Published on Food Crisis and the global Land Grab, July 18, 2012.
It was a tough week for Cameroonian village chief Wangoe Philip Ekole. People in Fabe, angry at his support for a palm-oil plantation in their rainforest home, had put a curse on its seedling nursery, prompting petrified workers to lay down their tools and flee.
Ekole, who believes the project will bring people jobs and wealth, had persuaded them to return. But the whiff of revolt remained. Many of his 200 or so subjects accused him of seeking to enrich himself through the project. Some even disowned him as their leader.
The village dispute is part of the global struggle to feed the world – and central to a New York investment fund’s bid to capitalize on that effort in Africa.
Expanding markets from Nigeria to China are fuelling a voracious appetite for more food. A big part of that demand will have to be met by palm oil, a low-cost fat coveted by food manufacturers and a mainstay of cooking across the tropics. Since 2000, world demand for palm oil has doubled. Millions of hectares of forest in top producers Indonesia and Malaysia have been turned over to plantations.
That has prompted dismay among environmentalists and brought about tough new rules that are forcing planters to look elsewhere. One of those places is Cameroon, a central African state whose 20 million people live on an average of $3 a day. New York-based Herakles Farms proposes planting a palm-oil farm stretching over 60,000 hectares of land – 10 times the size of Manhattan … //
… WINNING CONSENT:
- Herakles takes such allegations seriously. The company needs the blessing of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a Kuala Lumpur-based certification body set up in 2004 and designed to rid the industry of the forest-wrecking image it picked up in Asia.
- Without the nod of the RSPO, Herakles would struggle to support its argument that it will be a model for producing palm oil in an environment-friendly way.
- To get that imprint, Herakles must prove it has the locals’ “free, prior and informed consent”, a principle set out in the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and adopted by the RSPO.
- Herakles officials say they have conducted painstaking public consultations to explain their plan and win support for it. They point to deals made with some villages to provide drinking wells, better schools and medical clinics, and pledges to re-draw project boundaries around traditional hunting areas or shrines.
- They also point to local backers such as Atem Ebako, chief of Talangaye village, where another seedlings nursery is located. Ebako plans to turn his hamlet into a “rural city” with schools and hospitals.
- “We are trying to commit ourselves to transparency and respect our commitments,” said Herakles Community Relations Manager Daniel Agoons.
- But some encounters have been difficult.
- A survey of village attitudes to the project in late 2010 was conducted with armed guards because of security concerns, a fact Herakles later acknowledged “may have influenced some of the participants in their responses.”
- Subsequent meetings to allow locals to comment on Herakles’ environmental assessment for the project – 299 pages plus annexes – were held at the height of the rainy season last year, when roads turn to sludge.
- “It was improper to organize public hearings during that period when you know people will find it difficult to get to Mundemba,” said Malle Adolf, a lawyer opposed to the project.
- Herakles said the hearings were scheduled by Cameroonian authorities. It says it remains ready to listen to local complaints that have not been voiced.
ENVIRONMENTAL FEARS: … //
… IN THE BALANCE:
- Backers of the project in the government of Paul Biya, Cameroon’s 79-year-old president, say palm will help the country – even if it means wildlife may lose out.
- “Should our people remain poor because the gorilla will fret and grow thin?” asked Caroline Mebande, technical adviser in the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development. “In Cameroon, we cannot put the stress of animals above the hunger of the people.”
- To win over environmentalists and secure RSPO certification, Herakles proposed in June to limit clearance to an initial 2,000-hectare parcel of land on which it is certain it can prove there are no conservation concerns.
- The RSPO has requested that Herakles hold back from clearing more land until concerns have been settled. It has asked Herakles to work through the issues with the local country office of the World Wildlife Fund.
- “We’ve asked the government, we’ve asked the company, if we can help them choose a better location. It’s the heart of a biodiversity hotspot,” said David Hoyle, conservation director for WWF-Cameroon. He argues that Cameroon could boost output by planting on degraded land or boosting poor local yields.
- The outcome of the dispute is likely to have implications beyond the project itself: Cameroon says palm oil investors from the United States to Asia have filed requests for 1.2 million hectares of land – 20 times the Herakles plot.