Customary land ownership must be recognized

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Community voices making a difference in Cameroon


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

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

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

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

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

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



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”.

Heads up!

Photo by Fon Christopher Achobang

Photo by Fon Christopher Achobang

Traditional palm fruit harvesting in Cameroon.

The Impact of Land Acquisition on Food Sovereignty: Herakles Farms in Cameroon

Entrance to cocoa farm in forest, Southwest Region, Cameroon. This land is earmarked for the Herakles Farms plantation.

Entrance to cocoa farm in forest, Southwest Region, Cameroon. This land is earmarked for the Herakles Farms plantation.

This article is reprinted from the Spring 2013 issue of the PHP Post, a publication of the Presbyterian Hunger Program

By Jaff Bamenjo, RELUFA, JH Cameroon and Nasako Besingi, Director, Struggle to Economize Future Environment in Cameroon (SEFE)

Herakles Farms is a New York based company which obtained 73.086 hectares (172,912 acres or 270 square miles) of land through its Cameroonian subsidiary SGSOC in some villages in the Ndian and Kupe Maneguba divisions of the South West region of Cameroon for an oil palm plantation project. The case of Herakles Farms is one of RELUFA’s (PHP’s Joining Hands Cameroonian partner) campaign foci within its Land and Food justice platform.

Large-scale land acquisition in Africa by foreign agriculture multinational companies is on the rise. This phenomenon represents a huge cost to local farmers as it takes away from them the land, which is their most important wealth.

Herakles Farms and five other multinational companies are currently applying for a total of almost 1-million hectares of land for industrial palm oil production in Cameroon despite the fact that there are already five industrial palm oil producing companies in the country. But these industrial palm oil companies provide only about 30 percent of the local market with palm oil and the rest coming from smallholder producers.

Small holders can produce enough palm oil, which is used for cooking as well as soaps and lotions, to supply the local and international market if there is adequate government support. Industrial palm oil plantations are problematic because they take away agricultural land from the local population in a context where food security is already a concern. The 2008 hunger strike that affected many parts of Cameroon is one clear indication of the precarious food security situation in the country.

Farmers in villages where Herakles Farms projects are planned have a firm belief that the land earmarked for lease to Herakles belongs to them. Their perception is that their ownership of the land they have occupied for time immemorial is unshaken, considering that the preamble to the Land and Native Rights Ordinance of West Cameroon recognizes customary land ownership. But the 1974 Cameroon land law (enacted after the unification of the French and English parts of the country) only recognizes ownership when land is legally registered and titled, which is hardly the case in most rural communities.

A lot of momentum is being generated by national and international partners against the Herakles Farms oil palm project in Cameroon. The campaign, as a matter of principle, constitutes an effort to preserve human dignity by averting starvation or malnourishment of people living in the project area. This message must be spread far and wide.

Some villages like Fabe, Masaka, Mbimaand Mundemba, have sent letters to local administrative authorities protesting against this project. Concrete scenarios feared by the population of the project zone are that they will lose land for cultivating their staple foods like cassava and cash crops like cocoa, and that they will lose forest area for harvesting non timber forest products like spices, njansa, bush mango, bitter kola, and medicinal herbs.

Becoming laborers for a multinational company gives them no time to work on their own farms to provide for their families. At the same time, the plantation may lead to the emergence of a local market economy with higher food and oil palm prices, disrupting the independent subsistence way of life villagers have known for ages.

As Nasako Besingi, a farmer and civil society activist at the forefront of the campaign against the Herakles Farms project in Cameroon, declared in his award ceremony speech in December of 2012, “We have to work to put an end to this type of project in order to prevent a looming crisis.”

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.

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.