Cameroon’s president Biya signs lease on controversial palm oil development

Entrance to Lipenja nursery. Lipenja, SW Region, Cameroon.

Entrance to Lipenja nursery. Lipenja, SW Region, Cameroon.

Cameroon’s president, Paul Biya, has signed an official decree allowing Herakles Farms to proceed with the development of a controversial palm oil plantation in the country’s Southwest Region. In response to widespread opposition, the project has been downsized from 73,000 hectares to 20,000 hectares. It’s unlikely, however, that the reduced plantation size will satisfy critics who opposed not only the immense footprint of the proposed plantation, but also the methods of the company.

Here’s more from  Africa Science News:

Herakles land lease signature is an alarming development

Continue reading

When fraud goes green


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.

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.

Communities explore alternatives to industrial palm oil development

Large-scale oil palm plantations have existed in SW Cameroon for decades, but have brought little in the way of development.

Large-scale oil palm plantations have existed in SW Cameroon for decades, but have brought little in the way of development.


In forest communities across Cameroon and the Congo Basin people want development — quality roads, clean water, electricity, the ability to earn a decent living and access to education, among other things.  Promoters of palm oil projects would like people to believe that ceding their lands to corporations for large-scale industrial plantations will put them on the road to development.

What communities don’t get are the facts.  They hear little about the true costs and benefits of giving up their land for industrial plantations. Nor can communities easily get information about the alternatives to plantation agriculture. Although communities may get the impression that they must choose forests or development, industrial agriculture or poverty, this is not true. Nor is it clear that industrial palm oil development will lead people out of poverty or increase food security.

Greenpeace Africa and Cameroonian NGO ACDIC (Association Citoyenne pour la Defense des Interêts Collectifs) are working together “to assess how small-scale farming can offer a responsible development path” and on April 16th close to 100 community representatives attended a workshop “to share ideas on how to ensure food security and forest protection…and identified technical support for farmers, access to land, and producing food locally for local consumption as some of the key factors in achieving this.”

Read more about the initiative here: Food Security and Forest Protection in Cameroon and on the Greenpeace Africa blog.