It is a 2 day drive from the capital Yaounde to the South West of Cameroon, to the area where the American company Herakles Farms is starting a huge new palm oil plantation. Going there we pass by several vast palm oil and banana plantations. Plantations seem to be big business already for years in Cameroon. But when we stop to visit the plantations, the only thing we see is poverty.Local people are driven away from their farms to make space for plantations, are forced to settle elsewhere, and plantation workers are imported from other areas in Cameroon. Plantation wages are low compared to a farmers income in this region. Also the occasional hospitals and schools supplied by the plantation companies don’t look very reliable.
The last stretch of the road gets really bad. Our four wheel drive is struggling with the mud, the hills, and the big holes filled with water. The lack of infrastructure, we learn later, is the real problem in this area. Finally at the end of the second day we arrive in the area where the American plantation is planned. A vast forest area, virgin and secondary forest, situated in between 4 national parcs. It is meant to be a buffer zone for the 50,000 people living in the area, so they don’t have to go hunting and farming in the parcs. For the elephants, monkeys, chimpanzees, etc. it is an important habitat and serves as a corridor between the parcs. The Cameroon rain forest is key for the iconic wildlife, the biodiversity, and for our climate.
We meet some of the villagers/farmers and they take us to their farms. These farms are situated in the middle of the forest areas claimed by the plantation. We see the demarcation marks literally cutting through the peoples farm land.
The difficult situation in Cameroon, as in many African countries, is that legally all land is owned by the state. Off course people and communities have their traditionally respected land rights, but in the end it is the state owning everything. In this case it is the state who has negotiated with the company and the communities are vaguely informed, or not at all, about what will happen to their land and farms. They suddenly saw these demarcation marks on their land
Despite the fact that the official permission for the plantation has not been given yet by the Cameroonian president and the Ministry of Forests has forbidden all deforestation, the company has been clear cutting parts of the forest to start nurseries and even plant the first palm oil trees. It is private forest land given to them by some of the local chiefs, they claim. Without official permission this is the way to invade step by step the plantation area. Totally illegal according to several people, common practice according to others.
The result is a hot debate in the region. Some of the authorities seem to push the American project, while the communities are not or poorly informed about the consequences for their lives. Where do they have to go, how are they going to farm? People take us to one of the village meetings. There the conflict between the chief and the community becomes clear. We are told the chief has received an ‘envelop’ and is now in favor of the plantation. The population definitely is not.
And then we get shown a local newspaper about a medical operation done by Herakles Farms in the area. It is one of the most astonishing things I have ever come across. A team of doctors has been flown in for some days and visited several villages. Treating and operating people in very primitive conditions, on kitchen tables, in the open. After they left several people had to go to regular hospitals for proper after care. Did the Ministry of Health approve such an operation, while there is a good hospital in the area?
At first the communities were taken by surprise when they heard about the plans with their land. Now gradually the protests increase. Meetings get organized. Parliament members speak out. The Ministry of Forest and the Ministry of Agriculture are opposed to the project. The only thing the farmers in the region really need is market access, better roads. It is clear that a palm oil plantation will bring the communities nothing but poverty.