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.

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.

Cargill: Expanding plantations from Indonesia to Cameroon


The Wall Street Journal reports that U.S. industrial agriculture giant, Cargill Inc., is seeking to expand its oil palm plantations in Indonesia. The company currently has more than 42,000 hectares of plantations in the country as well as an additional 27,000 hectares worked in partnership with smallholder farmers. Indonesia requires that at least 20% of plantation land be reserved for smallholder farmers.

According to the Wall Street Journal global demand for edible oils is rising by around 3% annually, but palm-oil consumption growth is as high as 7%. “Cargill argues that expansion is necessary to feed world’s growing population and rising industrial demand, but feels it can be achieved without endangering the environment.”

Cargill is also seeking land for palm oil development in several African countries, including Ivory Coast, Liberia and Cameroon. In Cameroon, the company is reportedly in late-stage negotiations for 50,000 hectares of land.

In May 2012 Reuters reported that, “U.S agribusiness conglomerate Cargill plans to invest up to 200 billion CFA francs ($390 million) in a 50,000-hectare oil palm plantation in Cameroon, an official at the Central African nation’s investment agency said on state radio.” Cameroon’s investment agency magazine, Investir au Cameroun, ran a short story reporting that Cargill was prospecting for 50,000 hectares — a plantation that could create 10,000 jobs.

Cargill is already present in Cameroon in the cocoa sector, where its joint venture partner, Telcar Cocoa, is the country’s leading cocoa exporter.

Last month the Rainforest Foundation reported that Cargill’s project was “close to signature.” If this land deal is secured, Cargill’s Cameroon palm oil operations in Cameroon will be on a similar scale to its Indonesian business.

Cargill and other agri-business firms are aggressively seeking land across West Africa and the Congo Basin but their actions don’t generate much media coverage. Massive palm oil deals in Liberia have been getting some attention, but the scale of the investment merits much more reporting. Golden Veroleum (Golden Agri Resources) and Sime Darby have each leased over 200,000 hectares in Liberia, for example. That’s about the same land mass as the state of Rhode Island. And Golden Agri Resources, the company that has been getting some good press lately for its zero deforestation policy in Southeast Asia, does not appear to be abiding by the same standards in Liberia.

Land deals in the Congo Basin region are getting even less attention. The Cargill negotiations have not been the subject of any reporting in Cameroon. Back in May a Cargill spokesperson said the company, “does not comment on speculations.” But shouldn’t the people of Cameroon be aware of major investments coming to the country? Bringing these deals out from the shadows is an important step for making them work for all stakeholders.

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.








African governments giving land away quickly, recognizing land rights slowly

Farmer walking through forest earmarked for palm oil plantation. Southwest Region, Cameroon

Farmer walking through forest earmarked for palm oil plantation. Southwest Region, Cameroon

Two steps forward, one step back. Or is it one step forward and two steps back? In the case of land-rights reform in Africa, the pace of progress needs to pick up — and fast — to protect community access to land.

Here are details on two new reports issued in Yaounde, Cameroon, by the Rights and Resources Initiative:

Africa remains a target for land-grab developments worth billions; regional dialogue in Yaoundé focuses on the need for speed

While African governments are moving gradually towards protecting the land rights of rural people and indigenous communities, they are moving quickly to give away community forests and other lands for development. These conflicting choices are the focus of two new reports and a regional dialogue on forests, governance, and climate change.

“Governments across West and Central Africa are now in a bind and divided, with some ministries 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 Andy White, Coordinator of Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI). “Which view will win out? There is a true need for speed in safeguarding these communities before all available land is handed out for the sake of ‘quick-fix’ development and exploitation.”

“What communities on the ground in Cameroon see is no different from what is unfolding in other neighboring countries,” said Samuel Nguiffo, Secretary General of the Center for Environment and Development (CED), Cameroon. “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. Real economic development brings wealth to all, not just the elite.”

RRI released two reports scrutinizing land transactions in West and Central Africa as well as the legal reforms that would protect the communities whose land is targeted by these transactions. The reports were the focus of discussion at a regional dialogue hosted by the Cameroonian Ministry of Forests and Fauna (MINFOF), RRI, International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and the Commission for Central African Forests (COMIFAC) in Yaoundé. The conference also highlighted the number of commitments made by national governments and confirmed by the African Union Declaration on Land Issues and Challenges[1] in 2009 that were never enacted.

At the conference, attendees deliberated on stalled progress in land rights. Two examples emerged from their discussions that illustrate a trend—for every bit of progress, additional measures undercut the momentum for change:

  • In Liberia, the Community Rights Law (CRL) of 2009 was lauded as a major innovation for the region because it recognized customary ownership of land. The country’s Land Commission is seeking to further codify these rights. But large-scale developments have been negotiated or are planned for nearly three quarters of the country, rendering these rights moot before they are permanently established.
  • In Cameroon, a new forestry law currently being finalized strengthens and expands community forest rights, but maintains regulations and taxes that discourage the development of small forest-based enterprises run by local communities, preventing communities from profiting off of the resources they maintain. The government is also revising the Land Law of 1974, providing a new opportunity to improve community land rights. However, if done without consulting local peoples, this revision can increase risk, conflict and uncertainty given that billions of dollars in foreign direct investment are destined for mining and agriculture in Cameroon by 2015.

“Across Africa, weak governance and a lack of legal recognition and support for customary rights are inhibiting any real progress,” said Michael Richards, a natural resources economist and author of the report examining 18 large-scale African land acquisitions in the agriculture sector. “Most cases revealed a lack of consultation with and consent by communities in affected areas; coercion or political pressure; protests, which were sometimes violent; community dissatisfaction or anger; misleading or falsified documents; legality doubts; and low 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.”

The conference in Yaoundé comes as government-led, large-scale land transactions across Africa continue to disregard or override the rights of communities that live on the impacted lands. This in turn leads to even greater unrest and strife on the continent. In Liberia, for example, Sime Darby (the world’s largest palm oil producer) suspended the development in 2012 of a planned 220,000 hectare oil palm and rubber plantation because the communities that lost their land protested; the company’s ensuing pushback triggered local unrest and riots.

Although the acquisitions vary in size and purpose, a number of crosscutting themes showed up in Richard’s analysis:

  • In nearly all countries examined, local communities receiving little to no compensation in these transactions faced some form of coercion or political pressure, triggering ardent protests and violent clashes.
  • Women failed to prosper in transactions that took away access to community lands. Income from fruit trees in Ghana and Mali disappeared, sources of firewood and medicinal plants in Zambia and Mozambique vanished, and land rights were lost without compensation in Sierra Leone.
  • High levels of water pollution and the nearly unlimited water extraction rights often granted to these concessions jeopardized downstream livelihoods in Cameroon, Mali, Mozambique, and Sierra Leone.

“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, independent expert and author of the second RRI report. “The fact that 13 of 26 countries in the region have undertaken some level of reform since 2009 is great, but the challenges that African governments face are steep and progress is slow. In Gabon, for example, the new land law passed in 2012 revises the structure of land tenure rights mainly to provide a more flexible regime for commercial transactions on the land. We must convince governments that they will not find success in this quest for development by turning over their natural resources for plunder.”

“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.”

Often times, projects intended for economic development meet with violent resistance and disastrous consequences:

  • In Cameroon, foreign investors are using coercion to initiate the conversion of two 60-70,000 hectare concessions from mostly forested land to oil palm plantations. Thousand have been displaced and drinking water sources have been polluted. Murder, rape, and the destruction of tombs and houses plague communities opposed to one project. The second faced legality concerns involving a restraining order against the investor and a delayed environmental impact assessment.
  • In Ghana, a project converting forest and crop land into jatropha (a plant used to make biodiesel) plantations resulted in harsh migrant-native farmer conflicts over lost jobs and income, along with the clearing of 780 hectares. US and Ghanaian investors leading another project used political pressure to turn farm and fruit land into rice plantations, resulting in legal action, the displacement of many locals, water pollution, over-grazing, and erosion.
  • In Rwanda, a Ugandan sugar company converted 3,150 hectares of swampland used for food and cash crops into sugar cane fields—despite claiming it would not do so when acquiring the land. Defense forces were brought in as thousands of locals who were pushed into low-paying jobs as a result responded with violence and arson.

“Handing land over to these companies has been justified by local and national governments as attempts to bring economic development to all corners of Africa,” said Andy White. “But you cannot sweep away established communities and transform the environment without calamitous collateral damage. This is not development. Until the pace of land rights reform gets in front of the pace of development, Africa will never get out from under the ‘resource curse.'”

RRI has released two new analyses highlighting the wide-ranging impacts and risks of land and concession deals in Africa, with a particular focus on Central and West Africa.

The analyses were released at the Thirteenth Dialogue on Forests, Governance and Climate ChangeHarmonizing Tenure and Resource Policies in Central and West Africa’s Changing Landscape, held in Yaoundé, Cameroon on March 5-7, 2013. Read the press release in English or French.

The first publication, Social and Environmental Impacts of Agricultural Large-Scale Land Acquisitions in Africa – With a Focus on West and Central Africa, analyzes 18 country case studies that are among the best-documented large-scale land acquisitions in terms of their impacts in the said region.

The second paper, a policy brief on Land and Forest Tenure Reforms in West and Central Africa: A Preliminary Assessment of Progress Made Since the Yaoundé, 2009 Conference examines the implementation of recommendations relating to large-scale land acquisitions from the International Conference on Forest Tenure, Governance, and Enterprise, held in 2009 in Yaoundé, Cameroon.

Both papers are available in both English and French. To download them and for more details, click here.

Yaoundé, Cameroon (7 March 2013)



The Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI) is a global coalition of 14 Partners and over 120 international, regional and community organizations advancing forest tenure, policy and market reforms. RRI leverages the strategic collaboration and investment of its Partners and Collaborators around the world by working together on research, advocacy, and convening strategic actors to catalyze change on the ground. RRI is coordinated by the Rights and Resources Group, a non-profit organization based in Washington, DC. For more information, please visit