Within the past few weeks, rainforest destruction has begun once again in one of Africa’s most important biodiversity hotspots: the coastal rainforest of Cameroon, at the fringe of the Congo Basin region. Herakles Farms, the American company behind the operation, is now pressing ahead with the establishment of a palm oil plantation in this precious area despite major social, environmental and legal concerns.
© Jan-Joseph Stok / Greenpeace
A Buma tree (Cieba pentandra), standing in the middle of one of Herakles’ nurseries. These trees are considered to be sacred, and are a symbol of power in many African regions. The bulldozer that tried to fell it crumpled under the impact. Despite having fixed the bulldozer, the company decided to leave the tree so that it now stands alone in the middle of a devastated landscape.
Despite the rapidly growing controversy around its plantation project, Herakles Farms has stated that it wants to become a model for sustainable palm oil development in Africa. On the contrary, this specific project exemplifies the possible detrimental impact of large-scale palm oil plantations on people’s rights and livelihoods, biodiversity and the global climate. Herakles Farms’ plans have already been strongly contested by local communities, Cameroonian NGOs and international conservation organizations, as well as by leading scientists.
Herakles Farms is headed up by an American businessman, Bruce Wrobel, who is the CEO of several companies with connections to The Blackstone Group, the New York private equity giant. An injunction case brought against Herakles’ local subsidiary, SG Sustainable Oils Cameroon Ltd., by Struggle to Economize Future Environment (SEFE), cited the possibility of irreparable damage or injury to local communities if the plantation were to go ahead.
Given the terms of a 99-year agreement under which Herakles Farms is allowed to establish a plantation of about 70,000 hectares, it’s not difficult to see why Cameroonian NGOs fear the worst for local people. The agreement does not clarify to what extent – if at all – Cameroonian labour laws will apply, it exempts Herakles Farms from paying any taxes for the first 10 years, and it enables Herakles to rent the land from as little as US $0.5 per hectare, increasing by 2 % per year, contributing almost nothing to the state budget. The legality of the agreement itself has been contested by one of Africa's leading civil society organizations, the Center for Environment and Development (CED). The agreement was signed by the Minister of the Economy, Planning and Regional Development, contrary to Cameroonian law which requires the President’s approval for land allocations over 50 hectares. Under the agreement, Herakles is even given the right to organize its own protection of the zone using a private police force with the power to “search, apprehend, detain, exclude and evict unauthorized persons”.
Herakles’ presence in Africa’s rainforests does not solely threaten the rights and livelihoods of local people, who depend on the forest as a source of food and building materials. The proposed plantation is located between four protected areas of huge ecological importance: the Korup National Park, Bakossi National Park, Rumpi Hills Forest Reserve and the Banyang Mbo Wildlife Sanctuary. Destroying tens of thousands of hectares of forests that serve as a crucial corridor between these reserves would put the endangered species that live in these forests, including forest elephants, chimpanzees and the highly threatened Drill under further pressure. Leading conservation scientists have warned the company that the proposed plantation will “cut the heart out” of this vital rainforest region.
Herakles claims that it will not clear primary forests or forests of high conservation value, but it remains very vague on what this means. They suggest that the forest they want to destroy is highly degraded with only a small part of it of high conservation value. However, recent satellite images reveal that 71% of the area has 70% forest cover, which is a similar proportion to the neighbouring Korup National Park. Tellingly, the original Environmental and Social Impact Assessment of the area was never officially published.
Greenpeace believes the Herakles palm oil plantation project must be stopped now, before it is too late, and sent this letter to the company on May 10, 2012.