GRAIN | 22 September 2014 | Planet palm oil
Local communities can only lose from this new wave of land grabs for palm oil. They lose access to vital lands and water resources, now and for future generations. And they have to face all of the impacts that come with vast monoculture plantations within their territories – pollution from pesticides, soil erosion, deforestation, and labour migration. Experience also shows that the employment generated by the plantations often goes to outsiders, and that most of the jobs are seasonal, poorly paid, and dangerous. Certification schemes, such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), can only alleviate or postpone some of the worst excesses (See box: Why the RSPO facilitates land grabs for palm oil).
Experience also shows that the outgrower schemes, known as plasma programmes in Indonesia or nucleus estates in Africa, are not solutions. It has become standard practice for companies to offer to develop outgrower schemes on a portion of the lands within their concessions as part of their agreements with host governments. The farmers involved in these schemes have little control over production or the terms of payment, which are dictated by the company, leaving them vulnerable to all sorts of abuses. More than anything, the outgrower schemes are a means for the companies to capture supply and placate the local people who are ultimately being forced to give up control over their territories.
This is not to say that small scale palm oil production cannot support people's livelihoods. There are excellent examples from Honduras and West and Central Africa where small oil palm farmers have developed markets or organised cooperatives that provide them with a decent price for their production.1 But in these cases, the farmers have control over their lands and their farms, and they are not at the mercy of a single foreign or national company for the sale of their products. The current wave of plantations is a direct threat to these farmers-- taking away their lands and their local markets.
There is no demand justification for the expansion of oil palm plantations either. The growing global market for palm oil is not about resolving world hunger. It is mainly a product of new biofuel mandates and the substitution of cheap imported palm oil for locally produced oils and fats (whether animal or vegetable) in the production of processed foods by global corporations. People do not need more oil palm plantations; corporations do.
Cameroonian activist risks prison for campaigning against a Wall Street land grabber
Nasako Besingi is a land grabber's worst nightmare. Nasako, a community organiser who runs an NGO called Struggle to Economise Future Environment (SEFE), interfered with an American corporation’s plan to get its hands on a large tract of land in southwestern Cameroon to produce palm oil.
Herakles Capital is a venture capital corporation headquartered in New York that has been using various tactics to acquire and develop oil palm plantations on over 80,000 hectares in West Africa and Central Africa. From the moment he heard about its plans for Cameroon, Nasako got down to researching the issue and raising awareness among the local populations as to the dangers associated with the project. As a result, resistance to Herakles has grown ‒ but at a very high cost to Nasako.
Later that year, during a meeting of the reigning political party, the region’s chiefs were asked to sign a blank piece of paper in exchange for 10,000 CFA francs. “None of them knew what they were signing,” said Nasako. “It was only later that we discovered that the document was used as proof of local consent for the plantation project.”
In 2010, the agreement between the government and the corporation became public, but it wasn’t very clear who was behind the project. “When discussing it locally they alluded to an American corporation, Sithe Global, but in official communication they referred to SCSOC, a company registered in Cameroon. It was as if they were trying to hide the true identity of the corporation,” explained Nasako. It was only after some time that it became clear that the corporation belongs to the American hedge fund Herakles Capital, which also owns Sithe Global.
An inside source gave Nasako a copy of the agreement.
“The agreement does not specify the area of the land concerned, nor the locations of any of the sites that were supposedly granted,” he points out. “But when the corporation showed up, it insisted that the land had been legally granted.”
SEFE held a meeting in August 2011 to get clarity on the proposed project. It invited all the affected villages, the government, and the corporation, but the corporation refused to participate.
“That’s when we realised they didn’t want to negotiate, they didn’t want anything to do with us,” recalls Nasako. “So we decided to pursue legal avenues.”
SEFE lodged a complaint against the corporation with the High Court of Justice for violations of domestic and international environmental and human rights law. The court ruled in favour of SEFE, concluding that Herakles did not have permission to operate in the region ‒ but that was not enough to discourage Herakles.
“The corporation ignored the court’s decision because it did not have the Prime Minister’s blessing,” said Nasako. “We considered the matter and we said: “If this corporation feels free to ignore a court decision, how can we expect them to listen to a bunch of poor villagers?”
So SEFE took its awareness-raising work to the next level. It held another large meeting in July 2012 in the village of Meangwe. In the days leading up to the meeting, agents of the corporation came to the villages to warn people not to attend.
“They told the villagers that the meeting was illegal and that people would be arrested if they attended,” says Nasako. “But that didn’t stop people from coming. It was the rainy season, yet more than 300 people came from all the villages concerned to take part in the meeting. For many of them, it was the first time they had heard of the project and the corporation.”
Nasako’s efforts nearly cost him his life. A month after the meeting, he was motorcycling to a village that had asked him to speak about Herakles’ plans when he was attacked by a group of men.
“They dragged me off the bike and started punching me,” Nasako remembers. “They were yelling at me, saying I was the one who had caused trouble for the corporation. I recognised them: they were lower-level managers of Herakles Farms.”
As luck would have it, a team of French journalists was not far behind Nasako that day. When their truck arrived, the men let go of Nasako and scattered.
Tensions between the corporation and the villagers continued to rise. But the corporation and the government continued to claim that the local populations approved of the proposed concession and to spread disinformation in the domestic and international media.
“A large majority of local people are opposed to what Herakles is doing, and we wanted the world to see that reality,” stresses Nasako.
At the request of the community, SEFE drew up an action plan. In November 2012, it produced hundreds of tee-shirts bearing the slogan: “No plantations on our land. SGSOC go home.” The plan was for the villagers to wear these T-shirts at the inaugural ceremony for the new regional prefect, and in that way to express their opposition to the Herakles plantations. But before the ceremony took place, a squadron of police and soldiers burst into SEFE’s offices, arresting Nasako and five villagers.
“They were trying to silence us and goad the villagers into violence,” states Nasako. “But we insisted that it was to be a peaceful demonstration and we urged people not to resist arrest, since that would just give them an excuse to make more arrests and file more complaints.”
Despite these bullying tactics, 400 people came to pick up the tee-shirts. While they were on their way to the ceremony, they were violently attacked and brutalised by police and soldiers, who prevented them from entering wearing the tee-shirts.
Nasako is still awaiting his court date and does not know the charges against him. The five others were arrested and charged with taking part in the organisation of an illicit public meeting.
Meanwhile, Herakles filed a separate complaint against Nasako, accusing him of defamation and suing him for damages and interest. This proceeding is also pending.
“I won’t be able to afford the damages if I lose,” says Nasako. “So in that case, I would have to go to prison.”
The risk of prison and the threats on his life have not managed to discourage Nasako. He is convinced that the communities are winning. Herakles Farms seems to be having financial problems now, and the government’s has forced the corporation to reduce the size of its project to 20,000 hectares.
But that’s not enough for SEFE and the villagers: they want to see the project canceled.
“We have to keep up our resistance,” cautions Nasako. “The corporation has been silent for a while, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. We can’t let down our guard until it is officially announced that the contract has been terminated. Other corporations are coming to the region. We know, for example, that Cargill is working with the international NGO Proforest to acquire land in a neighbouring district, just south of the project proposed by Herakles.”
1 For examples from Honduras, see Tanya M. Kerssen, "Grabbing Power: The New Struggles for Land, Food and Democracy in Northern Honduras," FoodFirst, 1 February 2013; for examples from Africa, see World Rainforest Movement, “Oil palm in Africa: past, present and future scenarios,” 2010