The leasing of land concessions by government to mostly foreign agro-industries for development has been described by activists as a mixture of blessings and bruises—as it has in most cases met with stiff resistance from local communities who consider the land to be theirs.
A case in point is that of the inhabitants of Kilombo, an indigenous community located south of the Cameroonian sea resort town of Kribi, where the locals have continued to oppose the development of a palm plantation project by palm oil producing giant, SOCAPALM.
|SOCAPALM Kienke plantatio (south view)|
SOCAPALM, Cameroon’s biggest palm oil producer is a subsidiary of the Socfin Group, in which French business mogul; Vincent Bolloré is the largest shareholder (38.75%).
SOCAPALM’s Kienke palm plantation that covers 7,459 ha of land is the country’s largest palm plantation and also one of the youngest of the five plantations of the agro-industrial company -only 15 years old. Four other oil palm plantations of the agro-industrial company include Mbongo, Eseka, Dibombari, and Mbambou.
No compensation for land
Since it was privatized in the year 2000, SOCAPALM has continued to scale up the rejuvenation of palm groves depriving locals of their farm and hunting land.
The surrounding communities of the plantation area argue that the privatization process has never benefited the community, nor has any compensation ever been made for the loss of their lands and heritage.
|SOCAPALM nursery on 'Bakoume's grandfather's farmland'|
“Where you see the SOCAPALM nursery was not supposed to be a palm nursery, it is our farm land. That is my grandfather’s farmland,” Ngo Bakoume Solange of the Kilombo community in Kienke said.
“SOCAPALM told my grandfather that it will use the land and compensate him by sending his children to school and recruit some in the company. But they have not respected the promise and have instead increased the nursery even more than it was supposed to be,” Bakoume Solange explained.
The Kilombo community activist said they had confronted the company’s management repeatedly but have only been consoled with promises.
“We have even written a complain which we have submitted to the director of SOCAPALM calling on him to help our children go to school, he promised coming to the village here for us to talk about it,” Bakoume Solange said expressing pessimism over the latest promise.
A study by a civil society organization, “Reseaux Pour L’Action Collective Transnationale,” ( ReAct) showed an underlying anger prevails among the local communities neighboring the five SOCAPALM plantations across the country.
It showed that in 2010, residents of Kienke attacked with machetes, employees of SOCAPALM who had come to take measurements for the expansion of the plantations. A similar incident had taken place a year before and was escalated by the intervention of security officers two of whom ended up with severed limbs.
Same year in Mbongo, one of the company’s plantations, people from several villages attacked the company offices after having been the victims of abuses by the security company Africa Security. Several offices were vandalized and houses burnt.
“These trends toward the development of land concessions seriously hold back the development of Cameroon,” said Samuel Nguiffo, director of the Centre for Environment and Development (CED), an NGO in Cameroon that advocates for the protection of the rights, interests, culture and aspirations of local indigenous communities from the forests of Central Africa
The rights activist blamed authorities who focus exclusively on the investments’ macroeconomic fallouts, and do not commit enough to reducing local social and environmental costs, which are compensated neither by fiscal measures nor by jobs creations.
Polluted water, source of diseases
The agro industrial company had not only deprived local communities surrounding their plantations of their customary habitat and farm land. The indigenous communities surrounding SOCAPALM’s Kienke plantation area who are mostly hunters, fishermen and gatherers complained that the destruction of the forest drove away wildlife and the pollution of rivers with chemicals—their only source of drinking water has killed many of their family members.
|Bakoume Solange showing their coloured drinking water|
Ngo Bakoume Solange said they were over 50 people in their community [Kilombo], but only 35 are left. Most of them, she lamented, have died from water-related diseases. They drink ‘coloured’ water from a small river below the SOCAPALM nursery.
“I lost my mother on the 15th of July, she had diarrhea for just two days and died. I took her to the SOCAPALM dispensary since her situation was deteriorating, but we did not have the needed money that we were asked to deposit,” Bakoume Solange said blaming her mother’s ailment on the polluted water by the oil palm company.
Officials of SOCAPALM did not welcome proposals for comments on the issue from this reporter. But a ‘hostile security guard’ of the company said he does not care about what happens to the locals.
“I do not live here and I don’t care about those who drink the water,” the security agent said. He had earlier threatened to cease this reporter’s equipment for coming into the plantation’s concession ‘without authorization.’
He admitted that that intoxicated water from the nursery runs into the lone stream that serves the local community.
“There is a warehouse-full of the products inside there [pointing at warehouse from the nursery] that will be used to spray on the young palms against pest,” he explained.
Environmental rights activists say the pollution of the lone source of drinking water by the local community could have been compensated for with a borehole.
“SOCAPALM could have provided a borehole for the community as a substitute,” said Apollin Koagne Zouapet, regional coordinator of “Verdir,” a project to protect the rights of communities and community leaders who practice environmental protection in the Congo Basin.
Apollin Koagne blasted the palm oil producing giant for feeling to meet up with its corporate social responsibilities and respect for environmental standards.
Conflicts amongst local communities
The SOCAPALM Kienke plantation area is surrounded most by the Bantus, although there are also a few “pygmy” Bagyeli communities.
The company had also stirred up internal conflicts amongst the neighboring communities by using the dominant Bantus to override the Bagyelis.
“The head of the Bantu community said we don’t have any right to be asking for anything from SOCAPALM without his knowledge. We want a Bagyeli community head here too who can channel our problems to the company and the administration. Our plights are not well presented to the company by the ruler of the Bantus,” Bakoume Solange said.
“When I went there to see the director [of SOCAPALM], he said the Bantu chief said if he has not accorded, the Bagyelis should not be listened to,” Bakoume Solange added.
Solange is the lone native “pygmy”of the Kilombo community of the Kienke palm plantation area with a First School Leaving Certificate.
“It is[referring to the conflicts] a growing phenomenon in Cameroon and because we are expecting more investments in the natural resources sector, we can also expect a lot more conflicts if a clear action from the state is not taken to prevent this type of conflicts,” Samuel Nguiffo said.
“It is clear evidence that something is going wrong with the type of development path that we have chosen. We cannot aim at developing a country for the benefit of the people and then destroy the livelihood of the people in the development process. We cannot claim that we are aiming at developing without having the appropriate safeguards that will protect communities of their rights, health, and of their livelihood,” Samuel Nguiffo explained further.
Industrial Palm Oil plantation expansion in Cameroon according to the ministry of agriculture is estimated to cover over 80,000 hectares while that of small and medium-sized plots- has reached over 58,300.
Officials of the Cameroon Ministry of Agriculture and Rural said the country is on course to change its current status; from importer to exporter of palm oil in the nearest future.
Like Cameroon, most West and Central African nations had planned to improve palm oil production to an industrial scale. Greenpeace International 2012 figures indicated that there are about 27 palm oil projects in Central and West Africa.
By Ndi Eugene Ndi (First published in Eden Newspaper N°928 of Monday 26 Oct. 2015)
By Ndi Eugene Ndi (First published in Eden Newspaper N°928 of Monday 26 Oct. 2015)