Communities, like rainforests, take many years to develop into rich, interconnected and vibrant systems. And, like rainforests, communities can also be fragmented in a fraction of the time that they took to grow.
The stakes could not be higher, therefore, in the South West Region of Cameroon, where Herakles Farms is currently attempting to rush through approval of a concession area for their proposed palm oil plantation, without the proper process and consultation of impacted communities.
The news of Herakles Farms’ renewed attempt to legitimize their project, by heavily negotiating with the Government of Cameroon to finally get a land lease, coincides with the release of a report by the NGO Forest Peoples Programme (FPP) which shows that certain communities have almost no information about the plans for their customary land.
FPP’s core aim is to support the self-determination of forest peoples, and the development and application of laws protecting their rights. Its investigation found that Herakles Farms used coercion and political pressure to force through decisions and that communities have not given their Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) for the project to go ahead.
In one particularly disturbing instance in 2010, communities awoke to find concrete boundary markers for the project planted in their community fields and forests by the company – without any advance notification or information.
This goes against international law, including the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which gives all community members the right to be informed, consulted and involved in decision-making on issues that that have an impact on their livelihood. The report concluded: “There is a potential human rights and livelihoods disaster in the making if these plans proceed”.
This latest damaging report comes after months of turmoil for the company. In April, the government imposed a temporary suspension order by the government, which has since been lifted with no clear explanation. The project looks increasingly as if it stands to fail to deliver on its promises to communities, the government and investors.
The dubious community engagement employed by Herakles Farms is symptomatic of a wider problem affecting communities across Africa as palm oil companies increasingly expand their operations in central and west Africa. Projects in countries including Liberia, Congo-Brazzaville and Nigeria have been beset with similar controversy as communities are displaced from their customary land often without being properly consulted and informed.
Greenpeace Africa is calling on the Cameroonian government to stop the Herakles Farms project, to implement proper land use planning before any land allocation and to set a precedent for palm oil development in Africa that is socially just and environmentally responsible.
Irene Wabiwa is a Forests Campaigner at Greenpeace Africa.