainly hunters and non-timber forest products gatherers.

Clearing of forest in part of CAMVERT concession near the village of Afan Essoukie cleared. Photo credit: Greenpeace

Besides being a key source of livelihood, the forest, which borders the iconic Campo Ma’an National Park, is also a cultural asset and spiritual sanctuary for the Mvae, Iyassa and Bagyeli Indigenous people. But these communities will lose access to the land and its livelihood as the concession goes into agricultural production.

“The forest is very important to us,” Ebang says. “Our lives depend on that forest because it is a source of medicine. It is our pharmacy. We treat our sick with either tree leaves, tree barks or roots which we get from the forest,” he explains, admitting that with the land now leased to the investor, they will lose this important source of medicine.

Ebang, who is in his early sixties, said the forest is also their spiritual sanctuary. “Our forefathers are buried inside  and we go there and perform some traditional rites when that is necessary. Now with the coming of the big company, we will not perform this ritual again and this is dangerous to our livelihood as our ancestors can curse us,” he bemoaned.

Culture of politicking on forests

Like the Bagyelis, the Indigenous Banen people in the Littoral region of the country were on the verge of losing their forest and spiritual sanctuary when the government announced that it was opening up the Ebo forest for logging.

However, following stiff resistance from the Indigenous community and rights activists, the government went back on its vomit, suspending the logging projects.

Samuel Nguiffo says conflicts emanating from land lease for agribusiness in the country are a result of legislation that does not recognise customary ownership

The Ebo Forest is one of the last intact forests in central Africa and home to many endemic species as well as the critically endangered lowland gorillas and chimpanzees. Besides these fauna species, those opposed to the project cited a loss of community rights, livelihoods and unique forests.

Local non-governmental organisations and communities had actively opposed the logging project which saw the conversion of a forest area of 68,385 hectares – the size of 96,000 football fields – into a Forest Management Unit (FMU) for logging.

Last August 2020, the office of the Prime Minister and Head of Government in a statement said it had been instructed by President Paul Biya to reverse the earlier decree allowing logging in the forest.

Environmentalists and the Indigenous Banen people described the sudden government U-turn as a major victory. But while the Banen community and activists are singing victory songs, the Bagyelis of Campo and Nyete are gnashing their teeth in agony following the implantation of the CAMVERT project.

The Cameroon Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife announced that it will reclassify 2,500 hectares of the the CAMVERT concession but activists have faulted the government decision which they say grossly violates the rights of Indegenous Bagyelis.

Rigged procedures

About 40 local civil society organisations (CSOs), including Green Development Advocates (GDA) challenged the reclassification of the important forest area in a statement.

Such an announcement was supposed to have been preceded by public consultations where a social and environmental impact assessment study is presented, views or objections of communities involved, before a decree by the Prime Minister is signed opening up the area, according to Aristide Chacgom, an environmental campaigner and coordinator of GDA.

Legally, even if the company had conducted consultations and not taken into account views of communities, the decree to begin operation would have still been a prerogative of the country’s President, given the size of the concession.

“The declassification and procedure asking CAMVERT to begin exploiting 2,500 hectares of the concession were marred by several illegalities,” Chacgom said.

The declassification process, Chacgom explained, also ignored two preconditions for changing the legal status of the forest which also violated the rights of local people enshrined in the Cameroonian law.

“Two conditions are supposed to be fulfilled for declassification; an initial study which says if the land can be declassified and then a declaration of public utility which is done by the Ministry of State Property and Land Tenure. None of these were done and the environmental impact study came after declassification by the Prime Minister contrary to what the law says,” Chacgom detailed the procedures which he said were rigged.

Good example succeeded by serious assault

Dutch logging firm, Wijma, ran the concession as a Forest Management Unit between 2005 and 2016 and according to independent environmental campaigning organisation, Greenpeace Africa, it was a good example of a well-managed logging concession, earning a Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification as “sustainable”.

The firm’s careful logging left many trees within the concession standing and serving “an important carbon sink,” the CSOs said in their statement. It also serves as a strategic wildlife migration corridor.

Aristide Chacgom says CAMVERT project marred by several illegalities

Yet a senior official of CAMVERT, Mamudou Bobbo, said the zone had been degraded by over 70 per cent and could no longer be exploited as a Forest Management Unit and the promoter of the project carried out studies which results showed the area is fertile for palm oil production.

“The promoter of CAMVERT then presented the project to the Minister of Agriculture who contacted the Prime Minister’s Office to declassify the ‘degraded Forest Management Unit’. When the PM’s office contacted the Ministry of Forestry, the latter confirmed the result of the study,” Bobbo who is CAMVERT Project Manager told local television channel, Equinoxe TV.

“No human activity or village exists within a Forest Management Unit…It is just incomprehension, people thought the promoter of the CAMVERT project was coming to grab their land but that is not the case,” Bobo explained.

But Greenpeace Africa maintained the project, on a land surface about seven times the size of Dakar, is land grab and agribusiness’ “most serious assault on indigenous rights in the region in years.”

“The CAMVERT project is a case of illegality and abuse of Indigenous rights that will aggravate the climate and biodiversity crises if it goes ahead,” said Greenpeace Africa Cameroon Campaign Manager, Ranèce Ndjeudja. 

“It exposes once again the perilous myth of sustainable forest management, as well as the growing problem of conversion of forests – including logging concessions certified ‘sustainable’ by the Forest Stewardship Council – into agribusiness plantations in Cameroon,” he added in a statement on the website of the rights group.

Power, politics, business

CAMVERT which is owned by Aboubakar al Fatih began initial planting in September last year. Fatih is a billionaire forest operator who is close to President Paul Biya’s ruling Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement (CPDM) party.

According to Greenpeace Africa, another company controlled by Fatih appears to have been associated with recently suspended plans to log the Ebo Forest.

The CAMVERT project highlights a growing trend of demand for land for palm oil production in the country.

Over ten years ago, SG Sustainable Oils Cameroon (SGSOC), a local subsidiary of New York-based agri-corporation, Herakles Farms, struggled to clear 70,000 hectares of rainforest for an oil palm plantation in the English-speaking southwest region of the country claiming a “vast majority of the concession is secondary and degraded forest.” A massive opposition by forest-dependent communities around the project area and national and international NGOs resulted in the company abandoning the claim.

The Oakland Institute, an independent policy think tank, bringing fresh ideas and bold action to the most pressing social, economic, and environmental issues, had said the SGSOC “land grab” involved backroom bullying by the US government.

A similar project by Palm Resources Cameroon SA, a subsidiary of Singaporean company Biopalm Energy Limited in the Bipindi and Lokounje subdivisions still in the Ocean division is also being contested by Indigenous Bagyeli communities of Bella, Nkollo, Gwap and Moungue.

On behalf of the Indigenous communities, two non-governmental organisations, Forest Peoples Programme (FPP) and Association Okani, have taken legal action seeking to cancel a 2018 presidential decree leasing the 18,000 hectare concession to Biopalm.

The organisations have also referred the matter to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, according to documents NewsWatch has seen.

Experts say the high demand for land for palm oil is a result of growing need for oil; for cosmetics, food, and to cook some industrial products. Demand for oil in the country stood at more than one million tons, while local supply was just 300,000 tons per annum as of 2018, according to Cameroon Vegetable Oil Refiners’ Association (ASROC).

Palm oil demand not justification

However, conservationists say destroying biodiversity-rich forest and habitats of Indigenous communities for monoculture is creating more problems than seeking solutions to the country’s palm oil deficit.

“Monoculture of palm oil cannot equate very rich biodiversity of natural forest. In economic terms, you will see what you earn but will not see what you lose in terms of economic value of the forest including environmental services that the forest provides to communities around, to the country and to humanity,” said Samuel Nguiffo, Secretary General of the Yaounde-based Centre for Environment and Development (CED).

“We are only seeing the short-term benefits and are oblivious of the long term loses in the process of making decisions. We think palm oil will generate a lot of jobs, but it is not always the truth. You will have jobs, for sure, very poorly paid jobs but if you look at the long term, what you lose in terms of potential of job creation, job generation in the forest, it is very high,” Nguiffo added.

To the CED Secretary General, conflicts emanating from land lease for agribusiness in the country are a result of legislation that does not recognise customary ownership.

While government leases out land which it considers state property, communities on their part believe they have ownership of the land and that to start any activity on it, an investor needs their authorisation.

“This clearly means there is a problem with our legislation. There is a problem with especially the issue of land ownership in our legislation. We cannot continue like that with our legislation else we will be having more and more conflicts because with time, land becomes more and more scarce and people become more and more ready to fight to keep it,” Nguiffo said.

Obsolete legislation

For these conflicts to be reduced, Nguiffo says the very old 1974 land tenure law of the country has to be revised and customary ownership recognised.

“Communities will never have the capacity to negotiate with multinational companies. So the state will have to organise the law in such a way that each deal at the local level should be approved by the government and signed by three parties; the community, the investor and the state,” said CED.

With this system, he said, the government will be getting money from taxation which according to him will fetch the government more money than what it obtains now.

“Today government gives one hectare of land for one dollar, but it can generate more than one dollar on a hectare if taxes are a proportion of wealth generated. The government will be able to make more than 10 dollars a year on a hectare and the three parties will be happy,” Nguiffo explained further.

CED and other organisations have been working with key stakeholders across the country to improve customary and formal rights to land and natural resources through a project known as LandCam. The organisations organised a land tenure week in Yaounde last January with five members of government in attendance.

According to the CED Secretary General, there is some glimmer of hope that land tenure law currently being revised will take into consideration customary ownership and this will greatly reduce conflicts among Indigenous people, investors and the state.

“One of the things that clearly came out (of the land tenure week) was the need to recognise the rights of all the actors. It was a very clear message that there will be no land security for any of the actors if the right of only one of the actors is not recognised and protected,” Nguiffo said as one of the key messages to the government at the  Yaounde gathering.

Until the obsolete land tenure law in Cameroon is properly revised, the fate of thousands Indegenous people like Ebang will continue to be on the balance.

*Ebang Patrice is not a real name. The source’s name was changed for security reasons.

This publication has been written as part of the CHARM 2020 Media Fellowship and CHARM-Africa’s ongoing work to protect and expand the space for civil society organisations and human rights defenders, as well as nurture and enhance the effectiveness of independent media and journalism in the region.

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