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.

Cameroon: Are communities able to make “free” and “informed” decisions about giving away their land?


Or the corrupting influence of gifts.

The recent German-Cameroonian fact-finding mission to the Herakles Farms concession area has generated some news coverage in France.  The  AFP article posted below was published in Les Echos. Interestingly, this article refers to “corruption” and brings up the food and drink that Herakles Farms has given communities.

Corporate social responsibility is part of doing business and companies donate goods and services to communities all the time. But Herakles Farms has not yet obtained the presidential decree necessary for the implementation of its project (see our sidebar for reports on Herakles Farms). As the report from the fact-finding mission points out, the company is negotiating with villages to get land and the gifts the company doles out may influence the decisions of local populations.  In other words, villagers may not be making “free” and “informed” decisions about giving away their land.

These gifts are not insignificant. The company described its holiday gift-giving in a January press release: “Over the holidays, Herakles Farms (also known as SGSOC), a New York-based agriculture company operating in Ghana and Cameroon, donated food to 1,700 households in 38 villages located in the Nguti subdivision of Kupe-Muanenguba and in Mundemba and Toko in Ndian. In total, 11 tons of rice and 10 tons of fish were distributed to more than 8,000 individuals in the Nguti, Mundemba and Toko areas.”

That’s a lot of food to give away just to say, “Happy New Year.”  And its worth reminding readers outside of Cameroon that what may seem insignificant in the U.S. or Europe — free beer at a meeting, for example — is actually a big deal in a village where a bottle of beer is an unaffordable luxury.

The AFP article puts the word corruption in quotation marks because these are allegations, of course. But more importantly, even if these allegations are verified, what is the recourse for villagers and what are the possible consequences for the company? The U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) defines bribery as “anything of value,” including money, travel, gifts and entertainment. But, the FCPA is concerned only with  foreign government officials. The FCPA says nothing about the bribery of foreign citizens — even if their consent is necessary for a project to go ahead.

The issue of “soft corruption” comes up often in this type of negotiation and clearly needs to be addressed. With millions of hectares of Congo Basin forest now earmarked for palm oil development, communities need to be able to make clear-headed and informed decisions about the future of their land. Any company that claims to abide by best practices, including free, prior and informed consent should be forbidden from providing gifts to communities during the negotiation stage. Just as government officials should not be bribed to sign deals, nor should communities.

Here’s the article from Les Echos:

Cameroun: “corruption” lors de l’acquisition de terres pour un projet américain (rapport)

Un rapport issu du ministère des forêts camerounais et consulté par l’AFP mardi reproche à la société américaine Heraklès Farms des méthodes “d’intimidation et de corruption” pour acquérir des terres pour la culture du palmier à huile dans le sud-ouest du Cameroun.

Selon le rapport, la négociation de terres par la filiale camerounaise d’Herakles Farms, la SG Sustainables Oils Cameroon Ltd (SGSOC) “se fait avec beaucoup d’intimidations et de corruption, ciblant les chefs et certains décideurs (locaux) influents”.

La compagnie américaine se sert souvent “de bières, de whisky, des sacs de riz et de vaches”, pour que les collectivités entrent vite en négociation avec elle et la stratégie “fonctionne” puisque “des milliers d’hectares de terres” ont déjà été cédés, souligne le document.
Les auteurs de ce rapport disent s’être rendus dans 20 villages du sud ouest au mois de février et affirment que “les collectivités locales ne sont pas prêtes ou pas informées (de ce) dans quoi elles s’embarquent”.

En 2009, le gouvernement camerounais a signé avec Herakles Farms une convention de base lui donnant un accord de principe pour une concession de plus de 73.000 hectares dans le Sud-ouest pour la culture du palmier à huile.
Selon le secrétaire général du Centre pour l’environnement et le développement (CED) Samuel Nguiffo toutefois, aucun contrat de bail “n’a jamais été signé”.

“La présence de la compagnie (qui a déjà créé des pépinières et abattu des arbres pour mener ses activités) sur le lieu est illégale. Cette procédure d’acquisition des terres auprès des communautés n’est pas prévue par la loi camerounaise. Elle est illégale”, souligne M. Nguiffo. “Au gouvernement camerounais, il y a des gens qui ont obtenu des pots-de-vin” pour faciliter la signature de la convention de 2009, accuse sous anonymat un responsable de l’ambassade américaine à Yaoundé.

“Les négociations foncières doivent être arrêtées” pour éviter “de potentiels conflits sur l’utilisation des terres”, suggère pour sa part le rapport du ministère.

Début septembre, l’institut Oakland avait déjà demandé l’arrêt du projet redoutant notamment “la mise en péril d’écosystèmes uniques”.

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.


A fact-finding mission to Herakles Farms

Mokango community gathered around food and beer provided by Herakles Farms (SGSOC) to settle land negotiations. Photo: PSMNR. To outsiders, beer and food may look like nothing more than a kind gesture. But in a region where a bottle of beer is an unaffordable luxury for many, providing beer and food during negotiations is a questionable practice.

Mokango community gathered around food and beer provided by Herakles Farms
(SGSOC) to settle land negotiations. Photo: PSMNR. To outsiders, beer and food may look like nothing more than a kind gesture. But in a region where a bottle of beer is an unaffordable luxury for many, providing beer and food during negotiations is a questionable practice.


If you want to understand the problematic nature of palm oil development in Cameroon, there’s a must-read report now available online.

The Programme for the Sustainable Management of Natural Resources (PSMNR), a German government-supported program of Cameroon’s Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife, has published the results of its February 2013 fact-finding mission to the Herakles Farms palm oil development area.  The team’s findings paint a damning picture of the so-called “sustainable” and “environmentally benign” project. The report details illegality, corruption, inadequate community consultation and insufficient environmental protection across the concession area.

The report is available on the Cameroon Veritas website. Cameroon Veritas is the go-to source for reports and documents related to the Herakles Farms project (including a leaked copy of the project’s Establishment Convention).

Greenpeace has published several reports on the project, including one in collaboration with the Oakland Institute. The Center for the Environment and Development and RELUFA, two Yaounde-based organizations, have also published reports on the Herakles Farms project. The company has attacked these reports, dismissing them as uninformed and biased. This latest report, prepared by recognized experts on behalf of a governmental program, will be hard for Herakles Farms to dismiss out of hand. This is not the work of “activists,” but a detailed account of an official mission.

The report describes the fact-finding mission’s methodology, which included open discussions with community representatives in villages throughout the concession area (the villages and participants are included in the report):

The team explained that PSMNR wasn’t against Herakles Farms (SGSOC) project but wanted to ensure that the community was fully aware of what they were negotiating. These sessions were organized to enable communities to reflect and take a better informed decision towards the Herakles Farms (SGSOC) project and better negotiate with the company. For those who have already entered into the negotiation process, the team provided recommendations on what bases to re-negotiate the agreement which can better contribute to their development and to the conservation of their natural and social environment. 

Some of the report’s findings:

In Nguti Sub-Division, Herakles Farms (SGSOC) is currently opening the first 2500 ha plantation block…. About 600ha of this first block already falls outside Herakles Farms (SGSOC) proposed concession limit covered by their Environmental Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) 

The negotiation is not transparent and also differs from one village to another. SGSOC negotiation methods are clearly not respecting “Free Prior and Informed Consent” process (FPIC) principles. “FPIC implies that communities have the right to decide whether they will agree to the project or not once they have a full and accurate understanding of the implications of the project on them and their customary land”. Communities should be informed on what is a large scale plantation, on the positive and negative impacts of Herakles Farms (SGSOC) project in the short, medium and long term. Communities should also be made aware of other development models and on the contribution of the forest to their livelihood.

During the negotiation sessions the Communities are convinced to concede as much land as possible without taking into account their own future development needs. The agreed maps showing the surface area conceded are then signed by the village Chiefs on behalf of the traditional council and later on by local government officials. The Communities are obviously neither prepared nor equipped for such technical negotiations with Herakles Farms (SGSOC) experts since they don’t master land use mapping and land negotiation processes. Some chiefs have declared that they did not realize what they were getting into and are now trying to renegotiate with SGSOC.

The report also notes that 1000 ha of oil palms in Cameroon will generate approximately 3.75 billion FCFA per year (approximately US$ 7.5 million), but that the company will give less than 3 million FCFA per year (approximately US$ 6,000) to communities that are ceding thousands of hectares of their lands.

The report adds that, “most of the villages would obtain more money with REDD+” than what the company will pay. And, of course, “with REDD+, those villages would still enjoy their customary rights and would still benefit from the environmental services provided by the forest.”

Read the full report online here: Fact finding mission on Herakles Farms (SGSOC) oil palm plantation project, February 2013

Cameroon Veritas provides a valuable public service in a country where land and extractive industries deals are notoriously opaque.

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.





Cameroon’s forest dwellers lose out as land handed to developers

Bagyeli girls in the village of Bandevouri, near Kribi, Cameroon.

Bagyeli girls in the village of Bandevouri, near Kribi, Cameroon.


Source: Alertnet // Elias Ntungwe Ngalame

KRIBI, Cameroon (Alertnet) – Forest dwellers forced off their land in southern Cameroon after it was leased to private companies have been allowed to return by the government, but many still fear for their livelihoods and the future of their homes.

“Our lands have been taken away from us (and) our forest, which is our main source of living, destroyed, forcing us stay in poverty,” said Medjo Marcel, the village chief of Adjap, one of several villages affected by land takeovers.

“We (still) have no right to possession,” Marcel added. “We cannot invest on the land for fear that foresters and other land grabbers may flush us out at any time.”

Over the past decade Cameroon’s government has leased more than 42,000 hectares (104,000 acres) of forest in the country’s South region alone to companies like HEVECAM, a rubber production business, and ONADEF, a timber firm. It is part of a trend that has seen forest land in West and Central Africa made vulnerable to the kind of deforestation more commonly known in Indonesia and Brazil.

Critics say that lack of proper consultation and weak legal processes leave local communities displaced and impoverished, while the environmental effects have been devastating.


The 5,000 or so inhabitants of five affected villages in the South region, as well as the Bagyeli pygmy community, were offered settlement on other land but say they cannot grow food or practise their traditional occupation as hunters there. Much of their former leased forest land is being cleared for planting.

After an outcry from the affected communities and pressure from civil society organisations, the government has returned 15,000 hectares (37,000 acres) of forest to the villagers, but with rights only to use the land, not to have full possession of it.

“In the classification of forest in Cameroon, the rights of the forest inhabitants are not respected,” insisted Jean Calvin of Cameroon Ecology, a nongovernmental organisation.

The community members are not entitled to own or transfer the land, nor to veto potential investors, Calvin explained. This allows businesses to take forest land from its inhabitants, he said.

“We have been forced to move from our forest habitat to the village of Adjab where we have difficulties earning any income,” lamented Mbah Martin, head of the Bagyeli pygmy community.

“(There are ) no animals to hunt, (and) our medicinal plants from the forest have all been destroyed,” he said.

Environmental experts are critical of the government’s welcoming attitude towards land investors and criticise the increasing displacement of forest communities.

“Land grabbing by heavy investors has caused rapid disappearance of resources, triggering massive movement of the population from resource-depleted zones to other areas where resources are available, causing conflict between communities,” said Andy White of the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI), an international NGO.


According to a report published by the organisation, forest communities reap no benefits from the transactions that deprive them of their community lands.

“In the case of southern Cameroon, income from harvest and the sale of fruits has disappeared, hunting of bush meat as a source of protein was brought to a halt while sources of firewood and medicinal plants vanished, and land rights were lost without compensation,” said RRI’s Francoise Tiayon .

African governments have been chided for making efforts to protect the land rights of rural people and indigenous communities on the one hand, while rapidly ceding community forests and other lands for development with the other. These conflicting choices were the focus of two new reports by RRI and the 13th Regional Dialogue on Forests, Governance, and Climate Change which took place recently in Yaounde, Cameroon’s capital.

“Some ministries (are) choosing to hand over natural resources to agribusiness and mining, and others seeking to protect the rights of their citizens and respect recent commitments,” said RRI’s White.

Samuel Nguiffo, secretary general of the Centre for Environment and Development in Cameroon said he believed government interest in development and exploiting resources outweighs interest in protecting vulnerable communities.


“What communities on the ground in Cameroon see is no different from what is unfolding in other neighbouring countries in West and Central Africa,” he said. “The slow pace of good intentions—the efforts to protect communities of subsistence farmers who have no wealth except for the land that they cultivate—has been overtaken by greed and power.”

Michael Richards, a natural resources economist and author of the RRI report examining 18 large-scale African land acquisitions in the agriculture sector, noted that, “across Africa, weak governance and a lack of legal recognition and support for customary rights are inhibiting any real progress” in protecting forest communities.

The report lists a variety of problems, including a lack of consultation with communities in affected areas, coercion or political pressure, misleading or falsified documents, doubtful legality and poor transparency.

“If a free, prior, and informed consent process had been followed, it seems probable that in 17 out of the 18 cases I looked at, the communities would not have given their consent,” Richards said.

Compared to other forested regions of the developing world, such as those in Latin America and Asia, Africa lags far behind in recognising community and customary rights to forest and land; giving control or ownership of forest areas to local and indigenous communities; and recognising the right of communities to exclude invaders.

Studies show that whereas one-quarter to one-third of forest land in Latin America and Asia is owned by communities and indigenous peoples or is designated for their use, this is true of only 2 percent of forest land in Africa, where almost all the land is managed by the government.

“So much human tragedy could be averted if land rights in Africa didn’t erode so soon after they are established,” said Phil René Oyono, an independent expert and author of the second RRI report.

“Yes, there has been a surge of new laws and reform processes since 2009,” added Samuel Nguiffo, “but these efforts are too slow and do not meet the challenges presented by rapid development and exploitation in the extractive sector. Africans will not sit idly by as our future is handed over to the highest bidder.”

Source: Alertnet // Elias Ntungwe Ngalame

Elias Ntungwe Ngalame is an award-winning environmental writer with Cameroon’s Eden Group of newspapers.


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.








Fruits and nuts, bark and beetles


The seeds, bark and leaves of the "country onion" tree are used for food and medicine.

The seeds, bark and leaves of the “country onion” tree are used for food and medicine.


When you begin to add up the riches of the forest, it is incomprehensible that a state could lease these lands to palm oil developers for next to nothing.

There’s timber, of course. Illegal logging is a major problem in the Congo Basin, but timber can be harvested sustainably to provide wood and income for local communities. It’s also worth noting that logging and clear-cutting are not the same thing. When forests are razed it’s for industrial agriculture.

In a recent article for environment360, Fred Pearce writes:

Logged tropical forests, new research suggests, are much more valuable for biodiversity than previously thought. Our understandable preoccupation with protecting pristine ecosystems may be blinding us to the fact that the forests that have been selectively logged deserve conservation, too. One immediate and troubling implication is that schemes backed by conservationists in Indonesia and elsewhere to turn “degraded” forests into palm oil plantations will do far more damage to nature’s biodiversity than the original logging.

It’s an interesting story that raises serious questions about clear-cutting any tropical forests.

Wild pepper vine.

Wild pepper vine.


But beyond timber, the forests are a vast source of food, medicine, building materials and revenue for local communities.  For those who study forest economies, there’s a growing recognition of the importance of non-timber forest products (NTFPs) for rural livelihoods.


Branches used for making pegs, posts, toothpicks, etc. Bamboo in background is used for building and furniture.

Branches used for making pegs, posts, toothpicks, etc. Bamboo in background is used for building and furniture.


A local collector in Cameroon with a Goliath beetle – the 4th largest beetle in the world. Photo: John Fogoh Muafor

A local collector in Cameroon with a Goliath beetle – the 4th largest beetle in the world. Photo: John Fogoh Muafor


Consider beetles:

Protection of beetle habitats in Cameroon and regulation over their collection and trade could help lift rural communities out of poverty while conserving relic forest patches in the region, a new study says.

The hardy insects are the most diverse of all living organisms in terrestrial ecosystems, constituting nearly a quarter of our global biodiversity.

They have long been harvested by forest-dwellers in parts of Africa for local consumption, some having a nutritional value comparable to meat and fish and others a higher value proportionally of proteins, fat and energy. And since the 1980s when enthusiastic beetle collectors arrived in southwestern Cameroon and started training people to identify and gather unique or interesting species, the bugs have been exported (usually after negotiations via the Internet) to Europe, Asia and the Americas.

This article, appearing in Forests News, a blog from the  Center for International Forestry Research, points out that income from NTFPs “often complements main sources of income – cash crops such as cocoa or coffee – especially during the off-harvest season.”

Farmers returning from their cocoa farms with NTFPs.

Farmers returning from their cocoa farms with NTFPs.


This is important to remember when palm oil developers talk about the employment that plantation agriculture will bring. Plantations certainly employ agricultural workers (low paid jobs, for the most part), but smallholder farmers are able to boost their incomes through NTFPs. When the forest is razed, this extremely valuable source of revenue, food, medicine and building materials will be gone.


Oil spill

Near Mundemba, Southwest Region, Cameroon

Near Mundemba, Southwest Region, Cameroon

No, it’s not crude oil. It’s palm oil or, to be precise, POME, Palm Oil Mill Effluent, the highly-polluting, oily wastewater generated by palm oil processing mills.

In Southwest Cameroon a PAMOL palm oil mill is located just across the river from Korup National Park, a recognized  global biodiversity hotspot.  Stand on the bank of the Mana River and you’ll see primary forest on one side and oil palm plantations on the other. If you’re standing at the top of the bluff that leads down from the mill to the old river port, you’ll also see a stream of brown, greasy liquid flowing into the river and covering the beach with sludge. When the water is calm an oily sheen stretches from bank to bank.

From WWF: “A palm oil mill generates 2.5 metric tons of effluent for every metric ton of palm oil it produces. Direct release of this effluent can cause freshwater pollution, which affects downstream biodiversity and people. When POME is not released directly into rivers it is often discarded into disposal ponds, its contaminants polluting the soil and groundwater and releasing methane gas into the atmosphere.”

Near Mundemba, Southwest Region, Cameroon

Near Mundemba, Southwest Region, Cameroon

Read more about POME and what to do with it here.

“The environmental impact of POME cannot be over emphasized,” write Nigerian researchers J.C. Igwe and C.C. Onyegbado in the introduction to their report, A Review of Palm Oil Mill Effluent (Pome) Water Treatment. It’s a fairly technical report that provides a detailed description of POME pollution and treatment.

Palm oil mills don’t have to pollute. Palm oil plantations don’t have to cause deforestation. Smallholder farmers can be involved. Labor conditions can be improved. Yes, things can be done differently. But if the current state of affairs is anything to go by, there’s cause for alarm.

Near Mundemba, Southwest Region, Cameroon

Near Mundemba, Southwest Region, Cameroon

Illegal logging is rampant. Plantation labor conditions are appalling with workers often paid less than Cameroon’s minimum wage (approximately US$60/month). Environmental regulation is weak and rarely, if ever, enforced. The palm oil projects currently in the pipeline in Cameroon are the result of secretive deals with zero transparency and no community involvement. The government is reportedly allocating vast expanses of land to foreign companies for next to nothing:

“The contracts signed between governments and oil palm developers are being kept secret, reducing transparency and democratic accountability. Those contracts that have come to light show that governments have already signed away some of the potential economic benefits, by granting developers extremely generous tax breaks of 10 to 16 years and land for ‘free’ or at highly discounted rates.” (Seeds of Destruction, Rainforest Foundation U.K.)

If Cameroon is prepared to lease land for US$1 per hectare per year, one can wonder how much concern the government has for the forest or its inhabitants.


Logging by another name?


GWZ Wijma sawmill, Nguti, Southwest Region, Cameroon

GWZ Wijma sawmill, Nguti, Southwest Region, Cameroon


Although deforestation across the Congo Basin has not been as dramatic as in West Africa where the rainforests have largely disappeared, logging and illegal logging are serious threats. In Cameroon, for example, more than 13% of the country’s forest cover was last between 1990 and 2005 due to logging, agriculture and the search for fuel.

The increasing number of palm oil concessions across the Congo Basin, some granted to companies with no agricultural experience, has raised suspicions that certain concessions may be “timber grabs”.

Seeds of Destruction, the new report from the Rainforest Foundation (U.K.) describes the case of Atama Plantations, a 470,000 hectare palm oil project, in the Republic of Congo:

In February 2012, Wah Seong Corporation, a Bursa Malaysia (formerly the Kuala Lumpur stock exchange) listed company, announced its intended purchase of a majority 51% stake in Atama Resources Inc, thus becoming majority owners of the oil palm plantation project in Congo. 

Previously, Wah Seong has principally been involved in the manufacturing of specialist metal pipes for the oil and gas industry. The company’s only previous connection to oil palm in Africa was the supply of equipment for palm oil refineries, and this will be its first venture into the oil palm plantation industry….

Stock-watchers have questioned how Wah Seong can afford the costs of developing the massive new oil palm plantation, which they estimate at US$650 million. One analyst has suggested that the cost “could be partly offset by forest clearance such as sale of logs”. This has often happened in the past in Indonesia. Evidence obtained by RFUK suggests that the forests Atama is planning to convert are indeed primary forests with significant timber stocks. The potential profits from harvesting this timber may be one of the main driving factors behind the development.

In 2012 the company had already harvested almost 15,000 cubic metres of timber at its first development in Epoma in Sangha, yet had thus far only cleared 120 hectares. If most of it is primary forest, by a rough yet conservative estimate, the 180,000 hectares the company plans to convert could yield timber worth more than $500 million.