Warning: Look to Liberia

Where forests and farms once stood, oil palms now stretch as far as the eye can see...

Where forests and farms once stood, oil palms now stretch as far as the eye can see…

Citizens of Congo Basin countries need look no further than Liberia to see what uncontrolled palm oil development looks like. It’s a frightening sight.

Africa’s Vanishing Forests, published on December 4th, describes Liberia’s burgeoning palm oil industry in painful detail. This is not what “development” is supposed to look like.

Writing about the arrival of Singaporean investor, Golden Veroleum (GVL), in Liberia, author Jocelyn Zuckerman describes an all-too-familiar scenario:

– Deals signed without the consent of local communities;

– Community lands seized by the government and handed over to multinational corporations;

– Deforestation leading to extensive environmental damage and social upheaval with villagers deprived of their lands and livelihoods;

– Insufficient compensation, limited employment opportunities and increasing food prices and hunger;

– Corruption running throughout every deal;

– Local attorneys and officials overwhelmed by powerful multinational legal teams;

– Project opponents and journalists harassed and imprisoned.

The list goes on and on.

Zuckerman relates the story of a village called Pluoh, where villager, Benedict Menewah, tells his story:

He described how GVL had shown up with its Caterpillars in the village he’d grown up in and where his father, Smart Williams, still lived. Hearing the sound of machinery, Williams, a 77-year-old with stooped shoulders and clouded blue eyes, had gone to see what was up. Representatives from GVL, a Liberian company whose anchor investor is based in Singapore, asked to see his father’s deed, Menewah said. “We don’t have a deed,” Williams told them, “but this is our land. Where would we get a deed from?” (In fact, very few rural Liberians have physical documentation related to the land their families have inhabited for generations.) “They said the land was for the government,” Williams told me later, “not for us.” The company proceeded to plow under the family’s cassava, yams, and plantains, in addition to the 500 baby rubber trees that Menewah had recently planted with intentions of selling the latex. They disassembled Williams’s home and put the mud bricks on a tractor so he could rebuild elsewhere.

“The bush is our supermarket,” Menewah said, explaining how he used to hunt for small animals as well as gather fruit. “We get everything here. But now they’ve taken it all.” The company gave him a single payment of $340.

Williams was particularly broken up about the two breadfruit trees that his great-uncle had brought back from Ghana in 1922 and which, along with bush meat and “palm cabbage” (finely chopped, tender young palm leaves), had kept the family alive during the long years of fighting. “We lost our auntie, our uncle, our nephew, our niece,” Menewah said, spreading his arms to show me the horizontal scars from where the combatants had tied him up.

The coconut tree had apparently been left, along with the nearby papaya, as a courtesy when the company bulldozed everything else around the graves of Williams’s father and uncle. GVL encircled these with a rickety wooden fence. Whenever he or his father tries to tidy up the way they used to, Menewah said, “the company says we are damaging their property.”

Although Zuckerman underlines the responsibility of the host country governments for making things right (or wrong), she also brings up the important issue of the imbalance of power in these deals:

“Even the government of Liberia does not have the capacity to negotiate with these conglomerates,” (Liberian) attorney Brownell told me. “The government budget this year was $500 million [$553 million, to be exact]. Sime Darby’s is more than $3 billion; Golden Veroleum’s, $1.6 billion. These companies have the top-notch lawyers in the world, the top-notch advisers. The government of Liberia is like an ant when it’s negotiating with these people.”

To make matters worse, Brownell said in reference to the Sime Darby concession, there is little oversight to ensure that citizens’ needs are being met. “You don’t have any person from the government looking over it,” he said. “It’s a state within a state.”

Sime Darby’s head of communications, Carl Dagenhart, speaking by phone from Malaysia, admitted that the company is largely left to its own devices. “Whenever an investor is doing business in a country which has been traumatized to such a degree as Liberia, of course, in many respects we will be a little bit on our own,” he said.

The trend across the region is not encouraging and Liberia stands as an example of what can happen when palm oil is done wrong.  Read the whole article here: Africa’s Vanishing Forests

Further reading:

Sime Darby and Land Grabs in Liberia

The Bitter Taste of Liberia’s Palm Oil Plantations

More information at Farmlandgrab.org

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

Cameroon activist takes on land grabber from Wall Street, now faces imprisonment

Nasako Besingi. Photo: Kumba News

Nasako Besingi. Photo: Kumba News

The following interview was published by GRAIN, a small international organization that works to support struggles for community-controlled food systems. This is the first of a series of interviews about resistance to the expansion of industrial oil palm plantations in West and Central Africa.

Nasako Besingi is a land grabber’s nightmare. The community organiser and director of Struggle to Economise Future Environment (SEFE) has made a mess of a US company’s plans to grab a huge chunk of land in Cameroon’s southwest to produce palm oil.

Herakles Capital is a venture capital firm based in New York City that is pursuing the acquisition and development of oil palm plantations on over 80,000 ha in West and Central Africa. Nasako has worked tirelessly to investigate and expose the company’s project in Cameroon since the moment he learned of it, and helped local people to understand what its plans are all about. Resistance to Herakles is now widespread, but it’s come at a high price for Nasako.

“I first heard about the plans for a plantation in our area from a government agent back in 2009,” he says. “I was shocked. I told him, ‘But there are no available lands in our area.'”

Later that year, at a local meeting of the ruling political party, chiefs from the area were asked to sign a blank piece of paper in exchange for 10,000 FCFA. “None of them knew what they were signing,” says Nasako. “We only found out later that the paper was used as proof of local consent for the proposed oil palm project.”

By 2010, the government and the company had gone public about the deal. But it was not clear who was behind the project. “They would refer to the company as Sithe Global, which is a US company, when they were talking about it locally and then SCSOC, a company registered in Cameroon, when it came to official communications. To me it seemed like they were hiding the real identity of the company,” says Nasako. Only later would it become clear that the company was owned by US hedge fund manager Herakles Capital, which also owns Sithe Global.

An inside source gave Nasako a copy of the Establishment Convention between the company and the government.

“The convention does not specify the amount of lands or the location of the lands involved in the project,” says Nasako. “But when the company came to the area, they said that the lands had been allocated by the government.”

SEFE organised a meeting in August 2011 to get clarity on the proposed project. They invited all of the affected villages, the government and the company. But the company refused to participate.

“It was then that we realised that this company did not want to negotiate, that they were shunning us,” says Nasako. “So we decided to take them to court.”

SEFE brought charges against the company for violating national and international environmental and human rights laws to the High Court. The court ruled in its favour, concluding that Herakles did not have permission to operate in the area, but this did not stop the company.

“The company ignored this decision from the court because they had the blessing of the Prime Minister,” says Nasako. “We looked at this and said, ‘If this company is going to ignore the court, how can we, as villagers, expect them to listen to us?'”

SEFE stepped up its awareness raising work. It organised another major meeting in July 2012 in the village of Meangwe 2. In the days leading up to the meeting, company agents went into the villages warning residents not to attend.

“They told the villagers that it was an illegal meeting, that SEFE was an illegal organisation, and that people would be arrested if they attended the meeting,” says Nasako. “But this didn’t stop people from coming. It was the rainy season and still over 300 people turned up for the meeting from all the affected villages. For many, it was the first time they had learned about the proposed project and the company.”

Nasako’s efforts nearly cost him his life. A month after the meeting, he was travelling by motorbike to a village that had asked him to talk to them about Herakles’ plans when he was ambushed by a group of men.

“They pulled me off the bike and started punching me,” recounts Nasako. “They were yelling at me, saying I was to blame for standing in the way of the company. I recognised all of them as junior managers with Herakles Farms.”

Luckily a team of French journalists happened to be trailing Nasako that day. When their truck appeared, the men let Nasako go and fled.

Tensions between the company and the villagers continued to escalate. But the company and the government were still claiming that the local people were in favour of the proposed concession and spreading this misinformation in the national and international media.

“The vast majority of the local people are against what Herakles is doing, and we wanted to show this to the world,” says Nasako.

At the request of the community, SEFE came up with a plan. In November 2012, they produced hundreds of T-shirts reading: “No plantations on our land. Herakles out”. They provided these to the villagers to wear to an installation ceremony for a new senior divisional officer in the area to make visible their opposition to the Herakles plantations. But, prior to the ceremony, a large contingent of police and soldiers invaded the SEFE offices and arrested Nasako and 5 villagers.

“They were trying to intimidate us and to provoke the people into violence,” says Nasako. “But we insisted that this was a peaceful protest, and we urged people not to engage in any physical resistance because that would serve as an excuse to make further arrests and charges.”

Despite the intimidation, around 400 people collected t-shirts. On their way to the ceremony, however, they were violently attacked and molested by the police and military and prevented from entering with their t-shirts on.

Nasako is still awaiting summons from the court to find out what he’s been charged with. The other five who were arrested were charged with taking part in the organisation of an undeclared public meeting.

Meanwhile Herakles has filed a separate case against Nasako, accusing him of defamation and suing him for damages. He’s awaiting a summons for that case too.

“I won’t have the money to pay the damages if I lose,” says Nasako. “So this would mean that I would have to go to jail.”

Neither the possibility of going to jail nor the threat to his life deters Nasako. He believes that the communities are winning their struggle. Herakles Farms now seems to be in financial trouble, and the government has forced them to scale down their project plans to 20,000 ha.

But that’s not enough for SEFE and the villagers. They want the project cancelled.

“We need to continue with the resistance. You never know if the current silence from the company is just a strategy,” warns Nasako. “We cannot rest until there is an official announcement that the contract has been cancelled. And other companies are coming in. We know that Cargill is collaborating with the international NGO Proforest to acquire land in a neighbouring area, just to the south of the Herakles proposed project.”

Nasako and his organisation SEFE need international support to help in their court cases and in their local work. Those wishing to find out more about how they can help, can contact Nasako atnasako.bondoko@gmail.com.

Read the original here:  Cameroon activist takes on land grabber from Wall Street, now faces imprisonment


Major palm oil companies accused of breaking ethical promises

"Non-complying member organisations can simply opt to leave the RSPO in the midst of a complaint, and consequently they will not be governed by any of our rules. The RSPO closely monitors the activities of its members [but] it has no legal way to enforce its members to comply." This is the case of Herakles Farms, Cameroon AKA SGSOC. The company withdrew from the RSPO in 2012.

“Non-complying member organisations can simply opt to leave the RSPO in the midst of a complaint, and consequently they will not be governed by any of our rules. The RSPO closely monitors the activities of its members [but] it has no legal way to enforce its members to comply.” This is the case of Herakles Farms, Cameroon AKA SGSOC. The company withdrew from the RSPO in 2012.

Large plantations are destroying forests, damaging wildlife and causing social conflict in Asia and Africa, report finds

by Jon Vidal, the Guardian

Large palm oil companies that have promised to act ethically have been accused of land grabbing, ignoring human rights and exploiting labour in their African and Asian plantations.

In a damning 400-page investigation, the companies are variously charged with impacting on orangutan populations, destroying tropical forest and burning and draining large tracks of peat swamp forest.

Sixteen palm oil concessions, in Indonesia, Liberia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Cameroon, all operated by members of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) were visited by monitors working with international human rights groups including UK-based Forest peoples programme and Sawit Watch, from Indonesia. Local communities consistently accused the companies of not respecting their customary land rights, violating laws and court rulings and acting in such a way that encouraged conflict.

The growing global demand for palm oil has fuelled a massive expansion of plantations across the forests of southeast Asia and Africa but concerns have been growing for over a decade about the resulting environmental and social impacts. The RSPO, set up in 2004 by the industry and civil society groups including WWF, sets criteria for greener palm oil production and tries to encourage industry expansion in ways that do not cause social conflict.

About 15% of the world’s palm oil is now certified as “sustainable” by the RSPO, whose members range from some of the largest growers and traders, to relatively small companies.

“Since its founding the RSPO has adopted good standards, but too many member companies are not delivering on these paper promises,” said Norman Jiwan, director of human rights group Transformasi Untuk Keadilan Indonesia.

The report will be published on Thursday in Sumatra, where over 10.8m hectares of land has been planted with oil palm trees, to coincide with the annual meeting of the RSPO in Medan, Indonesia.

It follows growing alarm at the way communities in Asia and Africa are being pushed aside to make way for large plantations and the loss of wildlife, including the tiger. Many organisations, including the World Bank, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, Greenpeace and Walhi, have expressed deep concern at the resulting impoverishment of local communities and the growth of conflict around the concessions.

According to some, the RSPO’s voluntary “best practice” rules and guidelines are not working and the organisation is in danger of becoming a fig leaf for agribusiness to take advantage of weak land laws.

“Underlying this failure of ‘voluntary best practice’ are national laws and policies which deny or ignore indigenous peoples’ and communities’ land rights,” said Marcus Colchester, an adviser at Forest Peoples Programme.

“In their rush to encourage investment and exports, governments are trampling their own citizens’ rights. Global investors, retailers, manufacturers and traders must insist on dealing in conflict-free palm oil, and national governments must up their game and respect communities’ rights.”

Concern in the report centres on the Indonesian legal system which is described as “unjust” because it allows land to be expropriated from local people without regard for internationally recognised rights. Land laws favour large-scale plantations and lead to the widespread abuse of human rights. The report found that palm oil expansion in the Malaysian state of Sarawak was systematically grabbing Dayak lands without their consent.

“So much effort has been invested in the RSPO … but to little avail,” said Jefri Saragih, executive director of Sawit Watch, a founding member of the RSPO. “We can point to one or two good results on the ground, but there are thousands of land conflicts with oil palm companies in Indonesia alone, and the problem is now spreading to other parts of Asia and Africa. We are calling for an urgent and vastly expanded response to this crisis.”

The RSPO responded to the criticism in a statement. “Making the palm oil market fully sustainable is possible but only over time, and with the right levels of commitment. The RSPO depends on the goodwill of companies on the ground, and local government authorities, to ensure that these principles and criteria are abided to. There have been a number of cases of non-compliant members.”

It further said that it has strengthened its commitment towards human rights, requiring companies to implement policies to counter corruption, ban forced labour and forbid use of disputed lands. However, there is no legal compulsion on members to comply with RSPO’s principles and criteria.

“Non-complying member organisations can simply opt to leave the RSPO in the midst of a complaint, and consequently they will not be governed by any of our rules. The RSPO closely monitors the activities of its members [but] it has no legal way to enforce its members to comply.”

Read the original article at the Guardian

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











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











Herakles Farms releases public statement: Operations suspended


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:


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).

Customary land ownership must be recognized

Hevea (rubber) plantations stretch for miles across parts of Cameroon. Most of the country's large plantations were established during the colonial period -- the first land grabs.

Hevea (rubber) plantations stretch for miles across parts of Cameroon. Most of the country’s large plantations were established during the colonial period — the first land grabs.

By Clemence Tabodo Martiale, translated by Jaff Napoleon Bamenjo, RELUFA

In Africa, land is considered a precious resource of divine providence. It is collectively owned and systematically inherited or handed down to branches of each family. As a God given good, land is considered inalienable by most local communities. But since the advent of colonization and the introduction of written laws regulating land in Africa, local communities have become more and more vulnerable to land deals.

In Cameroon, the decline in full customary land ownership status started during the German colonization and has worsened over time. In 1896, the imperial decree erected all the unoccupied lands as belonging to the German crown. This piece of legislation ushered in the beginning of conflicts between customary land ownership and the written state land laws in Cameroon. This resulted in the promotion of a system where individual land rights are guaranteed only by the State. According to the imperial decree of 15 June 1896, when Cameroon was still under German protectorate, unoccupied or unexploited land was termed “vacant land without masters” with the crown assuming ownership.

This approach ignored the scope of customary rights, ignoring local land uses beyond agriculture such as hunting and gathering that takes place on unoccupied lands.  After independence however, a quasi-denial of the rights of local communities to full ownership of customary land was enacted.  In 1974, with the creation of the national domain, land registration became the exclusive channel for land ownership, negating customary land ownership. Although land registration carries with it the advantage of facilitating the identification of land and proof of land ownership, its existence as the only mode of access to land, denies local people their customary land rights.

This situation is setting a disturbing precedent in Cameroon, where multinational companies are rushing to purchase parcels of land for their investments from governments, and coming into conflict with local communities who consider the land to be their own.  The governments are ready to sell the land without the informed consent of the local communities.

One glaring example is the Herakles land concession in Ndian and Kupe Manenguba divisions of the South West region of Cameroon, where 73,000 hectares (180,386 acres) were purchased for a palm oil project. The Herakles project has generated a lot of attention, controversy and resistance from the local communities in the project area for a variety of reasons.

Not only is the contract signed between Herakles and the government of Cameroon, granting Herakles a 99 year land lease, flawed on most of the contract details, but it also fails to respect the provisions of the law on the competent authority to sign such a long term land lease; the concerned population was inadequately consulted for their approval of the project and the project deprives the population of the only available customary land left for their livelihood activities.

RELUFA and other Civil Society Organizations both locally and internationally have been actively participating in advocacy campaigns to raise issues around this project and engage and influence policy makers in taking appropriate decisions about this and similar projects. The rationale for such campaigns is not only to influence this single project, but it is geared at influencing the entire land legislation so that customary land owners and local communities are expressly recognized and protected by the law.

So far, this is not happening because the government of Cameroon seems to paradoxically believe that foreign agro industrial investment presents the best option for national development. Hence, the government is focusing on promoting land reforms that makes it easier for foreign companies to obtain land leases. This is reflected in recent moves by the government to make land expropriation for industrial investment easier. Currently, land registration requirements are difficult for local communities to meet so as to assert full ownership because of the inhibitive cost and lengthy nature of the procedures involved. Advocating for recognition of customary land ownership is our greatest ambition and the campaign will continue unabated.

In sum, land rights of local communities remain precarious in Cameroon, especially now that the rush for land by multinational industrial plantations is on the increase. We are engaged in this struggle so that future land reforms take into account the rights of indigenous and local communities and implement a coherent land policy and management of the national territory which gives customary land ownership its rightful recognition and protection. This is a battle that must be won.

Customary Land Ownership Increasingly in Jeopardy: Monitoring Trends in Cameroon originally appeared in the Joining Hands newsletter.

Community voices making a difference in Cameroon


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

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

Community opposition to the 73,000 hectare Herakles Farms palm oil project in Cameroon’s Southwest region remains strong. Last week an open letter to Herakles Farms CEO, Bruce Wrobel, appeared in a number of online publications — the latest in a series of letters and petitions from Cameroonians who do not want to see their forest transformed into a vast plantation. Recent moves by the company to sell the seedlings from several of its nurseries suggest that opposition to the project is having an impact.

Reports on the ground indicate that work in the concession area has slowed, although there’s little official information available. Local community activist, Nasako Besingi, has spoken with company employees who say they are worried about their jobs and their wages for the month. Several workers told Besingi they have been sitting idly at the nurseries for one week but have heard nothing from their supervisors or the company. Besingi describes an atmosphere of confusion in the concession area.

See our links to reports for more information on Herakles Farms.

Visit the “News and downloads” page of the SAVE-Wildlife website to view copies of letters and petitions from local attorneys, community leaders and villagers opposed to the project.