26 July 2012 Oil Palm Nursery in Cameroon

The Fabe Nursery, run illegally by Herakles Farm through its subsidiary SGSOC (SG Sustainable Oil Cameroon) since a Judge issued an injunction to stop all operations in august 2011. People working here were promised by the company boots and hats, but got nothing. They were also promised that a water pump would be set up, but instead they are still carrying water on their heads for more than a year. © Jan-Joseph Stok / Greenpeace


Palm oil is the world’s cheapest edible oil being used increasingly by the commercial food industry, and also a key ingredient in some biofuels. Global demand is rocketing and large corporations are seeing it as the next big thing, grabbing large areas of forested land to expand palm oil production in a new / the last  frontier: Africa.

One of these corporations is Herakles Farms, an America-/ a US-based agri-corporation, who is steaming ahead with its palm oil plantation in Cameroon. Covering around 700 square kilometers, the new plantation would flatten a forested area almost half the size of Johannesburg. The project would  affect tens of thousands of people  and wouldl be located between four protected forest areas.

Portraying itself as a corporation focused on sustainable development and community upliftment, Herakles Farms says it “aims to meet growing global demand for food by developing sustainable and environmentally benign projects with full support of the local people".

But in Cameroon, this is hardly the case.

During a Greenpeace field trip to Cameroon last  month, I witnessed widespread local opposition to Herakles Farms’ highly controversial yet potentially lucrative palm oil plantation.

People fear they will lose their land and their livelihoods to the US-based corporation’s subsidiary in Cameroon, SG Sustainable Oils Cameroon (SG-SOC). Many farmers in the area are self-employed, growing cacao, taro and maize, among other fruits and vegetables. SGSOC has not presented any maps indicating the inner boundaries of the proposed palm oil concession, leaving villagers in the dark as to how much farmland they actually stand to lose.  

Full support of the local people is something Herakles Farms clearly does not have.

During a visit by the Governor of the South West Region to Fabe and Toko on June 6, local people wore t-shirts with the slogan “SG-SOC out – no plantation in our land”, and put up a banner saying: “Mr Governor, welcome to Toko municipality. We say no to SG-SOC/Herakles Farms”. Villagers in Fabe also placed traditional juju symbols, such as palm leaves, at the entrance to the plantation, to prevent SG-SOC workers from entering.

These protests have been met with severe intimidation and arrests. Protesters were summoned to Mundemba police station and several villagers have been arrested for several days.

Despite claims to the contrary, the farm will not deliver a financial windfall. Herakles Farms somehow managed to negotiate a contract that is exceedingly favorable for the company. For instance, the company has received major tax breaks and the surface rents are so incredibly low (US$1 per hectare) that taxes will contribute almost nothing to state revenue, while for a full 99 years SG-SOC pays no import or export duties. It is even unclear if Cameroon labour laws will cover employees of the plantation.

Herakles Farms is racing to hide this sort of news and will instead continue to talk about “collaboration”, “community support” and “economic growth”. But the fact is, Herakles Farms is in a race against time. It has thousands of palm oil seedlings that may soon be too old to plant; in other words, a big waste of time and money for the company. (and a further blow for the rapidly eroding reputation of this company).

Herakles is also racing to keep the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) on board, which certifies producers as ‘sustainable’. Losing its chance to get certified would mean losing further credibility to its potential buyers and investors.

An independent assessment by the High Conservation Value Resource Network Technical Panel has shown the High Conservation Value (HCV) assessment SG-SOC commissioned to be deeply flawed. The RSPO is now also  faced with two formal complaints filed by WWF and SAVE and has been criticised by Cameroonian and international organisations as well as scientists.  Greenpeace can only hope that the RSPO will confirm that the Herakles Farms project is simply not suitable for certification.

SG-SOC’s proposed palm oil project is the wrong project in the wrong place. It must be stopped. Rather than a model for sustainable palm oil production in Cameroon, the project is generating substantial social conflict and would  lead to large-scale rainforest destruction in one of the most ecologically sensitive forest areas of Africa.

This is why Greenpeace has been calling upon potential investors into SG-SOC’s project such as the African Development Bank to not put their funding in this controversial palm oil project.

Filip Verbelen is a Greenpeace International forest campaigner.