The French President Francois Hollande today received his Cameroonian counterpart, Paul Biya, at the Elysée Palace in Paris – and there was not a lack of potential topics for discussion.
Yet surely the one thing that had to be addressed was the deforestation taking place in Cameroon and the fate of 25,000 people whose land is set to be converted by a US agro-industrial company for a vast palm oil plantation.
This project has left in its wake a trail of intimidation and maneuvering aimed at suppressing the voice and rights of local Cameroonian residents.
The alarming project is being pushed forward by Herakles Farms and would transform an area in the south west of the country that borders the iconic Korup National Park.
If this American company get their way they would destroy up to 70,000 hectares of forest situated in one of the 25 most important biodiversity hotspots on earth. In simple terms, that is seven times the size of Paris.
Work is well underway despite the fact the company’s right to do so is far from clear. From the numerous irregularities in its environmental impact survey to the deteriorating relations with local populations, Herakles have demonstrated they are incapable of running a project that is respectful of Cameroonians and their environment.
They have even given up on trying to obtain the eminently obtainable certification from the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), the main standard required by palm oil buyers.
Local civil society organisations have organised regular demonstrations to protest against this attempted land grab and against the actions of the company. Those opposing the project have been regularly threatened and even imprisoned and held in inhumane conditions.
The President of Cameroon can no longer lend a deaf ear to these calls.
The contract established with Herakles is deceptive and unclear. The company was awarded a long-term land lease of 99 years that deprives inhabitants of all their rights. Herakles even has the power to impose their own version of justice in the region, and can count on the complicity of local authorities to do so.
The company even distributed sacks of rice to local communities for the new year. This greenwashing” or “social washing” fools no one. The so-called aid and development Herakles is promising to the region is insignificant compared to the irreversible environmental damage their project will cause.
Indeed destruction of the forest has already started even though the president has yet to sign the decree required by national law.
Cameroon obviously has the right to develop its economy and attempt to make itself attractive to foreign investors. The potential of the palm oil sector is important but this should not come at the expense of the rights of citizens, destroying forests and yielding to all of the demands of companies such as Herakles.
This applies equally to other African countries where investors are rushing to acquire any available land so they can harvest the new “green gold” that is palm oil.
The area targeted by Herakles has high stores of carbon, crucial for the struggle against global warming. It also borders five protected areas that are home to a number of threatened species including forest elephants and chimpanzees.
It is also a region that has been supported by the European Union for the last 30 years but funds have been removed that were specifically allocated to help local farmers develop a system of agriculture that helps preserves the forest’s fragile ecosystem. Undermining such efforts is pure cynicism.
If the French President fails to address this issue he would be encouraging French corporations to do the same as Herakles Farms in Cameroon. Silence from the Elysée is tantamount to an authorization that deforestation and irresponsible practices in industrial palm oil production is acceptable. And a silence that several French companies already operating in Africa would be pleased to hear.
Jean-François Julliard is the Director General of Greenpeace France.
This blog is based on the original French version found on Le Huffington Post here.