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Cameroon lifts freeze on US company's palm oil venture

by Reuters
Thursday, 6 June 2013 21:00 GMT

YAOUNDE, June 6 (Reuters) - Cameroon has given the green light to a company owned by New York venture capital firm Herakles Capital to resume work on a giant palm oil plantation, officials said on Thursday, sparking outcries from environmental campaigners.

Cameroon in April ordered Herakles Farms to halt development of its proposed 73,000 hectare plantation, an area more than 10 times the size of Manhattan, while it reviewed the public usefulness of the project. The venture was initiated in 2009.  

Officials in the Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife, who asked not to be identified, said the minister had sent a letter to the company authorising it to proceed with the clearance of the forest and planting of palms.

"I remind you that these clearance operations must be carried out strictly in compliance with the law and regulations in force," said a copy of the letter seen by Reuters.

The officials said several ministries, including the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, voiced concern at the size of the plantation and lodged a request at a June 4 interministerial meeting that it be reduced to 20,000 hectares.  

The request is under consideration, the officials said.  

Environmental groups including Greenpeace and WWF have said the project violates Cameroon's laws and could endanger wildlife and deprive locals of their livelihoods.    

Ludovic Miaro, regional coordinator of WWF's palm oil programme, said the government's about-turn just over a month after it had suspended the project was "incomprehensible."  

"The government of Cameroon ... seems to be encouraging this company to circumvent national legislation and the rights of local people," he said in a statement.

Herakles Farms has repeatedly said it has fully complied with Cameroonian law and the wishes of local communities. It said in May that it had laid off 690 workers while work on the plantation was suspended.  

Some villagers around Herakles' Talangaye nursery, where it is growing saplings for the plantation, have warned it would leave them without land for hunting and growing their own crops.

Palm oil is the world's most widely produced vegetable oil and is used in everything from margarine and soap to biofuel. Annual production around the world is valued at about $20 billion.   

Critics say the palm oil industry is taking part in a land grab in Africa that reduces local food output in favour of crops for export, an issue that often stirs local opposition.  

In Liberia, an independent study into Golden Veroleum's palm oil plantation recently demanded the company review its social and environmental policies.

(Reporting by Tansa Musa; Writing by Daniel Flynn; editing by Jim Marshall)

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