Herakles Farms: Champions of illegal deforestation
by Brendan Schwartz
May 27, 2014
© Jan-Joseph Stok / Greenpeace
The lead up to this summer’s World Cup is already dominating international news, with every manager’s squad selection being scrutinized, even in the States, while analysts attempt to predict the tournament’s winner. Greenpeace has been closely monitoring another world-wide phenomenon: illegal deforestation.
One American private equity firm/fauxsustainable palm oil company,Herakles Farms,has particularly caught our scout’s eye in Africa, by compiling a strong CV of illegal acts and forest destruction. Let’s re-cap the last few years and highlight what makes Herakles such a great threat on the world stage this summer.
Herakles Farms laid solid team foundations by signing an illegal contract with the Cameroon Government in 2009. In 2010, the company unlawfullyestablished oil palm nurseriesprior to conducting an environmental impact assessment andwith no right to the densely forested landit occupied. In 2011, the firm raised its game, violating aCameroonian court moratoriumon its activities.
Known as SGSOC (the name of its local subsidiary) in Cameroon, the company sustained a key injury as it wasbusted for illegal loggingby the Cameroonian Ministry of Forestry and EU-funded independent forest observer in 2012. Its form hit an all-time low in 2013 when its right to clear the forest wassuspended by the Ministry of Forestry.
As investors fled and employees were furloughed, the few remaining supporters called for new management. New men were called in to stabilize Herakles. It acquired Presidential Decrees to finally officialize its presence in Cameroon (whileviolating law’s on community right to consultation). The squad’s ambitions were tempered when it received the right to only 20,000 hectares of land, way below the 70,000 they were originally after.
The comeback was so impressive Herakles Farms was even named to Global Exchange’s prestigioustop 10 corporate criminals list.
Great suspense surrounds the company’s performance and preparations in the lead up to the 2014 World Cup. Herakles has not disappointed.
Timber Laundering Scandal
Newly published Greenpeace researchhas revealed that Herakles Farms used a front company to collude with Cameroon’s Minister of Forests. Herakles unlawfully obtained a logging permit to clearcut 2,500 hectares of forest and export valuable species of timber, while paying 17 times fewer royalties to local communities than average.
Herakles had previously declared in anopen letterthat it would leave the timber for the Cameroonian Government to make “many millions of dollars.” In exchange, the company argued, it should be entitled to pay a very low land rental fee for its palm oil plantation. “Say one thing and do the opposite” has come to define Herakles’ tactics and style of play. But it is not alone:
Cameroon and the European Union signed a trade agreement (known as VPA) to eradicate illegal logging as part of worldwide efforts to reduce tropical deforestation.The VPA,which entered into force in 2011, requires Cameroon to “verify the legality of the timber and derived products” sold not only to the EU, but all other markets.
The implementation of the VPA in Cameroon has been seriously delayed. Now the Minister of Forest’s decision to illegally grant a logging permit to a company posing as a front for Herakles without an auction (as required by law) casts serious doubt on Cameroon’s intention to respect its obligations under the VPA.
Equally worrisome has been the EU’s refusal to take a strong stance on the Herakles’ case. Despite requesting clarification on the legal status of Herakles’ timber from the Cameroon Government no less than three times, the European Union has cited a delay in VPA implementation to explain why it has not used its influence to push Cameroon to enforce legality.
The VPA’s credibility is floundering. But that didn’t stop the authors of theEU-Cameroon joint progress report,published this month, to make the claim that “considerable progress” is being made.
Greenpeace has filed a complaint with Cameroon’s public prosecutor to have the illegal timber seized, Herakles’ logging permit cancelled, and wrongdoers prosecuted.
The question remains: will anyone blow the whistle on this out of control team and set an example of Herakles Farms? This sort of foul play should not be allowed to threaten Africa’s forests and communities.
Or will the EU let Herakles and Cameroon continue to play the great game of illegal deforestation, without a referee?