By Elias Ntungwe Ngalame
A palm oil plantation expansion scheme by SOCAPALM, Cameroon’s biggest palm oil producer has not only denuded the rich forest resources in the area but has deprived the over 3000 people of Kilombo community and others surrounding the plantation of their customary habitat and farm land.
But even more perilous is the thought that the land on which they used to cultivate, hunt their bush meat have been taken away leaving them with no choice than adapt to what they call ‘foreign’ diet and putting them at the threshold of a new livelihood.
The indigenous communities surrounding SOCAPALM’s Kienke plantation area who are mostly hunters, fishermen and gatherers complain the destruction of the forest drove away wildlife and has led to the pollution of rivers with chemicals—their only source of drinking water.
Ngo Bakoume Solange one of the inhabitants of Kilombo laments at the bitter experience of the land rights abuse. She points at a SOCAPALM nursery nestled on a portion of land that belonged to her late father. “That is where my late father used to cultivate, today it belongs to SOCAPALM and his children have nowhere to farm,” she said with despairing vehemence similar to bewailing a disaster one never occasioned.
SOCAPALM is a subsidiary of the Socfin Group, in which French business mogul; Vincent Bolloré is the largest shareholder (38.75%).
SOCAPALM’s Kienke palm plantation that covers 7,459 ha of land is the country’s largest palm plantation and also one of the youngest of the five plantations of the agro-industrial company -only 15 years old. Four other oil palm plantations of the agro-industrial company include Mbongo, Eseka, Dibombari, and Mbambou according to information from the ministry of agriculture and rural development.
Since the former state owned corporation was privatization in the year 2000, SOCAPALM has continued to scale up, expanding and rejuvenating palm groves, taking away large portions of forest and depriving locals of their farm and hunting land and traditional diet.
A study by a civil society organization, “Reseaux Pour L’Action Collective Transnationale,” ( ReAct) shows underlying anger prevailing among the local communities neighboring the five SOCAPALM plantations across the country.
Inhabitants attest of frequent protest and conflict even among the surrounding villages, each holding claim to rights to seized land.
Development stakeholders say trends toward the development of land concessions seriously hold back the development of Cameroon.
They wonder why Cameroon that advocates for the protection of the rights, interests, culture and aspirations of local indigenous communities from the forests in the Congo Basin region cannot set the example in respecting the different international convention on human rights signed.
Experts hold that the ensuing consequences are clear evidence that something was wrong with the type of development path many countries in Africa have chosen.
“We cannot aim at developing a country for the benefit of the people and then destroy the livelihood of the people in the development process. We cannot claim to drive towards development without having the appropriate safeguards that will protect communities of their rights, health, and of their livelihood,” Samuel Nguiffo on CED, an NGO in Cameroon noted.
Industrial Palm Oil plantation expansion in Cameroon according to the ministry of agriculture is estimated to cover over 80,000 hectares while that of small and medium-sized plots- has reached over 58,300.
Officials of the Cameroon Ministry of Agriculture and Rural said the country is on course to change from importer to exporter of palm oil in by 2020.
Like Cameroon, most West and Central African nations have planned to improve palm oil production to an industrial scale. Greenpeace International 2012 figures indicated that there are about 27 palm oil projects in Central and West Africa.