Land grabbing is a global issue involving large-scale leasing or buying of land in developing countries by trans- and multinational corporations, often without Proper Free, Prior and Informed Consent (PFPIC) of landowners, and through dealings with corrupt governments. Bahati Jacques, AFJN policy analyst, visited Cameroon in July 2013, to investigate Herakles Farms’ land deals there and liaise with advocates.
The Cameroonian government is a willing partner in the phenomenon of land grabs, a neocolonialist and unwise economic development approach affecting many nations globally. In 2009 the Cameroonian Ministry of Economy, Planning and Territorial Development signed a land lease agreement with Herakles Farms, an American agribusiness based in New York, for 73,086 hectares (730.86 square km/282 square miles) for a large-scale palm oil plantation project in Southwest Cameroon. According to the April 27, 1976 Cameroonian law N°76/166, a land deal over 50 Hectares (123.55 Acres) requires a presidential decree, which Herakles Farms did not have.
For four years the opposition work done by Cameroonian and international organizations against the illegal project has been outstanding and yielded results. Africa Faith and Justice Net-work (AFJN) joined the movement against this deal in June 2012; the potential socio-economic, environmental and political impact of this land grab seemed too great to ignore.
Unfortunately, President Paul Biya did sign a decree legalizing this land deal, but the combined advocacy efforts drastically changed the terms: instead of leasing 282 square miles (73,086 hectares) for a 99 year lease, for the insulting price of 50 cents per hectare, it was agreed at 77 square miles (19,843 hectares) for a provisional 3 years and $3.95 per hectare (Press Release, RELUFA and Centre pour le Développement et l’Environnement (CED), November 25, 2013). AFJN and the people of Cameroon wish the deal had not been approved at all, but the reduced land area, lease duration, and increased price are all the sign that standing up for your rights does affect change.
As part of our domestic advocacy, we were preparing a petition to mail to Herakles’ CEO and co-founder Mr. Bruce Wrobel on December 10th (thank you to those who signed!), when we sadly learned that he had died suddenly at age 56. We will send the petition and our condolences to his successor. “Out of 41 land grabbing speculators, the US ranks second, with 9.14 million acres grabbed, an area larger than the country of Qatar” (Charts: The Top 5 Land-Grabbing Countries, Mother Jones, Ryan Jacobs, Feb 6, 2013).
Land Grabbing as a New Colonialism
Are there any similarities between what is happening in Cameroon, as its leaders sign over people’s land to multinationals, and what happened during the colonization era? This excerpt from the 1884 treaty which gave King Leopold of Belgium full ownership of Congo must awaken our conscience without delay: “Congo’s tribal chief-tans ‘freely of their own accord, for themselves and their heirs and successors forever… gave up to the said Association the sovereignty and all sovereign and governing rights to all their territories…. All roads and waterways running through this country, the right of collecting tolls on the same, and all game, fishing, mining and forest rights, are to be the absolute property of the said Association” (King Leopold’s Ghost, a Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa, p 72, Adam Hochschild).
Current AFJN actions against Herakles’ land grab include the previously mentioned petition to stop its legal action against local activist Nasako Besingi and his associates as well as proxy legal suits against Dominic Ngwese. These people have been mobilizing their communities to
protect their ancestral land from being seized by Herakles. These lawsuits against activists are an attempt to prevent them from exercising their already restricted rights to free speech and assembly–both of which are guaranteed by Cameroonian law.
This article was first published in our October-December 2013 Newsletter