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.


Land giveaways: “quick-fix” development?

Forest clearing, Herakles Farms development, Southwest Region, Cameroon.

Forest clearing, Herakles Farms development, Southwest Region, Cameroon.

There are certainly many paths to economic development, but as Samuel Nguiffo points out in a recent Al Jazeera opinion piece,  signing away vast expanses of land to foreign investors — the “quick-fix” approach — is a high-risk “development” plan.

Nguiffo, Founder and Secretary General of the Center for the Environment and Development (CED) in Yaounde, Cameroon, is a tireless advocate for the communities who are rarely consulted — and sometimes not even informed — before their lands are taken away for logging, mining or large-scale agricultural projects. Nguiffo’s work, like that of Marc Ona in Gabon, has been recognized and honored internationally. Nguiffo was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize in 1999 for his efforts on behalf of Cameroon’s rainforest and forest-dwelling communities. (And, like Ona, Nguiffo also faces lawsuits and intimidation at home.)

In the 1990s Nguiffo focused his attention on logging and the proposed Chad-Cameroon oil pipeline project (the pipeline has been operational since 2003). Today, the threats are multiplied, with numerous mining and palm oil projects in development.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with mining or large-scale agriculture, but as Nguiffo writes, the reality today is that “governments are giving away land that belongs to the people who live on the land, determining their future with neither consultation nor consent.”

Like all get-rich-quick schemes, there are lots of dollar signs and promises that dazzle local decision makers. Of course some people do get rich. Unfortunately, though, it’s not those whose lands are seized by the state and handed over to foreign investors.  And, more often than not, the host governments sign away land for far less than it’s worth, and agree to deals that they later regret, but can’t change as their negotiating teams were no match for multinational corporate contract attorneys.

In the case of the Chad-Cameroon pipeline, for example, Cameroon signed a deal with Exxon Mobil that allowed the company to build an offshore marine loading terminal and a pipeline across 900 kilometers of the country, including hundreds of kilometers of fragile forest zones, for nothing more than a transit fee — of less than 50 cents a barrel. The government has tried several times to renegotiate that bad deal, to no avail. Some people got rich; most people just live with the threat of spills.


Samuel Nguiffo is currently being sued by the government of Cameroon for tarnishing the state's reputation when he advocated against an oil palm plantation concession.

Samuel Nguiffo is currently being sued by the government of Cameroon for tarnishing the state’s reputation when he advocated against an oil palm plantation concession.

‘Quick-fix’ development gives away more than it gets back

The “land grabbing” in Africa and elsewhere often triggers conflict, an underreported financial risk.

by Samuel Nguiffo

In Cameroon, as in many African countries, the question of economic development is not just an abstract concept. Rural communities, mostly consisting of subsistence farmers struggling to feed their families, welcome the possibility of brighter prospects.

But instead of leading to greener pastures, economic development too often consists of large-scale projects that take away property and community land, leaving farmers with little compensation. Their governments – often the ones who sold the land – either look the other way or play the role of enforcer. If the communities are compensated, it is hardly adequate, and the few resulting jobs do not pay enough to make up for the permanent loss of livelihood and way of life.

In Southwest Cameroon, for example, New York-based Herakles Farms plans to clear 73,000 hectares for an oil palm plantation that the local communities are protesting. Once the land is cleared of their crops and the surrounding forest, they will have nothing – and nothing to lose by contesting this development.

Yet the financial media is full of reports of new large-scale land transactions. An aluminium mine in Northern Cameroon, supported by a hydropower plant and two railroads, would bring the country $4bn in investment from companies in the US, Dubai and India.

An iron mine in Southeast Cameroon, being bought by a Chinese firm planning to build port facilities and a railroad, would bring $4.7bn into the country.

And an even bigger oil palm plantation, developed by an Indian conglomerate, is expected to transform the landscape of over 200,000 hectares, a development worth more than $1.7bn.

The desire for these projects is understandable: the world needs more minerals and food, governments need revenues, and local people want jobs. But by encouraging such investments and thousands more like them around the world, governments are giving away land that belongs to the people who live on the land, determining their future with neither consultation nor consent.

Giveaways trigger land-based conflicts 

This has become known as the “land grab”, but it might be better called the “great land giveaway”. Governments, eager to capture the cash promised by large-scale agriculture, timber, or mining operations, all too willingly hand over their only resources to large multinational corporations to catalyse development. But in reality it is not the “quick-fix” they were hoping for.

Instead these projects often trigger community resistance, and governments often respond to those standing in the way of these deals with an onslaught of legal harassment, violence and worse. For example, after objecting to the actions of Herakles, the palm-oil producer, Nasako Besingi and four other Cameroonian advocates were jailed for three days in November 2012. Other activists have faced longer prison sentences. Fa’a Embolo, a village leader from Central Cameroon, spent four months in jail; in other countries they have been beaten and killed.

These stories are repeated across Africa, as weak governance and a lack of legal recognition and support for customary rights continue to inhibit any real progress.

Michael Richards, a natural resources economist, authored a report recently for the Rights and Resources Initiative examining 18 large-scale African land acquisitions in the agriculture sector. He concluded that the local communities had been lied to, subjected to coercion or political pressure, or tricked with documents that were either falsified or misleading. In 17 out of 18 cases, Richards said, local communities would have said no to the land transfers, if they had been given the information needed to make an informed decision.

Risks to investors 

But the communities and their defenders are not alone in facing risks. After the inevitable pushback from the communities whose land has been sold out from under them, a growing number of investors have lost more than they have gained. This financial risk is completely underestimated and underreported despite the widespread havoc it can wreak on corporate balance sheets.

One of the world’s largest palm oil producers, Sime Darby, was forced to suspend the development in 2012 of a planned 220,000-hectare oil palm and rubber plantation in Liberia because of protests on the part of local communities that claimed the land under customary law.

In Cameroon, by clearing rain forest and other illegally occupied lands and then arresting protesters who trespass onto the land, palm-oil producer Herakles has become the subject of a global advocacy campaign that has tarnished its reputation. The impact on the company’s bottom line has not been assessed, but the project delays do not come cheaply.

And the story does not end in Africa.

In India, Vedanta’s failed aluminium mining venture led to a negative financial outlook rating from Standard & Poor’s and other agencies. In Chile, a failed hydropower project forced SN Power to write off $23m. And in Bolivia, a failed highway project cost the national government a $332m development grant from a Brazilian development bank.

The assumption behind such investments is that they will provide rapid growth in the host countries. While in some ways effective, this “quick-fix” development exacerbates a growing gap between the rich and the poor and multiplies the risk of conflict.

These land-based conflicts could well begin to take the glow off the investment picture for the companies involved and those that finance them. But the growing appetite for land – and the growing speed of land acquisitions – means that tenure problems and the financial risks associated with them are not going to disappear.

Rather than giving away land and resources to companies to the detriment of their citizens, African governments – Cameroon included – must respect the rights of citizens and let them negotiate with investors on their own terms. And the companies themselves should be asking who owns the land they obtain on such good terms.

To do otherwise is ultimately too high a risk, not just for advocates, but also for investors, communities, and the governments themselves.

Samuel Nguiffo is currently being sued by the government of Cameroon for tarnishing the state’s reputation when he advocated against an oil palm plantation concession.

Growing international support for Marc Ona

Elected in 2009, Gabonese president Ali Bongo has pledged to fight corruption.

Elected in 2009, Gabonese president Ali Bongo has pledged to fight corruption and protect the environment.


Gabon Review reports that a growing number of individuals and organizations are speaking out in support of Marc Ona Essangui and denouncing his March 29th conviction and sentencing on defamation charges. The Review cites excerpts from several letters addressed directly to Gabon’s president, Ali Bongo.

The Goldman Environmental Prize adds that, “The global network of Goldman Prize recipients has also taken up the call for justice for Ona. Over 50 past Goldman Prize recipients are currently working on a collective petition.”

In 2009 Ona received the Goldman Environmental Prize for his efforts to publicly expose the illegal agreements behind the Belinga mining project, a secretly negotiated $3.5 billion deal comprising a massive mining concession, a dam, railroads and a deep-water port facility. Ona’s current efforts to shine a light on Gabon’s palm oil deals are a continuation of his ongoing fight for transparency and government accountability.

In a recent message addressed to the Goldman Environmental Prize, Ona writes:

It’s important to know that my commitment is to stop the destruction of our forest and all biodiversity by Olam, a Singaporean company, to plant palm trees and rubber. The members of the executive [government] are [giving] land to Olam without taking care of the right[s] of populations. The deforestation caused by this activity [has] accelerated since 2009 when Ali Bongo, the new Gabonese President, [gave] all power to Olam to cut trees [and] to plant palm trees and rubber. The denunciation I made is about collusion between the new President, his cabinet and Olam. They make intimidation on the populations to accept all projects by Olam. It’s not normal. The corruption of the executive members [of government] is about influence they make to [pressure they put on] the rest of the people to accept Olam project. I am fighting again the situation and we need all the network of Goldman Prize to join us by denouncing Olam activities in Gabon and the collusion with the members of the executive power in Gabon.

Read more about the Olam deal from Rainforest Foundation here: Case study 3.2 Olam, Gabon

The Goldman Prize also reports that Ona is asking citizens to consider sending messages to their elected officials or directly to Ali Bongo, President of Gabon ( and to Liban Soleman, the Chief of Cabinet (

Greenpeace France asks, “who wants to silence the defenders of the forest?” and reminds readers that the strong-arm tactics of the Gabonese authorities are, unfortunately, typical across the region: “In November, it was Nasako Besingi, an opponent of the Herakles Farms project in Cameroon, whose arbitrary arrest we reported. And in July 2012, Greenpeace, along with Survie and other organizations, denounced Gabonese president Ali Bongo’s visit to France several weeks after Marc Ona and other activists were arrested during a peaceful demonstration.”

Read more about Nasako Besingi here: Land grabbing Looms — New Palm Oil Plantation Threatens Cameroon’s Rainforest

A coalition of human rights organizations in France have made a public statement denouncing Ona’s conviction, which they consider a political manipulation of the justice system and a serious attack on freedom of expression. The NGOs also underline Ona’s ongoing efforts to bring transparency to Gabon’s lucrative – and corrupt – oil industry. After many years of warnings, Gabon was definitively excluded from the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) in February. Gabon had signed up to be part of this voluntary initiative in 2004, but had never fulfilled the reporting requirements. For years the country was able to call itself an “EITI candidate country,” but that is no longer possible.

The Bongo family is also one of several African political leaders’ families being pursued in France in the “affaire des biens mal-acquis”  (case of ill-gotten gains).

Read more about the “biens mal-acquis” (in English) here: France impounds Africa autocrats’ ‘ill-gotten gains’

Read more about Gabon’s exclusion from EITI (in English) here:  OIL MONEY IN GABON AND SIERRA LEONE: FROM MIRAGE TO REALITY?

Ona’s recent conviction is the latest in a series of run-ins he and other civil society activists have had with Gabonese authorities.

Describing Ona as “a tireless voice protecting the forest and its people,” the Goldman Environmental Prize noted in 2009 that, “Ona faces considerable personal risks in campaigning for environmental and social issues. In January 2008, the minister of the interior suspended the activities of the NGO coalition that Ona coordinates on the grounds that, “local NGOs were interfering in politics.” After much outcry, the suspension was lifted. In March 2008, a break-in at the office of Brainforest resulted in the loss of sensitive information relating to the Belinga mine project. Ona and his family were recently evicted from their home, as the landlord felt the risks of having an activist on his property were too great. Three times during 2008 the federal police refused to let Ona travel out of the country, without explanation.

“In December 2008, Ona and several other civil society leaders were arrested and held without charge and without access to legal representation in deplorable conditions in a basement cell for five days. Ona was later transferred to prison and charged with possession of documents allegedly for dissemination and propaganda with intent to incite rebellion against the state authorities, a charge which he denies. After media reports about the unlawful arrest from outlets in Africa, the EU and the US, the government released Ona, though the charges have not yet been dropped.”

Ali Bongo, president of Gabon since 2009, has pledged to fight corruption and clean-up the Gabonese government. The government of Gabon vaunts the progress it has made in world press freedom rankings. But the violent suppression of democracy campaigners in 2011 and the ongoing legal troubles of Ona and other civil society activists suggest there’s still much progress to be made.

Forest protection and agro-industry side-by-side

Stand at the Yaounde International Agrobusiness Exhibition. Photo:

Stand at the Yaounde International Agrobusiness Exhibition. Photo:


Yesterday in Yaounde, Cameroon, it was possible to shuttle between the Forum on Forest Governance in Central and West Africa and the International Agro-business Exhibition. As the forum wrapped up the trade fair got underway, forest protection and agro-industry awkwardly coexisted, mirroring the situation on the ground.

The agro-industrial trade fair, which continues through April 8th, is a huge affair and understandably so. Food security is a pressing issue in Cameroon, a country that imports nearly a million tons of food each year including large quantities of basic foodstuffs. At the same time, half the country’s population earns a living from farming. Cameroon’s farmers urgently need access to credit and investment (in agricultural inputs and infrastructure, in particular). The government has made agriculture a priority sector and has decided that foreign investment will play a key role in developing the country’s agricultural capacity.

But the lack of clear policy directives to shape agricultural development – food crops vs. export crops, smallholder farms vs. industrial agriculture – are resulting in a system that favors foreign investment in export crops.

CDC plantations near Limbe, Cameroon.

CDC plantations near Limbe, Cameroon.


Palm oil is at the top of the list of new agriculture investments, but palm oil will not solve Cameroon’s food security issues. If food self-sufficiency is the government’s goal, foreign investment in palm oil need not be encouraged. Palm oil investments may bring economic benefits to the country, but they must follow strict guidelines and conditions in order for benefits to outweigh costs.

See, for example, “The Pros and Cons of Oil Palm Expansion in Cameroon,” pgs. 8-11 of Oil Palm Development in Cameroon, by David Hoyle and Patrice Levang.

“In order to amplify the positive effects and reduce the negative impacts,” write Hoyle and Levang, “there is a need for the government of Cameroon and relevant stakeholders to develop a national palm oil strategy that can steer the rapid expansion of the sector and can ensure that expanded production does contribute to Cameroon’s sustainable development goals. In order to achieve this it is vital that the government urgently engages all the stakeholders from the outset (including government departments, companies, local communities, international and local NGOs).”

The problem today in Cameroon and across the region is that no such strategy exists. And so on one side of town conference participants attend a panel on palm oil-driven deforestation while, over at the trade fair, ministers single out the palm oil sector as particularly promising with nary a mention of sustainability.





Gabonese activist Marc Ona Essangui sentenced for “defamation”

Marc Ona Essangui. Photo: Gabon Review

Marc Ona Essangui. Photo: Gabon Review


RFI reports today that Gabonese activist Marc Ona Essangui has been sentenced for defamation of Liban Souleymane, the president’s Chief of Cabinet.  Ona Essangui, who received a six-month suspended prison sentence and a 5 million CFA franc fine (US$ 10,000), immediately announced that he would appeal the decision. The case has created shock waves throughout Gabonese civil society where it is perceived as a direct attack on freedom of speech.

Ona Essangui, one of Gabon’s most respected civil society activists and 2009 recipient of the Goldman Environmental Prize, has long been a champion for environmental and social justice in his country. Among other things, Ona Essangui has fought tirelessly for transparency in the extractive industries sector and is the Gabon coordinator for the transparency organization, Publish What You Pay. Interestingly, his run-in with Liban Souleymane concerns the palm oil sector, which is completely shrouded in secrecy. To date, transparency initiatives such as EITI are concerned primarily with the extractive industries.

The human rights defense organization, Front Line Defenders, writes that Ona Essangui was in court over allegations of defamation lodged against him by the Liban Souleymane, Chief of Cabinet of the President of the Republic of Gabon. Ona Essangui, Front Line Defenders writes, was accused of making defamatory statements during an October 2012 public event, “where he discussed the activities of Groupe Olam, a Singaporean agribusiness company that invests substantially in Gabon.

“The human rights defender is also accused of making defamatory statements during a televised debate organised by a local TV station, TELEAFRICA, on 9 November 2012.

“It is alleged that, during both events, Marc Ona Essangui claimed that the Chief of Cabinet of the President of the Republic of Gabon, together with the President, hold personal stakes in Groupe Olam’s ventures in Gabon. Marc Ona Essangui, as well as other members of civil society in Gabon, have publicly criticised Group Olam’s ventures for benefiting from land-grabbing practices and for contributing to environmental degradation in the country.

“Front Line Defenders expresses its concern at the defamation case lodged against Marc Ona Essangui and the summons to appear before the Court on 18 January. It believes this represents a new act of judicial harassment against him and an attempt to undermine his peaceful and legitimate advocacy work on environmental and land rights in Gabon.”

In a decidedly pro-government story in the online publication,, Ona Essangui is accused of having “no proof” to back up his allegations, making them “completely baseless.” In an industry with zero transparency, it’s ironic that a publication can be so confident in its defense of the “defamed” politician.

RFI reports that Ona Essangui stands by his statements and insists that if he had to do it all again, he wouldn’t change a thing.

Find more reporting (in French) on this case from Gabon Review: Le cas Marc Ona – Liban Soleiman (one of several stories on the case)

Read the case study on Olam in Gabon from the Rainforest Foundation (in English): Case Study 3.2: Olam, Gabon

Read pages 29-31 of the report (in French), Les populations gabonaises face a l’insecurite fonciere, from Brainforest, the NGO founded by Marc Ona Essangui. This report details the financial relationship between the Gabonese government and Olam.


Let’s talk about money

CDC oil palm plantation, Southwest Region, Cameroon

CDC oil palm plantation, Southwest Region, Cameroon


There’s a rush on for land in the Congo Basin and palm oil is one of the main drivers of this investment boom.

Palm oil producers talk about global demand for palm oil and feeding the planet, but they wouldn’t be jostling for acreage if the potential profits weren’t so high.

Palm oil, generating US$ 20 billion-a-year in revenues, is the world’s most productive and most lucrative edible oil crop. In Malaysia, for example, palm oil plantations yield an average of 3.5 to 5 metric tons of oil annually. The current market price is hovering close to US$ 800 per ton.

In Africa, a combination extremely cheap land, low wages and tax breaks for foreign investors make palm oil an investor’s dream.

Here’s Gabon’s Agriculture Minister, Julien Nkoghe Bekale, speaking to Ventures Africa on the sidelines of the November 2012 UK-Gabon Investment Forum: “We have a large amount of available land and an attractive environment for investment … What we’re aiming to do is create an attractive framework, whether it be legislative, regulatory or fiscal, for investment. For agricultural enterprises we’re going to have tax exemptions on VAT, on customs and even on companies … At the moment palm oil prices are good, so obviously we will seek to export it rather than focus on local consumption.”

But in their race to the bottom to make themselves “attractive” to foreign investors, what are African governments gaining? Land leased for next to nothing. Produce and profits leaving the country. Little or no tax revenue. It’s really as crazy as it sounds.

The U.N. Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier de Schutter, was in Cameroon in July 2012. At a press conference at the end of his mission, de Schutter addressed the problem of land “giveaways.” He stressed that Cameroon desperately needs better contract negotiations, negotiators and transparency. De Schutter said land prices are far too low and that contracts must be indexed to the price of resources. The benefits of investment must be equal or greater than the impacts, he said, also calling on the country to tax foreign investment properly. Today is not the 1980s, de Schutter said. Cameroon is in a position of strength and needs to leverage this.

De Schutter is hardly alone in his assessment. Dr. Mthuli Ncube is the Chief Economist and Vice President of the African Development Bank and is obviously a champion of investment. But in his article, A Global Rush for Africa’s Land: Risks and Opportunities, Mthuli Ncube writes that, “below market level land fees have characterized most land deals in Africa,” seriously undermining their value for host countries.

He continues: “Recently documented cases indicate land fees have ranged between US$4.8 to US$7.1 per hectare in Sudan against US$300 per hectare in Peru. Details of large-scale land leases are often concealed especially in host countries with a poor record of transparency and accountability.  In the Democratic Republic of Congo, close to 50% of arable land is either leased to foreign companies or is under negotiation for leasing, without a clearly defined framework governing these transactions. Some of the land acquisitions are held for speculative purposes given the sketchy details of implied investments (after acquisition) and the low land fees, which make secondary land transfers very lucrative….

“Thus, to obtain value from recent surge in land acquisition, African governments need to undertake institutional reforms that foster accountability, proper valuation of land, and social and environmental sustainability of investments.”

Mthuli Ncube suggests land auction systems as one possible measure to increase investment value: Land fees in many African countries, for comparable grades of land, are significantly lower than other developing regions of the world. For instance, land lease per hectare in India’s Punjab Doaba region is estimated to be more than 50 times the average land lease in Africa. Land auctions serve the twin advantage of setting prices right and promoting transparency of land deals. Peru’s competitive land auction system is often cited as a global best practice in stipulating strong terms of ‘commitment of investment’. Thus, mechanisms that discourage speculative land acquisitions should be fostered in Africa’s land markets.”

Further information

Read the full report of the U.N. Special Rapporteur’s mission to Cameroon here.

Read more on the palm oil investment from the Financial Times here.

Read Dr. Mthuli Ncube’s full article here.

It’s not forests or food, it’s forests for food


Southwest Cameroon. Forest or oil palms...what will feed the planet?

Southwest Cameroon. Forest or oil palms…what will feed the planet?


“As world population climbs from 7 to a projected 9 billion people and emerging and developing economies demand ever more of the food and fiber that drive deforestation, many environmentalists ask with increasing urgency whether and how tropical forests can survive,” write Steve Schwartzman and Ruben Lubowski of Environmental Defense Fund. Their recent article, Can Saving Forests Help Feed the World, asks, “whether and how the world’s increasing, and increasingly rich, population can be fed unless tropical forests survive.”

Schwartzman and Lubowski’s article is one of a series in response to the question, “How do we feed the world and still address the drivers of deforestation?” The articles are available online at the Skoll World Forum website.

Noting the connection between global warming and global agricultural output, the authors note, “Putting total global greenhouse gas pollution on a fast and steady downward trend may be the only way to avoid serious risk of catastrophic disruption of world food supplies.  Tropical deforestation and agriculture together account for about a quarter of GHG emissions in approximately equal proportions. In addition, tropical forests hold some 300 billion tons of carbon.”

Those who argue that new palm oil plantations are necessary for “development,” who seek to frame the debate in terms of “jobs vs. trees,” seem to be at odds with scientific evidence.

But how to translate evidence into action? Another article in the series, Strong ‘No Deforestation’ Commitments Save Forests and Feed People, by Scott Poynton, Founder and Executive Director of the Forest Trust, makes the case for zero deforestation practices.

“We need strong ‘No Deforestation’ commitments enforced by companies throughout the supply chain with mechanisms to reward and teeth to punish,” Poynton writes. “They fit with the market and are simple: “Deforest and I will not buy your product”. This great start is made exponentially stronger when contracts are cancelled because suppliers are engaged in deforestation.”

Does that sound unrealistic? Poynton believes change is already happening: “The world’s largest food company, Nestle, the world’s second largest palm oil grower, Golden-Agri Resources and now, the world’s third largest pulp and paper company, Asia Pulp & Paper, have already made super strong No Deforestation commitments that are being implemented as we speak. Such commitments turn bulldozers off – now. They do not require workshops, meetings, millions of dollars or the creation of complex markets with thousands of mitigation measures. No Deforestation commitments send strong signals through the existing multi-trillion dollar globalized market – via global supply chains – and forests are being protected today as a direct result.”

For more on the need for zero deforestation, read Fred Pearce’s recent article on biodiversity in previously logged forests.








Plantation life

Workers' camp, Ndian Estate, Mundemba, Southwest Region, Cameroon

Workers’ camp, Ndian Estate, Mundemba, Southwest Region, Cameroon

The Southwest Region of Cameroon, where the U.S.-based Herakles Farms has started development of  a controversial 73,000 hectare palm oil project, is no stranger to plantation agriculture. It is home to most of the country’s largest plantations, many dating to the colonial period.

The communities in and around the Herakles concession area have long co-existed with industrial plantations. Historically plantation operators brought in workers from other regions — a practice that continues to a certain extent today — but over the years many locals have also been employed on the plantations.

Workers' camp, Ndian Estate, Mundemba, Southwest Region, Cameroon

Workers’ camp, Ndian Estate, Mundemba, Southwest Region, Cameroon

Many people in the area ask why they would want or accept another plantation when plantation agriculture has usurped their lands and brought them nothing. The plantations have been around for decades yet the surrounding areas have neither electricity nor decent roads. Worker housing built over fifty years ago is dilapidated, yet still in use. According to local sources, the average salary for a PAMOL plantation worker is approximately US$70 per month. (Cameroon’s minimum wage is approximately US$ 57 per month.)

Workers' camp, Ndian Estate, Mundemba, Southwest Region, Cameroon

Workers’ camp, Ndian Estate, Mundemba, Southwest Region, Cameroon

Governance and local development specialist, Herve Sokoudjou, writes:

The main “benefit” of oil palm cultivation, according to promoters of the crop, is the generation of employment (planting, maintenance and harvest). Yet most jobs are only temporary. Workers on industrial plantations experience the same problems as other agricultural workers in the country: extremely low wages and poor work conditions. Besides, the establishment of these plantations has often been preceded by the expropriation of land of neighbouring villages without adequate compensation. According to Cameroonian law, peasants do not have customary rights to land, and thus expropriation does not require indemnification by the state. Already in colonial times, land was expropriated from peasants and then transferred free to new settlers. After national independence, this practice continued but for the benefit of local elites, including palm plantation firms or the elites who have recently established medium-scale plantations. Since colonial times, therefore, peasants have been losing land to the state …. Palm plantations located near villages also often threaten subsistence crop development and access to forest products by much of the community.

Read more here: New reports: African governments giving land away quickly, recognizing land rights slowly

International Day of Forests

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

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


Mark your calendars. March 21st has been declared to be the International Day of Forests by the United Nations General Assembly.

Here’s the announcement from the UN Forum on Forests (UNFF):

The new global celebration of forests builds on the successes of the International Year of Forests in 2011, and provides a platform to raise awareness of the importance of all types of forests and of trees outside forests.

Activities expected to take place on the International Day include tree-planting and other community-level events, and national celebrations including art, photo and film as well as social media outreach.

The launch of the International Day will take place in many countries. Mr. Wu Hongbo, Under-Secretary-General of DESA, along with Chinese government officials, will be launching the International Day of Forests in China at a ceremony in Beijing on 21 March.

DESA’s United Nations Forum on Forests (UNFF) Secretariat was designated by the General Assembly to facilitate the implementation of the International Day, in collaboration with FAO, Governments, and other members of the Collaborative Partnerships on Forests and international, regional and subregional organizations as well as relevant stakeholders, including civil society.

The UNFF Secretariat is working with the UN Graphic Design Unit to develop a logo for the International Day, which will be launched in time for the first celebration of the Day this year on 21 March. In addition, a mobile App on Forest facts, as well as other social media products will be launched by the UNFF Secretariat on the International Day of Forests.

Forests are an integral part of our lives and our future. But unless we can see them as more than an environmental issue, their future may be in jeopardy. See the project at


How will you celebrate the International Day of Forests?

Governments, international, regional and sub-regional organizations, and relevant stakeholders are encouraged to share information on their planned activities for the International Day of Forests by contacting the UNFF Secretariat at

International Day of Forests Draft Resolution

International Day of Forests: Draft resolution adopted by General Assembly resolution on 21 December 2012 [ Arabic | Chinese | English | French | Russian | Spanish ]

Forest riches, continued

Barkcloth and the wood used to make it. Lipenja II, Southwest Region, Cameroon

Lipenja II, Southwest Region, Cameroon

Checking out barkcloth and the wood used to make it in Lipenja II, one of the villages located inside the Herakles Farms palm oil concession area. Lipenja II is surrounded by dense forest. There’s a dirt road that connects Mundemba to Fabe and Lipenja, but from  Lipenja to Lipenja II there’s nothing more than a narrow motorcycle track the villagers have cleared themselves. Although Lipenja II is only about 55 km (35 miles) from Mundemba, the trip to Lipenja II takes well over two hours during the dry season.

In Lipenja II the forest is the source of food and income for everyone. The villagers have their farm plots inside the forest, where they grow food crops and cocoa. They gather fruits, nuts, honey, bark and plants for food and medicine. The women sell bush mango seeds to Nigerian traders who travel throughout the area. The forest is everything, people say.

The villagers in Lipenja II are opposed to the Herakles Farms project. The company says it will not go where it is not welcome. But many questions remain. Will the voices of the villagers be heard in what has been a “top-down” and secretive project from the start?  And if the project respects the villagers’ wishes, how much forest will be left standing around Lipenja II and what will that mean for the future of the village?

People in Lipenja II are vocal about the need for development. They want a decent road to connect their village to Mundemba (and beyond), so they can get perishable crops to market. There’s no radio or mobile phone coverage in Lipenja II and villagers want improved communications. They want jobs. But they don’t want projects imposed from outside that take away what is most valuable: the forest.

Barkcloth. Lipenja II, Southwest Region, Cameroon

Barkcloth. Lipenja II, Southwest Region, Cameroon