By Jacques Bahati
On July 18, 2013 I arrived in Mundemba, a village in Southwest Cameroon, with a team from Joining Hands (a project of the Presbyterian Church USA) and a team from the Yaoundé-based Cameroonian organization, Network to Fight Against Hunger (RELUFA). We were on a facts-finding mission on land grabbing by the US-based company Herakles Farms. It was a beautiful sunny morning as we set out, and Nasako Besingi, founder and director of the Struggle to Economize the Future Environment (SEFE) told us “it is not every day that we have a day like this.” The afternoon showers quickly reminded us that we rode through a rainforest: home to rare biodiversity and ecological significance. This land is special.
Since 2009, the people of Mundemba and other villages in the area have opposed the acquisition of 73,086 hectares (282 square miles) large-scale palm oil plantation by Herakles. The land lease agreement between Herakles and the Ministry of Economy, Planning and Territorial Development is illegal. Concessions of this size require a presidential decree, which they do not have.
It was wonderful to finally meet the people of Mundemba. They had reached out to Africa Faith and Justice Network (AFJN) more than a year ago to join their advocacy efforts to stop Herakles from illegally grabbing their land. AFJN joined the struggle to oppose Herakles’ project in Southwest Cameroon in June 2012. Speaking with the community leaders, we told them that Herakles’ project in Cameroon was not unique: similar land grabs were (and are) happening all over Africa, as well as in developing countries beyond the continent.
Why take the fight against land grabs in Cameroon to the US?
First, since Herakles Farms is an American-owned company, we want to specifically urge Americans who have shares in the company to sell them and invest in more ethically responsible companies. Herakles is implicated in land grabs, serious human rights violations, violence, intimidation and corruption, all of which are illegal in the US and in Cameroon.
Also, during his recent trip to Africa, President Obama publicized the second pillar of the US Sub-Saharan Africa policy: “Spur Economic Growth, Trade, and Investment.” This policy aims to “encourage U.S. companies to trade with and invest in Africa” (Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa, June 2012). Therefore, we call on the US congress and the administration to question Herakles’ practices in Cameroon. Herakles’ actions aren’t meeting the standards and expectations of the people of Cameroon or the US. The company must be held accountable for violating the US Foreign Corruption Practice Act, Cameroonian laws and other international standards.
Herakles and their Cameroonian surrogates know the full truth about how they secured such a large, cheap deal from the Ministry of Economy, Planning and Territorial Development. The only possible explanation is that money exchanged hands, but without a conviction it remains an allegation. We were told that Herakles’ Cameroonian surrogates targeted government’s local officials, chiefs and other influential members of the community by distributing money and whiskey to get them to buy into its project.
As the tenacious awareness campaign against the project started to spread to the people, they took their bribery tactic to another level: win the support of people by offering them food under the guise of a holiday gift.
January 16, 2013–Herakles Farms issued a press release stating that “Over the Holidays, Herakles Farms…donated food to 1,700 households in 38 villages located in the Nguti subdivision of Kupe – Muane Nguba and in Mundemba and Toko in Ndian. In total, 11 tons of rice and 10 tons of fish were distributed to more than 8,000 individuals in the Nguti, Mundemba and Toko areas” (Herakles Farms Initiates Programs to Meet Community Health And Social Needs).
In an open letter to Herakles Farms’ CEO, Bruce Wrobel, the Cameroonian-American, and Environmental and Human Right Activist, Mr. Andrew M. Edimo, asks: “How long will the tens of thousands of people displaced, dehumanized and enslaved by your so-called sustainable development project live off your 11 tons of rice and 10 tons of fish? Are they going to be eating the rice and fish for 99 years as they will have no land to farm after you have seized and destroyed their only treasure and hope for a livelihood? It might have made some sense to a few people if you had instead empowered the people who you are trying to feed with rice and fish by educating and encouraging them to cultivate rice and start fish farming.”
“We are not against development and Herakles is welcome to invest, but this type of development does not belong here,” said Mr. Nasako Besingi. Chief Mbara of Koto village, like many who are against Herakles, has dreams of an improved quality of life for the Cameroonian people and his area in particular, but “we have many unanswered key questions,” he told us.
In response to the government’s claim that all forest belongs to the state, the people have started to clear the forest to claim ownership. We are discouraging this resistance approach the same way we have discouraged violent resistance to this project. Clearing the forests will negatively impact our environment which we are fighting to preserve, explained Mr. Nasako Besingi, whose organization, the Struggle to Economize the Future Environment (SEFE), has been on the frontlines campaigning for the cancellation of Herakles’ palm oil plantation project in Southwest Cameroon.
On December 12, 2012 Mr. Nasako Besingi was awarded the Transparency, Access to Information and Open Governance (TAIGO) prize for his work with the community to protect their land from being grabbed by Herakles. On November 14, 2012, Mr. Nasako and four others were arrested and detained by the police in Mundemba for opposing the project. Also on August 29, 2012, he was pulled off a moving motorcycle by Herakles workers on his way from a very well-attended awareness meeting against Herakles. At anytime he could be summoned to appear before the judge in the High Court of Ndian for bad publicity against Herakles. What Herakles calls bad publicity is nothing but the truth about its attempt to grab our land using bribery and intimidation, Mr. Nasako explained to us. He is aware that he is fighting against a giant with enough money to go around, but he courageously told us: “I will not give up, I am ready to go to jail.”
AFJN is in this to the finish line and we hope you will join us in support of our brothers and sisters of Mundemba and neighboring villages. Although there are signs that the affected people have the ear of some government officials, more needs to be done to get the project canceled. We hope you will sign our petition to Herakles Farms’ CEO, Mr. Bruce Wrobel, (French version here) asking him to look elsewhere for land and also stop the legal case against Mr. Nasako Besingi, which is nothing but an intimidation tactic.