YAOUNDE (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Environmental activists have petitioned Washington to open up an investigation into the land acquisition and forest exploitation activities of a U.S.-owned palm oil firm, Herakles Farms, in Cameroon’s southwest.
Two Cameroonian civil society groups - the Centre for Environment and Development (CED) and the Network for the Fight against Hunger (RELUFA) - said they handed over a letter to the U.S. government on June 13, following persistent complaints from local people over practices that have deprived them of thousands of hectares of their forest land.
“Our petition to the U.S. government against the corrupt land grab and illegal forest exploitation activities by Herakles Farms is within the framework of the principle of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) relating to the functioning of international enterprises,” CED coordinator Samuel Nguiffo told Thomson Reuters Foundation. “The principle requires that international investors carry out better policies to improve the livelihood of the population, and not destroy it.”
Palm oil is the world's most important vegetable oil, used in everything from margarine and soap to biofuel, with annual global production worth about $20 billion. But critics say the industry is participating in a land grab in developing countries that reduces local food production in favour of crops for export, often stirring community opposition.
Nguiffo said reports from the CED, Cameroon’s Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife (MINFOF), the U.S.-based policy think tank Oakland Institute and Greenpeace International have revealed corrupt practices by the Cameroonian unit of Herakles Farms in its attempt to acquire more than 73,000 hectares of land in the Southwest Region to grow oil palm.
“We have ample proof that the authorities of Herakles Farms bribed local chiefs (and) some influential elite and intimidated the local population, promising them jobs with huge salaries to acquire the land they now have,” said Nguiffo. The evidence was gathered by the CED and the forestry ministry from local people in 20 villages, as well as higher-level officials, he added.
CED investigations and a mission sent to the region by the ministry also discovered that locals were paid as low as 350 francs ($0.50) in annual leasing fees for the land, Nguiffo said.
Some villagers around the Talangaye nursery, where Herakles has begun growing saplings, have warned the company’s activities would leave them without land for hunting and farming.
“We no longer get any catch from hunting since this project started, because the forest is fast disappearing. Even our land for cultivation has been given away and we cannot expand or increase production of our crops,” Henry Tayim, a 45-year-old farmer in Talangaye village, told Cameroon state radio.
The CED and RELUFA argue that Herakles Farms has violated Cameroonian law to prevent graft, American law against corrupt practices by U.S. firms carrying out overseas operations and the OECD guidelines for multinational enterprises, which say companies should not offer or give bribes to secure business.
A February report from MINFOF said members of its mission “observe with dismay that the company has failed to respect the legal procedure and environmental constraints”. “Corrupt practices with local chiefs and some influential members of the community were also ascertained,” it added.
The report resulted in an injunction halting Herakles’ work in the area, issued in April by MINFOF minister Ngole Philip Ngwese.
But the company has dismissed claims of corrupt practices, saying its transactions are in order and comply with the law.
“These allegations of corruption are simply perpetrated by some of our detractors. Herakles Farms has all the documents duly required for its operations,” said Frankline Sone Bayern, a spokesperson based at the Herakles Farms office in Limbe in Southwest Region.
In an earlier press statement, after the MINFOF injunction, the company said it had obtained permission to proceed with its project and “has always complied fully and transparently with government regulations in force”.
Bruce Wrobel, chief executive of Herakles Farms, said back then that his company’s efforts to develop a palm oil plantation in Cameroon had been launched to address a “dire humanitarian need”, meaning that they would help ease local unemployment.
The company also announced it would drastically reduce its workforce of over 690 full-time employees. It recently told Thomson Reuters Foundation it has yet to lay off the workers, while negotiations continue with the government.
When MINFOF ordered Herakles Farms to cease preparing land near the Talangaye nursery in the Southwest Region, it said the clearing of forest land and logging were “in gross violation of the initial contract” between the government and the agro-industrial firm.
According to MINFOF secretary general, Denis Koulanya Koutou, the Cameroonian subsidiary of Herakles Farms had been granted a license to open up plantations for palm oil production on land extending across the Ndian and Kupemuanenguba divisions of the Southwest Region. It planned to take up as much as 73,000 hectares of land through a 99-year lease.
“The problem, however, is that the ministries of the economy, planning and regional development and the agriculture ministry, which authorised the company to go ahead with their investment, do not have competence over the trees and fauna that the company has been destroying since the beginning of the project,” Koulanya Koutou said.
MINFOF has since asked Herakles Farms to shrink the size of its planned plantation to 20,000 hectares, but the ministry says it has yet to issue permission for any trees to be felled or timber to be exploited. These forest activities require separate licenses.
Corroborating MINFOF’s view and the complaints of civil society groups in Cameroon, the Oakland Institute and Greenpeace International exposed in a May report what they called “widespread misconduct” by Herakles Farms.
Based on documents obtained by the groups, the report said the company’s senior managers had misled investors, Cameroonian officials and others regarding the sprawling agricultural venture.
“This report exposes the significant discrepancies between how the company has represented the project to the public and what it is telling prospective investors and creditors. It also exposes internal communications that contradict the optimistic outlook for the palm oil project presented to investors,” it said.
The report added that Herakles Farms is proposing to harvest and sell timber it had previously indicated would be handed over to the Cameroonian government. The two organisations also said they had evidence that “suggests that Herakles Farms’ employees have used bribery, cash gifts, and promises of employment to win support for its project in Cameroon”.
Civil society groups in Cameroon have called on the government to apply existing legislation strictly. They say weak law enforcement and low environmental awareness are responsible for the rapid disappearance of the country’s forests, which environmental experts say has rendered many areas vulnerable to the effects of climate change.
“The government is to blame for failing to apply its own laws,” the CED’s Nguiffo said. “What forest communities on the ground in Cameroon see is no different from what is unfolding in other neighbouring countries in West and Central Africa.”
Elias Ntungwe Ngalame is an award-winning environmental writer with Cameroon's Eden Group of newspapers.
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