It is full a 2-day drive from the Cameroonian capital Yaoundé to the area in the South West of the country where the American company, Herakles Farms is developing a huge new palm oil plantation, that could eventually cover an area 8 times the size of Manhattan in New York City.
On our recent journey, we pass many large plantations producing bananas, palm oil or other commodities. Such plantations already seem to be big business in Cameroon. And the businesses and people behind such developments claim they are providing vital services to local communities and a welcome boost to the local economy.
But when we stop to visit any of these plantations, the only thing we seem to encounter is poverty. Local people are often driven off their farms to make space for developments and workers are instead brought in from other areas of the country. Wages are low compared to those of a farmer in this region and the occasional hospitals and schools supplied by the companies are not the most reliable.
The last stretch of the road to the vast area of virgin and secondary forest where the Herakles Farms plantation is planned, is practically unnavigable. Our four-wheel drive gets bogged down in mud and water and, as the residents we speak to confirm, lack of viable infrastructure is the real problem here.
It is meant to be a buffer zone for the estimated 50,000 people living in the area, connecting four national parks, so they don’t have to hunt or farm in the parks, including the famous Korup National Park. For elephants, monkeys, chimpanzees and a plethora of other animals it is an important habitat and serves as a corridor between the protected areas.
The planned plantation will cut through this area and, upon visiting the farms of local villagers, it is possible to see the demarcation lines already on their land.
The problem for these residents, as it is in many African countries, is that, although people and communities have traditional land rights, all land is ultimately, legally owned by the state. In this case, it is the state that has negotiated with Herakles. Communities are vaguely informed of developments on their land and farms or sometimes simply not at all, about what will happen to their land and farms.
Despite the fact that the official permission for the plantation has not been given by the Cameroonian president and that the Ministry of Forests has forbidden all deforestation, the company has been clear-cutting parts of the forest to start nurseries and even plant the first oil palm trees.
30 October 2012
Cleared Land in Cameroon
A land measuring about 3 hectares that has been recently cleared by Herakles Farms next to the Tallangaye oil palm nursery.
Herakles claims this is private forest land given to them by local chiefs, and without official permission this constitutes a way to begin step by step working on the plantation area – totally illegal according to some people, common practice in the opinion of others.
At one village meeting we attend there is conflict between the chief and his community, with some claiming his new position in favour of the plantation is a direct result of receiving an ”envelop”. Many of the local population are definitely opposed.
Bruce Wrobel, the CEO of Herakles Farms, and other advocates of the project claim that by also opposing this massive development that Greenpeace and its local partners are obstructing local residents in Cameroon from receiving adequate medical care and limiting their possibility of better wages and development.
However a local newspaper’s report on an operation conducted by the medical team, flown into the area for several days by Herakles Farms, provides an astonishing insight into the care we are potentially supposed to be obstructing. Patients are treating and operated on in primitive conditions, in the open and on kitchen tables. After they left, several people had to travel to regular hospitals for proper after care.
Initially taken by surprise over the supposed plans for their land, protests from villagers are increasing. Meetings are organized. Members of parliament are speaking out and the Ministries of Forests and Agriculture are opposed to the project.
The only thing farmers in the region really need is better market access and better roads.
There is no clear evidence that a huge palm oil plantation will bring the communities any relief from poverty. What is clear is that this is the wrong project, in the wrong place.