How the people of South West Cameroon resisted sell-out leaders, corrupt politicians and land-grabbing businessmen.

For six years, the people and nobles of South West Cameroon have been resisting efforts by local officials and businessmen to sell their land to American palm oil company Herakles. Chief Bisong Etahoben kept a diary.

SUNDAY NOVEMBER 2, 2008: Chief Agbor Robertson of Okoroba village visits me in Yaounde to tell me that a certain Dr Isidore Nse Timti, a former manager of the Cameroonian plantations company Pamol and Chief Moses Obenofunde of Bajo village, -who is also a former manager of the same company but now a parliamentarian for our constituency-, have agreed to sell the land in our South West Obang region to an American company for palm oil plantation purposes. We decide to call a meeting of elites to discuss the issue.

MONDAY NOVEMBER 3, 2008: The meeting, advertised by us on radio, is attended by all fourteen prominent families of the clan. The anger among the elites is palpable. It cannot be accepted that land is to be sold off without any consultation with our communities. It is decided to send a sensitisation team out to all the Obang villages to survey their views on the prospect of ceding land to be used for a palm oil plantation.

SATURDAY NOVEMBER 8, 2008: I meet up with Chief Obenofunde in Limbe. He tries to convince me that giving up the land for palm oil is a good idea, telling me that the project will bring development and employment to our area. I respond that it was still wrong of him to have consented to the sale without first consulting other chiefs and the village communities of the area.

Chief Bisong Etahoben's diary

FRIDAY NOVEMBER 14 – FRIDAY NOVEMBER 21: Our group of Chiefs holds meetings with the villagers of Bayenti, Etinkem, Bayip, Akak, Bakogo, Mbinda, Okoroba, Bayip-Ossing, Abat, Bajoh, Mgbegati, Osselle, Bakut and Osirayip villages. In all the villages, the general consensus is that no land should be given out to anybody. It is clear that the developmental and employment benefits of the American palm oil enterprise are not trusted. Most of our people live from the forest: we hunt, fish, and farm.  Though timber exploitation in the past twenty years has given us the benefits of roads and brought some development, it has also depleted the forests, reduced the number of fish in our rivers, minimized wildlife and decreased the protein in our diets. We are all anxious that we must not lose more land.

The elites are mandated to write protest letters to the Presidency of the Republic, the Prime Minister, the Minister of Forestry and Wildlife, and the Minister of Lands. The communities also decide that they will organize demonstrations. They also unanimously pronounce that, should anybody representing the Americans show up in any of the villages, they shall be lynched. That is how angry they are.

SATURDAY DECEMBER 6, 2008: I meet Chief Obenofunde in the Hotel des Deputes and tell him about the protest letter and other actions we are undertaking.

SATURDAY JANUARY 10, 2009: Dr Isidore Timti tells a meeting of chiefs, elites and population of Obang area in Akak village that the Americans he represents have decided to give up canvassing for Obang land. “The avalanche of correspondences we have been receiving concerning the protests against the acquisition of land in Obang area forces us to conclude that we would not have a chance (to implement the plantation project) even if we were to succeed in having Obang land included in the final land concession from the government. We have therefore decided to pull out of the negotiations. We don’t want Obang land anymore,” Dr. Timti declares during the meeting.

Truckloads of rice and wine were sent in to convince the people to sell

FIRST WEEK OF FEBRUARY 2009: I am informed that Dr Timti is sending truckloads of rice and wine to villages in Ndian Division and some villages in Meme that border our area. This is, rumours say, to prepare the villagers for ‘land negotiation’ meetings. I am shocked to hear that two of the chiefs said to be campaigning among their people to give up land to Dr Timti are good friends of mine: Chief Dr Atem Ebako, a medical practitioner and chief of Talangaye village in Meme Division, and Chief Norbert Mbile of Batanga in Ndian Division who is also the Principal of the Kumba College of Arts and Science in Cameroon. I later find out that the meetings are not to take place after all, because even the communities led by Chiefs Ebako and Mbile have refused to part with their land. The refusal is apparently strengthened after villagers have come to know about our successes in the Obang area.

SATURDAY FEBRUARY 14, 2009: I meet in Buea with Chief Dr Atem Ebako and I ask him about the rumours that he was prepared to give away his Talangaye land to the Americans for a pittance. I ask whether he has calculated the future ramifications of such a decision on the lives of generations of his people. What place will be reserved for him in history if the consequences would be negative? I tell him to first consult his people before taking any decision. “My people are illiterates. They don’t know what is good for them. In the case of the Herakles Farms concession, my word is the beginning and the end. The land goes to Herakles”, he tells me.

MARCH 2009 TO SEPTEMBER 2009: Strangers are seen, coming one by one, to take up farming in the Ndian and Meme villages. In some cases, they quietly and incomprehensibly start working land that belongs to local families. In other cases, lands are outrightly and forcibly invaded, and food stocks and cash crops are destroyed by goons –local unemployed youths-, suspected to have been hired by Herakles and their local subsidiary, Sithe Global Sustainable Oils Cameroon Ltd. Calling in local administrators and gendarmes doesn’t help the locals: on the contrary, protesting villagers are intimidated and arrested by corrupt authorities.

Gradually, villagers find themselves dispossessed of their lands. Herakles Farms has started work on the targeted concession area without formally being granted the concession. “I am a native of this region. I left Britain, where I resided, to come home and do farming in my village. I now employ almost all the local youths on my farms but Herakles came and bribed the chief and some elders who then seized my land and handed it over to them”, Ian Makia, a Cameroonian with a British mother and Cameroonian father, tells me.

THURSDAY SEPTEMBER 17. 2009: The government of Cameroon and Sithe Global Sustainable Oils Cameroon Limited sign a convention ceding 73,000 hectares of land to the Americans for 99 years without fulfilling any of the legal conditions, most notably the condition of consultation with local leaders and communities. The convention is a good example of how warped interests can influence judicial draftsmanship. For example, Section 9.3 of the convention requires Herakles to respect the laws of Cameroon but in Section 22.2 the convention claims to take precedence over Cameroonian law as well as other international agreements that Cameroon has ratified.

In the convention, the Cameroonian government bizarrely agrees to lease national land out to Herakles Farms at a price of US$1 (one dollar) for developed land per year for 99 years and US$0,50 per year for undeveloped land.(In comparison: a year lease per hectare costs US$ 7,000 in Brazil, and US$ 16, 000 in the USA.)

Local leaders sold land to the American company for only fifty US dollar cents per hectare

Since most of the land ceded in the convention is undeveloped, it means almost all the land is given out at 50 US cents per hectare per year for 99 years. Our government will officially get the paltry sum of US$ 36,500 per year for having sold out our land. Rumours hold, however, that more than ten times that amount was agreed upon and the difference is to be annually credited into the accounts of those who negotiated the convention.

Herakles is also given, for no apparent reason, a more than fifty percent slash in taxation. The convention furthermore gives the company exclusive rights to other resources in the concession area such as timber, clay, sand and other minerals.

AUGUST 9, 2010: Minister Delegate in the Ministry of the Environment and Forestry Dr. Nana Aboubakar Djalloh, signs a letter approving an Environmental and Social Impact Assessment that has been carried out at the request of Herakles by the not-very-reputable research outfit H & B Consulting in Yaounde. The Assessment, undertaken to formally comply with a condition in the lease agreement that feasibility studies for the project should be conducted, gives the green light for implementation of the palm oil plantation project.

The study has been widely criticized by environmentalists and communities alike. They have also asked what the use was of having this assessment done at all, eleven months after the Cameroon government already decided to go through with the project.

MAY 2011: Twenty months after the signing of the convention, the Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife seems to have woken up from a deep sleep. In a communiqué read on national radio and published in the official print media, it declares that the plantation project is “ecologically fatal and socially irresponsible” and asks that it be stopped and permanently cancelled. Herakles Farms, however, goes on with work as if nothing has happened and even encroaches on a national park and village farmlands that are not part of the earlier conceded area. The Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife eventually orders inspectors from the ministry to impound two of the company’s bulldozers involved in the destruction of the forest and seizes logs of timber the company had already prepared for export.

AUGUST 31, 2011: The Ndian High Court on August 31, 2011 rules in favour of native communities that have sued Herakles. It places an injunction on the activities of the company within the concession area. Under-the-table deals between Herakles and some officials in the Ministry of Justice in Yaounde, however, then see the judge who passed the injunction transferred away from the project area. This leads to a re-opening of the case and a delay to the injunction.

FEBRUARY 27, 2012: The new judge of the Ndian High Court, to the dismay of those who caused the transfer of his predecessor, upholds the injunction against Herakles.

MARCH 2012: The World Wildlife Fund and other NGOs file official complaints with the international certification body

RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) against the company’s project in Cameroon, raising major social, legal and environmental issues. The RSPO, of which Herakles Farms is a member, calls on the company not to proceed with any land development until all comments on the complaints are received and the body has pronounced on the matter.

MAY 10 2012: Greenpeace International writes to Bruce Wrobel, Chief Executive Officer of Herakles Farms to express its ‘clear opposition’ to the palm oil plantation project.

‘Sell-out’ Chiefs were confronted by protesting fellow Chiefs and villagers

JUNE 2012: Local populations of the conceded areas conduct mass protests against the fact that, though the project has been stopped, they still don’t have their lands back. The demonstrations are vigorously suppressed by security forces.

AUGUST 2012: Herakles, though formally maintaining that the company is committed to “meeting or exceeding” RSPO standards, withdraws its membership from the certification body. Nasako Besingi, the director of the Cameroonian NGO SEFE (Struggle to Economize the Future Environment), is physically assaulted when he visits the conceded area with French journalists. The perpetrators are known by locals to be associated with Herakles.

NOVEMBER 2012: While preparing for a peaceful demonstration, Besingi and other members of SEFE are arrested at the NGO’s headquarters and held without charge. An avalanche of local and international protests leads to their release after a few days.

APRIL 2013: The Cameroon government announces the suspension of Herakles Farms’ activities in Cameroon. There is dancing in the streets of Mundemba and Fabe in Ndian Division.

MAY 18 2013: Herakles Farms, too, announces the suspension of its activities in Cameroon.

Mass protests reduced the area of land sold from 73,000 to 22,000 hectare

MAY 29, 2013: The jubilation by local communities is cut short when the Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife suddenly announces that the ban on Herakles’ activity has been lifted again. However, the land area ceded is now reduced from 73,000 hectares to 22,000 hectares.

JUNE 2013: Local and international environmental protection agencies condemn the Cameroonian government for lifting the suspension. Greenpeace’s forest campaigner Irène Wabiwa states that, in addition to the expected devastating environmental consequences, “it seems increasingly clear that the company is facing serious cash flow issues and that it is not a viable long term development partner for (Cameroon).” She advises the Cameroonian government to “conduct financial due diligence on Herakles Farms.”

December 10, 2013: Bruce Wrobel, the Chief Executive Officer of Herakles Farms is found dead in his New York residence. He is suspected to have committed suicide.

APRIL 4 2014: A large demonstration, the likes of it which has never before been seen in the village is held in Babensi Two. A placard reads: “(The palm oil company) is out to kill the Babensi Two man; they are cutting down our cocoa farms as well as destroying our timber and non-timber products.” The villagers march to the sub divisional office, the gendarmerie brigade and the public security office where they hand over a petition calling on the government officials to finally stop Herakles Farms from continuing to carry on with their “nefarious activities” in their area, since they “do not have any convention with the Babensi Two people”.

To date, the struggle by the people of Ndian and Meme Divisions against what they describe as the illegal seizure of their land by government and Herakles Farms continues. Nasako Bessingi, the coordinator of the environmental NGO SEFE, is scheduled to appear before the Ndian High Court on Friday September 12, 2014 on charges of illegal assembly and disturbing public peace after staging a demonstration against Herakles recently.

Chief Bisong Etahoben is the editor of the investigative Weekly Post and a traditional leader in Cameroon.