Palm oil development facilitates illegal logging

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Industrial agriculture is the main cause of deforestation around the world. That’s no surprise. And according to a recent study commissioned by the British organization Forest Trends, at least half of the tropical hardwoods sold today are the the by-product of deforestation for agriculture. The same study also indicates that more than half of the forests converted to agricultural use were done so illegally. The wood coming from those operations should also be considered illegal, but for now, this is not usually the case.

Developers use the proceeds from timber sales to finance agricultural operations. In some cases, developers may be more interested in timber than agriculture and an agricultural project may be a logging operation in disguise. Consider the case of the controversial Herakles Farms project in Cameroon. The land Herakles acquired was not available for logging, but now that the company is developing an oil palm plantation (on paper, at least), it is clear-cutting forest and looking to profit from timber sales. At this point, it is unclear that the company will proceed with planting and it is possible that it may simply sell timber before selling the project.

Herakles Farms is not alone in this questionable practice.

Filip Verbelen of Greenpeace, Belgium, has written an interesting article on the relationship between palm oil and illegal logging, which we’re posting.

La déforestation pour l’huile de palme alimente aussi le commerce de bois illégal

De récentes études sur les causes de la déforestation pointent l’expansion rapide de l’agriculture commerciale. Un petit groupe de produits d’exportation accapare le haut du tableau : en Amérique latine, il s’agit principalement de la production à grande échelle de viande et de soja ; en Asie du Sud-Est, c’est surtout la production de pâte à papier, de papier et d’huile de palme qui favorise la déforestation.

À l’origine de cette destruction des forêts, on retrouve la demande en augmentation rapide pour ces produits sur les marchés internationaux. Le Brésil exporte la majeure partie de sa production de soja. La Malaisie et l’Indonésie représentent ensemble plus de 80% de la production mondiale d’huile de palme et en exportent plus de 80%. Une étude récente révèle que l’Europe, à l’échelle du monde, est de loin le plus grand consommateur de denrées dont la production stimule la déforestation. L’« empreinte » de l’Europe en termes de déforestation a été, au cours de la dernière décennie, deux fois plus large que celles de la Chine et du Japon réunis !

Bois illégal

Depuis quelques années, on constate également que cette déforestation accélérée au profit de l’agriculture commerciale influence en profondeur le marché international des bois durs tropicaux. L’exploitation forestière précède en effet souvent une réaffectation des terres, dans le cadre de laquelle les revenus issus de la vente du bois servent de capital destiné au développement de projets agricoles. Une étude britannique commandée par l’organisation Forest Trends estime qu’au moins la moitié de tous les bois tropicaux négociés dans le monde provient de forêts détruites pour l’aménagement de cultures. Les premiers résultats de cette étude indiquent aussi que plus de 50% de ces reconversions de forêts en cultures pour l’industrie agricole se font dans l’illégalité. Le bois qui en est tiré doit dès lors, lui aussi, être considéré comme illégal.

Au Brésil, par exemple, l’analyse de récentes photos satellites montre qu’une grande partie de la déforestation à des fins d’élevage et de culture du soja est en infraction avec les autorisations octroyées aux entreprises concernées. En Indonésie, l’essentiel de la déforestation actuelle doit être imputé à l’essor rapide de l’industrie de l’huile de palme. De nombreuses études dénoncent les méthodes utilisées en Indonésie par les entreprises productrices d’huile de palme pour contourner la législation : les forêts sont rasées pour leur substituer des plantations non autorisées ; l’exploitation de certaines forêts implantées sur des tourbières, bien qu’interdite, est malgré tout souvent observée ; des forêts sont volontairement incendiées par des producteurs d’huile de palme qui convoitent ces terres, etc. Les multiples conflits d’intérêts entre la sphère politique et l’industrie agricole encouragent en outre la corruption et étouffent, parfois totalement, la répression des pratiques illégales.

L’Afrique n’est pas épargnée

Si l’Indonésie restreint de plus en plus le développement de l’industrie de l’huile de palme – tandis que la demande mondiale continue de croître –, des projets de nouvelles cultures d’huile de palme se multiplient rapidement en Afrique centrale et de l’Ouest. Et à l’instar de l’Asie, une part considérable de la déforestation en Afrique afin de permettre ces cultures se déroule dans l’illégalité. Quelques exemples :

  • Au Cameroun, l’entreprise américaine Herakles Farms poursuit l’installation d’une plantation controversée de 70 000 hectares dédiée à l’huile de palme dans une zone à haute valeur écologique. Bien qu’elle ne possède pas les autorisations exigées, cette société a quand même commencé à abattre de grands pans de la forêt tropicale. Des documents internes à l’entreprise lèvent par ailleurs tout doute sur ses espoirs de gagner des millions de dollars grâce à la vente de ces bois durs, même si elle a toujours prétendue ne pas s’intéresser aux bois durs tropicaux et vouloir laisser ce bois aux autorités camerounaises.
  • Au Libéria, le gouvernement a octroyé ces dernières années des centaines de milliers d’hectares de forêt en concessions à, notamment, des entreprises d’exploitation forestière et à des sociétés désireuses d’implanter des cultures d’huile de palme. Un audit indépendant sur l’attribution de ces contrats a conclu que l’octroi d’un grand nombre de ces concessions n’avait pas respecté les prescriptions légales. Se pose dès lors la question de la légalité du bois provenant de ces concessions.
  • Au Congo-Brazzaville, un groupe malaisien a acquis les droits relatifs aux plantations Atama. Atama possède dans ce pays une concession de 470 000 hectares au beau milieu de la forêt tropicale, dont 180 000 hectares vont servir à la culture de l’huile de palme. Il s’agit vraisemblablement du plus grand projet lié à l’huile de palme dans le bassin du Congo. La coupe à blanc à grande échelle de la forêt tropicale a débuté en 2012 sans attendre les études d’incidences sur l’environnement exigées par la loi. Les inspecteurs gouvernementaux ont déjà relevé de nombreuses infractions à la législation forestière. Si ce projet est mené à son terme, il multipliera par deux le taux de déforestation au Congo-Brazzaville. Il produira en outre, pendant plusieurs années, plus de bois que ne le font les concessions forestières déjà existantes dans le pays.

Des initiatives politiques actuelles insuffisantes

Les plans d’action actuels contre l’exploitation forestière illégale accordent encore trop peu d’importance à la lutte contre la déforestation illégale pour l’industrie agricole. Au sein de l’Union européenne, une nouvelle législation est entrée en vigueur en mars de cette année afin de rendre punissable l’importation de bois illégal. Son efficacité reste toutefois à prouver. Malgré l’existence de cette nouvelle réglementation, Greenpeace a déjà constaté à plusieurs reprises que du bois congolais abattu illégalement pouvait toujours être importé sans risque de sanctions sur le territoire européen. Les États membres de l’UE ne sont manifestement pas encore capables d’appliquer ces nouvelles règles. Le volume croissant de bois illégal issu de la déforestation illégale à des fins agricoles commerciales ne bénéficie par ailleurs de l’attention des décideurs politiques que depuis quelques années. Il ne s’agissait pas encore d’un dossier majeur à l’époque de l’élaboration du règlement européen sur le bois.

Les accords de partenariat volontaires que l’UE conclut depuis quelques années avec une série de pays grands producteurs de bois (tels que le Cameroun, le Congo-Brazzaville, le Libéria et l’Indonésie) en vue d’améliorer la gestion forestière et d’enrayer les coupes illégales tiennent eux aussi insuffisamment compte de la problématique de la conversion des forêts pour l’agriculture industrielle.L’Indonésie, par exemple, a signé ce mois-ci le dernier accord de partenariat volontaire en date avec l’Union européenne. Greenpeace a salué cet accord car l’Indonésie démontre par cette démarche qu’elle est disposée à combattre la corruption et les pratiques illégales. Mais Greenpeace a dans le même temps averti que l’Indonésie, si elle souhaite renforcer la crédibilité de sa politique forestière, doit décréter une interdiction de la réaffectation de zones de forêt tropicale pour y implanter des cultures commerciales.

Légal ou pas ?

Entre-temps, il semble aussi de plus en plus évident qu’il ne suffit pas de lutter contre les formes illégales de déforestation. Une approche trop polarisée sur la « légalité » peut même déboucher sur des résultats contraires : beaucoup d’entreprises parviennent ainsi à faire légaliser leurs pratiques illégales en demandant et en obtenant après coup les autorisations exigées. Dans certains pays tels que le Cameroun et le Brésil, on envisage même d’assouplir la réglementation sur le bois au lieu de la durcir. Des projets de déforestation encore interdits aujourd’hui pourraient ainsi à l’avenir être considérés comme parfaitement légaux.

Indépendamment des discussions sur la légalité, de nouvelles initiatives politiques sont dès lors activement recherchées pour s’assurer que des produits tels que la viande, le soja, le papier et l’huile de palme échangés sur les marchés internationaux ne proviennent plus de la déforestation au profit de l’agriculture industrielle. L’Union européenne est consciente de l’enjeu et étudie un plan d’action afin de traiter ce problème. Un tel plan devra aborder la consommation de ces produits au sein de l’UE sans oublier la collaboration avec les pays producteurs pour y consolider la politique forestière au niveau local. La nécessité d’un tel plan d’action – un plan pour « une réduction ciblée de la déforestation par l’agriculture commerciale » – a déjà été reconnue dans le septième programme d’action européen pour l’environnement et doit se concrétiser au cours des prochaines années.

Greenpeace maintient la pression sur les autorités et les entreprises afin d’adopter des mesures débouchant sur l’acceptation par les secteurs de l’agriculture industrielle d’une politique garantissant que leurs activités ne soient plus une source de déforestation.

Article originally published by Greenpeace Belgium, October 20, 2013

The headlines

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A declaration for a sustainable future

Mana suspension bridge leading to Korup National Park. Southwest Region, Cameroon

Mana suspension bridge leading to Korup National Park. Southwest Region, Cameroon

The Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and the Ministry of Forests and Wildlife of the government of Cameroon invited a group of forest scientists, academics, government representatives, and leaders from the private sector and civil society to gather in Yaoundé, Cameroon, at the end of May for a Conference on Sustainable Forest Management in Central Africa. The assembled participants discussed developments, challenges and priorities for science and policy in sustainable management of the forests of the Congo Basin.

Following the conference CIFOR issued a Declaration on the Future of Central Africa’s Forests. Among other things, the declaration calls for:

  • New or improved national and regional laws and policies, based on the best available evidence, that are sufficiently flexible to balance development goals, forest conservation goals, and the needs and rights of all people (with special consideration to indigenous and gender issues);
  • Greater efforts to formalize the informal sectors associated with Central Africa’s forests,  particularly in artisanal logging and community forestry, establishing regulatory frameworks that provide them the role that reflects their importance in national economies.

This declaration comes at a critical time for the Congo Basin forests. As the Herakles Farms fiasco in Cameroon indicates, there is a critical need for  a strengthened regulatory framework for land acquisition and development.

Read the declaration and reports from the Yaounde conference here: Sustainable Forest Management in Central Africa

Cameroon: Will the Cameroonian government revise the Herakles Farms contract?

Herakles Farms forest clearing for road construction. Southwest Region, Cameroon

Herakles Farms forest clearing for road construction. Southwest Region, Cameroon

Recent news out of Yaounde suggests that the Cameroonian government plans to review and revise the controversial contract (“Establishment Convention”) that granted the U.S. private investment firm, Herakles Farms, a 73,000 hectare concession in the Southwest Region.

According to press agency ECOFIN, the original contract will be nullified and replaced with a new contract. The article, posted below, points to numerous problems with the original contract. This latest development raises a host of questions, including how exactly the government will “nullify” the contract. If Herakles Farms does not agree to changes in the contract, the government of Cameroon would have to prove either that the company is violating the terms of the contract or that the contract involved corruption — a potentially long and extremely costly process.

Le Cameroun annule la première convention signée avec Herakles Farms

vendredi, 21 juin 2013 14:10

(Agence Ecofin) – Le projet de l’entreprise SG Sustainable Oils Cameroon PIC (Sgsoc), filiale de l’américaine Herakles Farms au Cameroun, qui envisage de créer une palmeraie au Cameroun va être réexaminé point par point et la première convention signée avec le gouvernement camerounais ne sera plus considéré et n’aura plus aucune valeur, a confié à l’agence Ecofin le 12 juin dernier, le ministre de l’Agriculture, Essimi Menye. « Je ne connais pas tout ce qui a été signé avant. Tout sera désormais renégocié dans les règles de l’art », a confié à l’agence Ecofin le ministre qui s’est saisi du dossier.

Contrairement à ce qui a été dit ou présenté par le passé par l’entreprise, le projet d’Herakles Farms ne s’étendra pas sur 73 000 ha, mais sur 20 000 ha. « Les responsables d’Herakles Farms sont venus d’eux-mêmes me voir la semaine dernière (semaine du 03 au 07 juin, ndlr) avec leur business plan. Un business plan dans lequel ils faisaient ressortir qu’ils ont un projet de palmeraie sur une superficie de 20 000 hectares. Ils sont venus me présenter leur projet et les zones qu’ils veulent exploiter et même les propriétaires des terres qui ont accepté de leur céder leurs terres. Donc, ce n’est pas le ministre de l’Agriculture qui a demandé qu’Herakles revoie à la baisse la superficie de son projet. Ils sont venus me voir afin que je donne mon OK pour ce projet. Et je leur ai dit qu’on va le faire, mais qu’on va revenir point par point sur les conditions de la convention », explique Essimi Menye.

Le ministre ne veut pas comprendre qu’il y a une convention qui a été signée par le passé. Interrogé sur le coût de location des terres dont l’hectare était cédé à 500 Francs CFA dans la première convention, le ministre dit que tout sera revu. « Je vous dis que je ne connais pas tout ce qui a été signé avant ou tout ce qui était fait avant. Le projet vient d’arriver sur ma table et nous allons l’examiner point par point avant de signer une convention ».

Contacté par Ecofin pour confirmer ces affirmations, Herakles est longtemps resté muet, refusant de donner un commentaire à ces affirmations. Joint à nouveau hier, 20 juin 2013, par Ecofin, le responsable de la cellule de la communication d’Herakles Farms au Cameroun est resté sur la même position, déclarant que l’entreprise américaine ne peut réagir pour le moment. « Nous sommes encore en négociation avec le gouvernement camerounais. Nous ne pouvons faire aucun commentaire sur les déclarations du gouvernement », a-t-il déclaré en promettant de nous contacter quand Herakles décidera enfin de communiquer.

Au ministère de l’Agriculture et au ministère des Forêts et de la Faune, sous anonymat, des responsables s’accordent à dire que la première convention signée avec Herakles Farms été signé par des personnes qui ne connaissaient pas l’agriculture, les forêts et l’importance de la terre.

Non à l’enlèvement du bois

C’est le 17 septembre 2009 que l’entreprise américaine avait signé avec le gouvernement camerounais représenté par le ministre de l’Economie, du Plan et de l’Aménagement du territoire, Louis Paul Motazé, une convention. Mais, ce projet est toujours controversé, même au sein du gouvernement camerounais.

« Le problème avec ce projet, explique Essimi Menye, c’est qu’ils voulaient que le bois enlevé sur la surface leur appartienne. C’est à ce moment que le ministre des Forêts et de la Faune leur a dit ’’Non’’. Le bois enlevé sur la surface ne leur appartient pas. Ils veulent juste créer une plantation. » « Figurez-vous qu’ils voulaient même s’accaparer du sable, pas seulement du bois », révèle le ministre.

Il y a trois semaines, le ministre des Forêts et de la Faune, Philip Ngole Ngwese, a publié dans la presse camerounaise un communiqué indiquant que « la signature le 17 septembre 2009 d’une convention entre le gouvernement du Cameroun représenté par le MINEPAT et la société SGSOC pour la mise sur pied d’une grande plantation industrielle de palmiers à huile et d’une raffinerie sur la superficie de 73 086 hectares dans les départements du Ndian et du Koupe-Manengoumba, n’exemptait pas ladite entreprise du respect de l’ensemble des procédures et contraintes environnementales liées à la mise en œuvre d’un projet de cette envergure, notamment celles relatives aux enlèvements de bois dans le périmètre ».

Suspension d’abattage du bois

En novembre 2012, Philip Ngole Ngwese avait autorisé l’entreprise américaine à effectuer une coupe de sauvetage sur une parcelle de 2 500 ha près de Talangaye. Le 22 avril dernier, le ministre des Forêts, constatant que l’entreprise américaine n’avait pas encore respecté tous les règlements et lois en vigueur, avait suspendu l’abattage des arbres sur le site du projet à Talangaye, dans l’arrondissement de Nguti, dans la région du Sud-Ouest.

Mais, le 29 mai, Philip Ngole Ngwese, est revenu sur sa décision, contre toute attente. Dans une lettre adressée au directeur général de SGSOC dont Ecofin s’est procurée une copie, le ministre écrit : « J’ai l’honneur de vous faire connaitre que la mesure suspensive de l’autorisation d’abattage des arbres sur le site de votre projet agro-industriel sis à Talangaye, arrondissement de Nguti, région du Sud-Ouest, édictée par ma correspondance susvisée, est levée à compter de la date de la signature de la présente dépêche ».

La lettre poursuit avec des indications importantes : « Je vous rappelle à cet égard que les opérations d’abattage doivent se dérouler conformément aux lois et règlements en vigueur, sous la supervision du délégué régional des Forêts et de la Faune du Sud-Ouest ». Cette seconde phrase de la lettre du ministre est un piège, car finalement le ministre n’autorise pas formellement Herakles Farms à poursuivre ses travaux. C’est en effet ce qu’explique à Ecofin un cadre du ministère des Forêts et de la Faune (Minfof). « Le ministre des Forêts précise que pour les opérations d’abattage il faut que la réglementation soit respectée. La réglementation stipule par exemple qu’avant tout abattage, il faudrait obtenir une Autorisation d’enlèvement de bois abattus (AEB). Et c’est le ministre qui délivre ce document. Or, le ministre n’a pas encore délivré toutes les autorisations à Herakles Farms. Ainsi, suivant cette lettre, le délégué régional avant de donner le Ok pour l’abattage des arbres va demander à SGSOC de lui indiquer s’il a rempli toutes les procédures. Donc, HeraKles Farms ne pourrait pas reprendre ses travaux s’il ne se conforme pas à la réglementation », explique notre source au Minfof.

Pourquoi ce quiproquo dans les autorisations et les suspensions qui se succèdent ? Ecofin a appris que le ministre aurait signé cette lettre levant la suspension d’abattage des arbres sur instructions de sa hiérarchie, à la suite des pressions que l’entreprise américaine aurait exercé sur des hauts fonctionnaires.

Riposte des Ong

Des Ong nationales et internationales n’ont pas cessé de dénoncer le projet d’Herakles Farms au Cameroun. Selon Ludovic Miaro III, le coordonnateur régional du Programme palmier à huile du WWF en Afrique centrale explique dans un communiqué que « d’un côté, nous avons une entreprise qui opère, sans autorisations légales, sur des terres publiques, en violation flagrante des normes sociales et environnementales nationales et internationales. Il s’agit de facto d’un acte d’accaparement illégal des terres par Herakles Farms ».

« Si le projet continue, prévient pour sa part Samuel Nguiffo du Centre pour l’environnement et le développement (CED) qui a d’ailleurs demandé au gouvernement américain d’enquêter au Cameroun sur les pratiques d’herakles, les communautés locales qui dépendent de leurs terres traditionnelles et de la forêt pour leur subsistance seront expropriés, avec des conséquences négatives certaines, qui se traduirons par une augmentation de l’insécurité alimentaire et une instabilité sociale ». Avis.

When fraud goes green

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T shirts made by local residents to protest Herakles Farms, Southwest Region, Cameroon.

 

Reprinted from Al Jazeera Opinion

Herakles Farms appears to be operating illegally in Cameroon, lacking required government permits.

June 9, 2013

By Anuradha Mittal

Anuradha Mittal is the founder and executive director of the Oakland Institute, a policy think-tank dedicated to increasing public participation and promoting debate on social, economic and environmental policies that impact our lives.

In late May, the Oakland Institute and Greenpeace International publicly released internal documents of a New York-based corporation which is in the midst of constructing a massive palm oil plantation in the world’s second largest rainforest. The communications have brought to light an age-old tale of greed and deceit wrapped in the wholly modern packaging of international development work and green consumerism.

At the heart of this story is Herakles Farms (HF), a subsidiary of venture investment firm Herakles Capital: a heroic name which aptly frames the gallant branding necessary to secure support. On its public site, the phrases “sustainable”, “poverty reduction” and “environmentally benign” are used liberally to describe the forthcoming plantation. However, as the leaked documents reveal, behind the scenes lies a very different story, one which shows a startling disregard for the noble goals on which Herakles claims to be founded.

At the helm of this venture stands CEO Bruce Wrobel, a man who extols the company’s sustainability mission, going so far as to declare: “Throughout my entire life I have considered myself to be an environmentalist and an activist for the poor.” Yet the company is constructing what it claims will be among “the largest palm-oil plantations in all of Africa” – an area roughly 12 times the size of Manhattan – in a hotspot of biodiversity. Last year, after complaints about Herakles to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) highlighted the company’s alleged environmental violations, Wrobel made no attempts to set the record straight. Instead, Herakles resigned from the Roundtable before the claims were to be investigated, spuriously stating that they “remain committed” to RSPO’s standards.

Shockingly, Herakles’ wayward actions continued with brazen attempts to pull the wool over the eyes of many more than just its “green” supporters. As the documents reveal, the company also appears to be knowingly lying to its investors about its viability and financial health.

Perhaps the most important debunking of Herakles’ claims by Greenpeace and Oakland is the well-guarded secret that the company is operating without all required permits in Cameroon, and therefore, the legality of its operations is questionable. In communications with investors, Herakles assures that it has “secured a 99-year lease… and also received all required permits and approvals to commence field operations”. But in an internal communication, a senior Herakles official states unequivocally: “We do not have the required government approvals for field planting.”

Cameroon’s Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife has on numerous occasions – the most recent, just last month – formally warned the company to stop felling trees until it receives the necessary approvals. Among these missing approvals is a signed presidential decree required to validate the leases of all land concessions of more than 50 hectares on public lands in Cameroon. Yet despite its many reproaches, Herakles proceeds with impunity.

Not only is Herakles knocking down the trees, but the company assures investors that it will go on to sell the timber, which it believes will result in “a potential upside of $60 to $90 million over the next seven years”. Yet in an open letter, written by CEO Wrobel in September in an attempt to pacify the project’s growing number of critics, he stated: “We surrendered the timber to the government [for] a lower lease rate.”

This unabashedly two-faced style of negotiation by Herakles betrays a greater truth: that many foreign investors see Africa as the new Wild West where laws can be bent at will. The laws seem to become particularly pliant when the company is, as one senior employee reveals to be the case for Herakles, “in a cash crunch”. The fact of Herakles’ operations appears to be that Wrobel and his cohort are in over their heads and are desperate to cover their shortfalls.

The company did, however, take its public mission to address “a dire humanitarian need”, straight to the communities and local leaders. It did so by dangling the promise of hospitals, jobs, food security and “tremendous long-term benefits”, and managed to gain pockets of consent in the area, to which it now clings as proof of its right to operate.

In the meantime, local people have come to terms with the notion that they have been hoodwinked by Herakles. Their dreams of stronger infrastructure began to evaporate at the moment when, instead of hospitals and jobs, the only new features to materialise in the area were red tape perimeters and warning signs, flaunting the fact that their land rights had been forfeited.

Now villages and local NGOs have mobilised – and they are seeking support from international civil society organisations to undo what amounts to a herculean human rights and environmental catastrophe. This is a sobering lesson for all parties involved – that the land rush by foreign investors into African nations is not philanthropically driven, despite claims to the contrary. Rather, companies such as Herakles Farms have exploited images of poverty and hunger, and couched their efforts in the language of sustainability, allowing them to handily reap profits from Africa’s resources while undermining national laws, local communities and the environment.

While investors may have initially bought into Wrobel’s multi-tiered façade of the perfect “sustainable” investment with the promise of mega-returns, it is time to come to terms with the fact that they, too, are among the victims of Herakles’ many deceptions. But the time is now to begin to make things right, and the first step is to help the Cameroonian people free themselves from Herakles’ greenwashed snare by demanding accountability.

This is not a rebuke to the very real efforts to bring infrastructure and aid to Africa. However, it must serve as an imperative for the international community to proceed only with the understanding that Africa is open for business, not for theft.

Anuradha Mittal is the founder and executive director of the Oakland Institute, a policy think-tank dedicated to increasing public participation and promoting debate on social, economic and environmental policies that impact our lives. 

Follow her on Twitter: @Mittaloak

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

Herakles Farms: Major plantation downsize in the works?

Idle Herakles Farms truck, Fabe, Southwest Region, Cameroon.

Idled Herakles Farms truck, Fabe, Southwest Region, Cameroon.

 

In the latest twist in the Herakles Farms saga, a June 8th dispatch from Reuters says the Cameroonian government has asked the company to slash the size of its plantation from 73,000 hectares to 20,000 hectares. The report also suggests the site of the new 20,000 hectare development is yet to be determined.

A 20,000 hectare development would still be among the country’s largest plantations. Socapalm (part of the Bollore Group, which also directly owns 9,000 hectares ) has more acreage devoted to palm oil, spread over several sites. Pamol and CDC each cultivate less than 20,000 hectares. Sime Darby, Cargill and others are negotiating for larger tracts of land.

Will reducing the size of the Herakles Farms plantation allow project opponents and project supporters to find common ground? That is far from certain. In any case, this is not a done deal.  Here’s the Reuters article:

YAOUNDE, June 8 (Reuters) – Cameroon’s forestry ministry has asked a company owned by New York venture capital firm Herakles Capital to slash the size of its planned palm oil plantation to 20,000 hectares from 73,000, a senior ministry source said on Saturday.

Ministry officials said on Thursday they had given the green light to Herakles Farms to continue developing its proposed plantation, covering an area more than 10 times the size of Manhattan, provided it complied with regulations.

The ministry had ordered the company to suspend development of the site in April pending a review of the public usefulness of the project, agreed in a 2009 deal with the ministry of economy, planning and territorial development (MINEPAT).

“We have asked them to forget their original deal signed with MINEPAT. The new 20,000 hectare site has yet to be determined,” said the senior forestry ministry official who asked not to be identified.

A spokesman for Herakles Farms, Franklin Sone Bayen, declined to confirm or deny the information.

“The company is still in a process of negotiating with the Cameroonian government,” he told Reuters.

Environmental groups including Greenpeace and WWF have said the project violates Cameroon’s laws and could endanger wildlife and deprive locals of their livelihoods.

Herakles Farms has repeatedly said it has fully complied with Cameroonian law and the wishes of local communities.

Though the forestry minister has sent a letter to Herakles authorising it to proceed with the clearance of the forest and planting of palms, officials said the company still requires logging permissions from the ministry.

Palm oil is the world’s most widely produced vegetable oil and is used in everything from margarine and soap to biofuel. Annual production around the world is valued at about $20 billion. (Reporting by Beaugas-Orain Djoyum; Writing by Daniel Flynn; Editing by Matthew Tostevin)

Delight to disappointment as Herakles Farms’ suspension order lifted

 

From Greenpeace: This is the Fabe Nursery, run illegally by Herakles Farm through its subsidiary SGSOC (SG Sustainable Oil Cameroon). Despite a judge issuing an injunction in August 2011 ordering a halt to all operations on the nursery, Herakles Farms was continuing to operate it illegally in February 2012 when this photo was taken. All workers here were told they would be supplied with boots and hats, but had yet to receive them when Greenpeace visited in early 2012. 02/15/2012 © Jan-Joseph Stok / Greenpeace

From Greenpeace: Despite a judge issuing an injunction in August 2011 ordering a halt to all operations on the nursery, Herakles Farms was continuing to operate it illegally in February 2012 when this photo was taken. 02/15/2012 © Jan-Joseph Stok / Greenpeace

That’s the headline from today’s Greenpeace blog, posted below. When Cameroon’s Minister of Forestry and Wildlife (MINFOF), Ngole Philip Ngwese, suspended Herakles’ operations in the Southwest Region the mood in the concession area was joyful. Talk of Herakles’ departure from Cameroon spread rapidly across Cameroonian social media networks. But local activists and attorneys said it was too soon to celebrate: the suspension was temporary and the matter of Herakles Farms was far from resolved.

The recent news that Ngwese has lifted the suspension is troubling on many levels. There is no information available for communities who want to understand what is happening. Those directly impacted by the project are in the dark.  A dispatch from AFP suggests that Ngwese was under pressure from the Prime Minister to lift the suspension and hints at a power struggle, but the unattributed comments don’t give us much concrete information. The government flip-flopping on Herakles Farms has been going on for some time now and as each new turn of events gets reported, Cameroon’s credibility slides further downhill.

Samuel Nguiffo of the Center for the Environment and Development is one of several respected civil society activists who have called on the government to put a moratorium on all large-scale land deals. The government of Cameroon needs to clearly define what type of foreign agricultural investment it wants (domestic food production vs. export commodity crops) and needs to have a transparent legal framework in place for all investment. If procedures exist, but companies like Herakles Farms can bypass them completely and sign a massive deal behind closed doors, the laws are meaningless. Herakles Farms is indicative of a much larger problem. The lack of transparency and accountability harms local communities, the environment, Cameroon’s reputation abroad and the country’s ability to reach its own Vision 2035 development goals.

From Greenpeace Africa:

by Irene Wabiwa – June 6, 2013

There was dancing in the streets of Mundemba and Fabe when the news came two weeks ago that the Cameroonian government had suspended Herakles Farms’ forest clearing operations.

Communities in this region of South West Cameroon, who had feared that they would lose their lands and their livelihoods to Herakles’ industrial palm oil plantation, now believed that their forest had been saved.

The news was also welcomed, if slightly less exuberantly, by Cameroonian NGOs and international agencies in the capital, Yaoundé. I met with many key actors who described the suspension as a brave and right decision which will make Cameroon’s business climate more attractive for international investors. By suspending this project, which would have devastating social and environmental consequences, the government was reinforcing its credibility in the eyes of the international community.

So I, like many others, was shocked to learn that the suspension had been lifted last week, without a single word of explanation. The allegations of corruption and violations of national law that have been fired at Herakles Farms’ project since its inception have not been addressed, let alone resolved.

These allegations were described in detail in a report launched by Greenpeace International and the Oakland Institute in the same week that the suspension order was made public. Through a series of internal company communications, the report demonstrated how Herakles Farms has systematically mislead the government and investors.  These documents showed that the company apparently knew it was operating in Cameroon without all required permits and authorisations, and that bribery may have been used in the attempt to gain consent for the project.

Recently, it seems increasingly clear that the company is also facing serious cash flow issues. This means that the company is not a viable long-term development partner, and will not be able to deliver on all the promises that it has made to local communities,  the government and investors.

By enforcing the suspension, the Cameroonian government had shown that it was putting the interests of its own people above those of foreign companies. By reversing it, the communities who were dancing with joy only two weeks ago now feel frustrated and abandoned.

Greenpeace is calling on the Cameroonian government to stop this project, and for a moratorium on the allocation of all large-scale land concessions in Cameroon until safeguards are introduced to protect the livelihoods of local communities and the forests on which they depend.

Cameroon says Herakles Farms free to resume tree felling operations

Herakles Farms clear-cut zone near Talangaye, Southwest Region, Cameroon.

Herakles Farms clear-cut zone near Talangaye, Southwest Region, Cameroon.

In a strange about-face, the government of Cameroon has authorized Herakles Farms to resume clear-cutting in the Southwest Region. This decision comes only a few weeks after the government ordered the company to halt all operations until it could produce a “declaration d’utilité publique,” a legal prerequisite for the work. The letter lifting the suspension of clear-cutting makes no mention of the required document and only reminds the company that it must follow laws and regulations. Several observers have suggested the latest letter is likely indicative of a power struggle, with someone higher in rank than the Minister of Forestry and Wildlife ordering that work resume.

To be continued…

In the meantime, here is a press release from WWF Cameroon and the Center for the Environment and Development, a respected Cameroonian NGO:

Yaoundé, Cameroun (5 June 2013)

Herakles Farms is free to resume its tree felling operations in Cameroon, according to a Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife document obtained by local and international NGOs Wednesday, a blow to local communities and the unique biodiversity of the region.

The decision came as a surprise as in April the same ministry had ordered the US-based company which intends to cut up to 73,000 hectares of pristine rainforest to develop an oil palm plantation, to suspend operations until it had obtained legal authorization to do so.

“This is incomprehensible,” said Ludovic Miaro Iii, WWF Regional Palm Oil Coordinator in Central Africa. “On the one hand, we have a company which is operating without requisite permits on public lands, in clear violation of national and international social and environmental norms. What Herakles Farms is doing is a de facto land grab.

“On the other hand, we have the government of Cameroon which seems to be encouraging this company to circumvent national legislations and the rights of local people,” Iii added.

According to a 29 May 2013 letter by Cameroon’s Minister of Forestry and Wildlife, Ngole Philip Ngwese addressed to the CEO of SG Sustainable Oils – the local affiliate of Herakles Farms – the “suspension of tree felling operations of announced in my (previous) correspondence is hereby lifted.”

Palm oil cultivation is a contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation and the loss of biodiversity worldwide. Improperly designed and managed, it deprives local communities of access to land and impacts food security.

“Herakles Farms has consistently shown a complete disregard for Cameroonian laws and local community rights,” according to Samuel Nguiffo, head of the Cameroonian NGO Centre for Environment and Development.”

“The Ministry Forestry and Wildlife of Cameroon itself, in a February 2013 report, accused Herakles Farms of intimidation and bribery in its dealings with chiefs and local decision-makers.”

“Furthermore, should the project go forward, local communities who depend on their traditional lands and forest for their livelihood will be pushed away, leading to increased food insecurity and social instability,” Nguiffo added.

Herakles Farms shutdown generates global news coverage

Christell Kouetcha at Bibi Ngota awards ceremony. Photo: Tribunal Article 53

Christelle Kouetcha at Bibi Ngota awards ceremony. Photo: Tribunal Article 53

The suspension of operations at Herakles Farms has generated a number of stories in the international and Cameroonian press. Links to recent articles are listed below. Here are some highlights from Cameroon.

“Herakles Farms accused of not having told the truth about its project in Cameroon,” reports business publication, Investir au Cameroun (Invest in Cameroon). The article, in French, includes a statement from the minister in charge of forests, Ngolle Philip Ngwesse, who emphasized that the Establishment Convention signed in 2009 did not exempt the company from respecting procedures and laws.  The article also reports that Greenpeace and Cameroonian NGO, Center for the Environment and Development, have called for a moratorium on all new concessions.

Free Speech Radio News features reporting by Ngala Killian Chimtom in the concession area. The story, Local residents in Cameroon raise concerns about massive U.S.-backed palm oil plantation, is online. Another story, Advocacy groups say internal documents from Herakles Farms point to corruption, bribery in Cameroon palm oil plantation, is also available online.

On May 15th, Cameroonian journalist Christelle Kouetcha Tcheulatchue was awarded a 2013 “Bibi Ngota Journalism Against Impunity” award for her July 2012 special report on Herakles Farms. Kouetcha, a reporter at Le Quotidien de l’Economie in Douala, put together an in-depth report on the Herakles Farms project featuring interviews with officials, community leaders and ordinary citizens across the concession area.

Bibi Ngota was a Cameroonian journalist who died in prison in April 2010. Ngota, editor of the monthly Cameroon Express, was arrested after he and three other journalists sent questions to presidential advisor, Laurent Esso, about allegations of embezzlement of public funds. Ngota had known health problems and was denied medical care; he died in prison during pre-trial detention. Cameroonian writer, Patrice Nganang, and other human rights activists established the Bibi Ngota Journalism Against Impunity award in 2012 to honor investigative journalists whose work seeks to break the silence of impunity, “one of the main characteristics of dictatorships.”  The prize is administered by Cameroonian human rights organization, Tribunal Article 53.

For more information on the status of press freedom in Cameroon, see the 2012 report from Freedom House.

Press  and Media on Herakles Farms/SGSOC week of May 20th, 2013

http://stream.wsj.com/story/latest-headlines/SS-2-63399/SS-2-237745/ 

http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/news/Blogs/makingwaves/herakles-cameroon-palm-oil-project-starts-to-/blog/45259/

http://www.oaklandinstitute.org/press-release-herakles-exposed-truth-behind-herakles-farms-false-promises-cameroon

http://uk.reuters.com/article/2013/05/22/cameroon-palm-idUKL6N0E344Q20130522

http://www.businessweek.com/news/2013-05-23/cameroon-says-herakles-needs-permits-for-oil-palm-project

http://news.mongabay.com/2013/0523-herakles-halted.html

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-05-23/cameroon-says-herakles-needs-permits-for-oil-palm-project.html

http://cameroonjournal.com/herakle%20farms.html

http://bourse.lefigaro.fr/devises-matieres-premieres/actu-conseils/huile-de-palme-un-projet-emblematique-suspendu-428479

http://www.romandie.com/news/n/_La_societe_americaine_Herakles_suspend_son_projet_de_culture_de_palmiers_a_huile_au_Cameroun23240520131124.asp

(One of several stories taken from the AFP wire published on 24/5)

http://economie.jeuneafrique.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=17306

http://www.lemonde.fr/afrique/article/2013/05/23/au-cameroun-un-projet-geant-d-huile-de-palme-fait-scandale_3416319_3212.html

http://economie.jeuneafrique.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=17306

http://www.camerounactu.net/fr/economie/entreprises/3320-exploitation-dhuile-de-palm-heracles-suspend-ses-activites-au-cameroun

http://www.journalducameroun.com/article.php?aid=14360

http://www.businessincameroon.com/agribusiness/2205-4079-herakles-farms-suspends-activities-in-cameroon

http://www.investiraucameroun.com/agriculture/2205-4224-herakles-farm-suspend-ses-operations-suite-aux-injonctions-du-gouvernement-camerounais

http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/05/22/cameroon-palm-idUSL6N0E344Q20130522

http://www.africareview.com/Business—Finance/US-firm-shelves-Cameroon-plantation-project/-/979184/1859662/-/x49w93/-/index.html

 

Herakles Farms releases public statement: Operations suspended

TalangayeNurs002resz

Herakles Farms, known in Cameroon as SGSOC, has issued a public statement regarding the suspension of its operations.

The 73,000 hectare Herakles Farms project has been extremely controversial since communities first became aware of its existence. As numerous reports and observers have documented, the initial contract (the September 2009 “Establishment Convention”)  was the result of secret negotiations between the company and Cameroonian officials. Communities were only “consulted” after the fact and although the company has been negotiating directly with villages in recent months, its consultation practices — often involving gifts and other incentives — have been widely criticized.

For several weeks rumors regarding Herakles Farms have been circulating on the ground and the company has finally responded with this statement:

HERAKLES FARMS SUSPENDS CAMEROON OPERATIONS IN COMPLIANCE WITH THE RECENTLY ISSUED STOPPAGE ORDER FROM THE MINISTRY OF FORESTRY &WILDLIFE (MINFOF)

May 18, 2013 ‐ Herakles Farms (also known as SG‐SOC in Cameroon) (“Company”), a United States‐based agriculture company with operations in Ghana and Cameroon, today, announced that it has suspended work in Cameroon in response to an order it received from the Government of Cameroon’s Ministry of Forestry & Wildlife (MINFOF).

The order requests that the Company cease preparing land near its Talangaye nursery, the resumption of activities “being subject to a declaration of public usefulness made to the zone where your entire project is located.” The order comes at a time when the Company’s main activity is the transfer of young trees from the nurseries to their permanent places in the field near the village of Talangaye. The Company had obtained permission to proceed and always has and will comply fully and transparently with government regulations in force.

The Company hopes to understand and resolve these actions by the MINFOF.

Given the uncertain timeframe for resuming development, SG‐SOC is reducing and furloughing its workforce of 690 full‐time employees. Herakles Farms’ management reaffirms their commitment to the successful development of their operations in Cameroon. The Company is diligently working with Cameroonian Government officials to resolve the matter as quickly as possible.

The Company is deeply distressed to see so many of its committed Cameroonian employees being left without jobs for an uncertain period of time. In addition, the Company’s community and work force development programs will remain in doubt until a resolution with the Government of Cameroon can be found. The company finds these events especially tragic and will do all it can to achieve a positive outcome.

About Herakles Farms

Herakles Farms is an agriculture company that identifies and implements solutions to important food security concerns in Africa. The Company has had operations in Ghana since 2008 and in Cameroon since 2009. Herakles Farms is guided by the International Finance Corporation (IFC) Performance Standards and Equator Principles. www.heraklesfarms.com

End of statement

Note: The company’s statement raises many questions  about the project and its future. The company makes no mention of the sale of its seedlings to Pamol. The number of employees of Herakles Farms has not been independently verified. Herakles Farms states that it has had operations in Cameroon since 2009. This is misleading. The company signed a contract in September 2009, but as the December 2010 minutes of an inter-ministerial commission show, as of late 2010, the boundaries of the proposed concession were still disputed.  At that time, a representative of the Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife indicated that, “SG SOC did  not respect the procedure for submission of files and other ministries concerned were not included in the project.” More than 11,000 hectares of land included in the Herakles Farms concession were already attributed to others (community forests, council forests).