“Uniprovince’s 11-02-10 permit was illegally awarded and must be cancelled”, Brendan Schwartz, Greenpeace forest campaigner said at the launch of a report dubbed “licence to launder” in Yaounde on May 27.
|Philip Ngole Ngwese, Forestry Minister|
In the report, Greenpeace Africa reveals how the American company; Herakles Farms (using Uniprovince), may have colluded with Cameroon’s Minister of Forestry and Wildlife to illegally obtain a logging permit (vente de coupe) inside the land concession the US agro-industrial was granted in 2013 for its palm oil project.
The report reveals that the permit was granted in flagrant violation of Cameroon’s forestry legislation.
“The law provides that vente de coupe permits be granted solely by public auction, which was not the case for Uniprovince”, Schwartz said.
Vente de coupe N° 11-02-10 granted to Uniprovince has proven to be illegal as it does not feature on the ‘valid’ logging permits published by the Ministry of Forestry on March 10, 2014 whereas it was granted on January 28 and signed on February 6 prior to the publication of the list about a month after, same year.
“This was a deliberate attempt to hide an illegal decision taken in favour of Herakles Farms”, explained Irene Wabiwa, head of Greenpeace Africa’s forest campaign.
Greenpeace has accused Cameroonian authorities and Herakles farms of collaborating to foster illegal logging at the expense of Cameroon’s treasury, the Nguti local council and local communities which are supposed to receive a forestry royalty.
SGSOC, Herakles Farms’ local subsidiary in Cameroon purchased Uniprovince in March 2013 with the intention of generating substantial revenue through its controversial vente de coupe permit.
Licence to Launder
Uniprovince is not amongst the 83 licensed timber exploitation companies with vente de coupe permits published by the ministry of Forestry on March 10, 2014. Granting Uniprovince’s logging permit without an auction as provided for by the law will cost the government millions, campaigners have argued.
“Uniprovince will pay 17 times less tax than the average paid by logging companies with similar permits in 2014”, Schwartz said.
The average tax paid by companies that were legally awarded vente de coupe permits (through competitive auction) in January 2014 is CFA 43,000F per hectare yearly. Thus, a company with the same concession (2,500 hectares), like Herakles Farms should pay CFA 108,635,833F into the state treasury.
Yet, the company will exploit greater volumes at a miserable CFA 2,500F per hectare annually totaling just 6,250,000F.
“Contrary to the declarations made by Herakles Farms, the company has no intention to develop Cameroon. In reality, Cameroon is losing enormous revenue because of the illegalities and corruption surrounding the company’s activities”, Wabiwa said.
Dr. Blessed Okole, Senior Vice President for Strategic Planning and Field Operations at SG Sustainable Oils Cameroon Ltd declined to comment on the claims and instead referred this reporter to a certain Chris, probably his colleague who is authorized to speak on behalf of the company. All attempts to reach Chris by phone proved futile.
The head of the communication unit of the Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife, Jean Robert Onana denied claims that Uniprovince’s logging permit is illegal.
Mr. Onana said the claims were shocking adding that he was surprised that Greenpeace which congratulated the Minister of Forestry last year for suspending Herakles Farms due to non-respect of the law, turned around to accuse the same minister of engaging in a shady deal with the same company.
Threat to VPA credibility
By signing the Voluntary Partnership Accord (VPA) with the European Union (EU), on October 6, 2010, Cameroon committed not only to consult local forest communities, but also to fight illegal logging and illicit timber trade.
The permit granted Uniprovince and the illegal trimming of Herakles Farms’ wood into Uniprovince has put to question the credibility of the VPA implementation in Cameroon both by the government and the EU.
Article 9(3) of the VPA states that “Cameroon shall verify the legality of the timber and derived products exported to markets outside the Union and sold on the internal markets and of imported timber and derived products”.
Experts say Herakles Farms’ timber, stocked at the Douala ports being prepared for export is not only illegal under the law, but constitutes a blatant violation of the above article.
|Timber that was 'HF' now trimmed and marked UP (Greenpeace)|
Mr. Onana argues that Uniprovince’s logging permit cannot jeopardize the implementation of the VPA in Cameroon.
“It cannot as we are in the VPA implementation process since March 3 this year, we have entered the period of due diligence which means that it is a transitional period. This means that it is up to the enterprise to prove that the wood it exports is legal”, Onana said.
The spokesman of the forestry ministry explained that in granting a logging permit to an enterprise, the ministry does not consider the owner but the latter’s legality.
In an open letter responding to a report by Oakland Institute in September 2012 titled “Understanding Land Investment Deals in Africa…The Deceit of Herakles Farms in Cameroon”, Bruce Wrobel, then CEO of Herakles Farms said, given that they (Herakles Farms) are not commercial loggers, they are not going to sell the timber on their concession.
“….we surrendered the timber to the government and took a lower lease rate, as we are not commercial loggers. We will cut it and stack it for the government. This will cost us more than $75Million dollars and will add huge value to the government’s timber income. They will sell it in an auction, which we estimate will generate many millions of dollars of revenue”, Mr. Wrobel wrote.
Yet, it appears this statement has not been respected by Herakles Farms. The timber it felled earlier in her Talangye nursery between 2010 and 2013 and marked ‘HF’ (Herakles Farms) is now being trimmed and marked with ‘UP’ (Uniprovince) N° 11-02-10 and carrying dates of March 2014.
At the time of this report, we had not received any response to a mail on the subject sent to the European Union delegation in Cameroon through its information and communication officer, David Atemkeng.
Herakles Farms previously claimed that it did not intend to benefit from the sale of any wood cut on its concession. It is evident today the sale of timber from the concession is an integral part of its business following its purchase of Uniprovince.
Greenpeace has called on Cameroonian authorities to seize the entire stock of Herakles Farms timber at the Douala Ports immediately.
They have also called on the authorities to investigate and prosecute Herakles Farms, Uniprovince and government officials responsible for the illegal logging permit granted Uniprovince.
“Greenpeace has also introduced a complaint to the state prosecutor in Douala, we have provided proof of all the resulting irregularities and financial losses to the state of Cameroon”, Schwartz said.
Local Communities in tears
Impoverished local communities in Nguti sud division have expressed anger over the activities of Herakles Farms.
Afue Divine Ejabi, a youth of Talangye faulted the government for allowing the US agro industrial company to destroy their land.
“Our forest that you see is our only source of income. It has been destroyed by Herakles Farms. Our cocoa farms and non timber forest products that we gather and sale for a living are all destroyed, this is not correct”, Afue said.
|Local communities protesting against SGSOC in Nguti|
Nonagenarian Agnes Ejuba of the same village sounded a note of warning over the fate of their children should Herakles Farms continue its activities in the area. The woman thinks allowing Herakles Farms to continue it activities; felling down the forest and destroying non timber forest products is a way of “killing” the local community whose livelihood depends on the forest.
John Ebenki another indigene of the area did not only regret the felling of the trees by Herakles Farms, but the fact that the local community does not have direct benefits from the company in terms of royalties.
According to the World Bank, an estimated $10-15 billion dollars is lost annually worldwide due to illegal logging, with close to $5 billion lost to corruption resulting from the failure to collect taxes and royalties on legally sanctioned timber harvest.
Officials of the financial institution say such losses of state revenue prevent the timber-rich Congo Basin government (Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon, Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, Gabon and Equatorial Guinea) from meeting development goals.
Poor and disadvantaged communities suffer the most from poor governance of the forest sector, especially as they are denied active participation in decision-making-processes concerning their land resources.
By Ndi Eugene Ndi in Yaounde