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Here’s how Cameroon can achieve land transparency

by Téodyl Nkuintchua, Sam Szoke-Burke & Horline Njike
Monday, 20 August 2018 15:43 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: Buildings are seen from a helicopter outside Kolofata, Cameroon, March 16, 2016. REUTERS/Joe Penney

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Cameroon’s Code on transparency and good governance is finally here. The law promises to remove the shroud of secrecy that has hovered over contracts and concessions the government has signed with natural resource investors.

The law presents a major opportunity for the improvement of good governance in Cameroon.

One key feature of the new law is that contracts that the government signs with investors exploiting natural resources must now be made public.

If read literally, the law should also require the publication of investor-state contracts for land-based investments, such as agriculture and forestry projects, which would be an important advancement in the fight for transparency.

While there will be a lot of important discussion around what this means for the extractive industry in Cameroon, the importance of this new law for transparency of land-based investments should not be overlooked.

Who benefits from contract transparency?

The new law is good news for Cameroon’s land sector. Land owners, investors, and public officials can look forward to more efficient negotiations and monitoring processes.

Government agencies will also benefit from making contracts publicly available. For example, regulatory bodies, such as the Directorate General of Taxation, will be able to quickly obtain the terms of contracts signed by the government when they monitor investment projects within their remit.

Contract transparency is also critical for the local communities who are affected by land-based investments, and whose livelihoods depend on the sustainable management of their lands and resources.

Local communities are usually kept in the dark about deals the government has struck with specific investors, and struggle to discover what rules the investor is bound by.

Is the investor required to consult with the community? What land specifically is the investor allowed to use? Are there any limits on the amount of water or chemicals the investor can use? Answers to such questions, if not in national laws, will often be in contracts negotiated between the government and private investors. Thanks to the new law, these contracts should now be made public.

We have been involved in investigating the extent to which communities in Cameroon know about forest contracts that could directly affect them.

In almost every case, community members had not seen a copy of the contract affecting their lands. They were left guessing the number of classrooms, hospitals, hangars or roads, to be built by nearby companies. This was a major source of tension, and even local conflict.

Making these contracts public can help to reduce local conflict by managing people’s expectations, creating opportunities for communities and encouraging investors to honour the contracts they sign.

Citizens of Cameroon more generally will also benefit from the law’s high standards.

For instance, there will be increased public scrutiny of how the government manages the revenue it collects through taxes paid by companies.

ARCHIVE PHOTO: Workers fill a sack with cocoa beans in Ntui village, Cameroon, December 16, 2017. REUTERS/Ange Aboa

So, what is the current state of contract transparency for agricultural and forestry projects?

Some land contracts from Cameroon are already publicly available.

Columbia University’s OpenLandContracts.org website currently hosts 10 agricultural contracts and decrees from Cameroon, for instance. And other contracts can be found in other regional and national websites. But this represents a tiny part of the information that currently exists.

We estimate that more than 200 forestry projects and some 60 agricultural projects—all of which will have types of government contracts—are currently on the books in Cameroon. The current difficulties faced in accessing contracts has been a barrier for communities wanting to protect their rights, and for the government’s attempts to achieve responsible investment.

Encouragingly, some of Cameroon’s neighbours already make some contracts available.

The government of the Democratic Republic of Congo posted all of its forestry concessions online. The Republic of Congo, like Cameroon, publishes some contracts in hard copy in its journal officiel, though not systematically. Further afield, Liberia also publishes its forestry contracts, and Sierra Leone has committed to disclosing the majority of its agricultural contracts.

Transparency of contracts and public revenues will not solve the wide array of challenges related to encouraging responsible agricultural and forestry investment in Cameroon. But it can help ensure that all stakeholders are better informed, leading to more productive public dialogue and more inclusive participation in investment planning.

Transparency is also good for business, say the heads of various mining firms and public officials from around the world.

Everything appears to be lined up for Cameroon to advance on contract transparency; we now wait to see if the government will fulfill this promise.

Téodyl Nkuintchua is an Anthropologist and Regional Technical Advisor in charge of Development and Advocacy at the Field Legality Advisory Group (FLAG), Cameroon. Sam Szoke-Burke is a Legal Researcher at the Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment. Horline Njike is an Environmental Lawyer and Secretary General at FLAG, Cameroon.