By now everyone will doubtless be aware of the Arctic 30 and the conditions they were forced to endure for more than three months in Russia, for the simple “crime” of daring to point out one company’s reckless policy in the Arctic.
But it may not be so commonly known that many civil society groups in Africa have to work under a similar threat of intimidation on an almost daily basis. Far from the headlines, grassroots organisations across the continent are harassed, often violently by both the official and corporate world for simply standing up for the rights of their communities and their environment.
In Cameroon, Greenpeace is working closely with two such groups to try and inform about the threats posed by a reckless palm oil project destroying natural forests and livelihoods in the country’s Southwest region. Operated by the US agribusiness company Herakles Farms, the project was carried out illegally for more than three years until a land lease (as required by national law) was finally awarded last year – albeit for a far reduced area than the 73,000 hectares it was originally after.
The Struggle to Economize the Future Environment (SEFE) and Nature Cameroon are two organisations based in the area Herakles is targeting and comprise of local community members concerned about the fate of their land. SEFE has been campaigning peacefully against the plantation from the moment it was announced back in 2009 and members have been repeatedly harassed ever since, by both company and local government officials.
Nasako Besingi, who heads SEFE, found out first hand at the end of 2012 the consequences of daring to oppose the project. Arrested before planning a peaceful demonstration in the town of Mundemba, South West province, Nasako and two of his colleagues spent several days languishing, without charge, in a dank, dark prison cell.
That summer he had also been ambushed and assaulted while touring the area with a French television crew by men he recognized as employees of Herakles Farms. Now he and his organisation are facing numerous charges, including attempting to organise an illegal meeting.
Nature Cameroon is another small, but fiercely committed group, based in the village of Nguti. In September 2013, its members received an official letter informing them they no longer had the right to organise any meetings. This decision was apparently necessary because Nature Cameroon had organised meetings “not authorised by the administration” - although the administration refrained from actually naming any of those alleged meetings.
This effective shutdown was in fact a direct response to Nature Cameroon’s work with communities in the area. Throughout last summer the group were invited by village chiefs to come and discuss the implications – many potentially disastrous – of the Herakles farms projects for residents, something in reality the company should have done themselves. The meetings were, in most cases, welcome and all passed peacefully.
Calls to reverse the suspension order have fallen on deaf ears and it is plainly evident that acts of repression and intimidation are all too commonplace against both groups and are mirrored elsewhere in the region and continent.
Attempting to silence and punish individuals and activists who are peacefully and tirelessly fighting for the protection of people’s rights and the preservation of Cameroon’s natural environment and forests goes against all that Greenpeace stands for.
Based on that ethos, we are among the many international and local organisations who have co-signed a letter this week to the UN Special Rapporteurs on the right to food, human rights and the environment and on the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association to call an immediate investigation into these abuses.
If such repression continues to go unnoticed and unaccounted for, then governments and corporations will continue to impose their will with impunity even when it is contrary to the will and well-being of residents.
Karine Jacquemart is an International Forests Campaigner for the Congo Basin Forests Project at Greenpeace International.