By Leocadia Bongben on special assignment to Nguti,
The roads that lead to Nguti in South Western Cameroon are in very bad shape but when you manage to undergo that obvious barrier, you will eventually get to the area situated some 60km from Mamfe town.
Until giant American agro industrial company Herakles Farm announced it wanted to set up an oil plantation in Nguti, the people in the sparely populated 54 villages that make up the area lived in peace and harmony. Herakles farms announced its intentions to acquire 73.000 hectares of pristine land that included virgin forests and land that the inhabitants had farmed and guarded for hundreds of years.
Herakles Farms was established in Cameroon in 2009, a year after the worst global food crisis which affected Cameroon like most parts of the world. More than 200 people were killed by security forces in Cameroon when they rose up in arms to protests against sudden food price hikes. The original intention of the Cameroon government that accepted Herakles Farms offer to produce palm oil was to create employment in the area and bring in some much needed foreign capital. Since then, some of the villagers, environmental activists and some foreign organizations have sharply criticized the project. Corporate driven development and community based movements for land and food security clashed.
Four years later, Harakles farms is still struggling to convince the people of the area that it has good intentions but the activists maintain the American company is just after huge profits and do not care for the concerns of the people and are not interested in protecting their virgin forestland
I traveled to Nguti with some colleagues to find out why the villagers are up in arms against a giant company whose investment could literary transform their lives.
Why the people are angry
Community activism against SG Sustainable Oils Cameroon, (SG SOC) the local branch of Heracles Farms has been going on since 2009 and eventually led to a suspension of Herakles activities in the area on May 18 2013 due to a government injunction. Victory for the activists was short-lived because 11 days later (May 29th 2013) the government lifted the ban. On August 26 2013 the people of Sikam in Upper Balong, Nguti sub-division wrote a protest letter to the Secretary General at the presidency Ferdinand Ngoh Ngoh refusing to cede 3410 hectares of land SG SOC Cameroon wanted from the village for the oil plantation. Two days later, quarter heads of Nguti village also wrote to SG F. Ngoh Ngoh also refusing to cede 2532 hectares of land to SG SOC.
In Nguti town, I met Edward Enongene Apkenjo 77, the blind, regent Chief of Nguti. He told me they had no land for SG SOC in their village but could cede some land to the American company in another area.
“We no get bush for give SG SOC”…If we want to give out land, our elites would indicate the site, we wanted to give land on the road to Mbow, after the river”.
But, SG SOC it seems has not been following the right procedure to acquire the land.
Apkenjo says in December 2012, a Herakles official was sent to Nguti, to make a carry out a census of the houses and people in Nguti. As part of that census, SG SOC gave the people some food for Christmas.
On another occasion, SG SOC offered the villagers a cow and plantains. He said they later learnt SG SOC wanted land in part of their land for their oil plantation project.
Chief Apkenjo was categorical that when Herakles asked for land and they refused, the company used the census list as evidence that we agreed to give them land.
“This is not true, it is a big lie”, Chief Akpenjo emphasized.
He said the Divisional Chief of Lands Julius Nkeze, and six other people tried to arm twist them into offering their land to the American company but they rejected all the attempts
This is what led the people to write a protest letter to the Secretary General at the presidency Ferdinand Ngoh Ngoh
The villagers are convinced since its arrival, Herakles farms has used intimidation, bribery and divide and rule tactics to cause disharmony in the villages and they do not want the American company and its mega dollars.
Following the continuing friction between the villagers and SG SOC, Jacqueline Koung a Beseke dispatched a special mission to the project site.
She instructed the Divisional Officer for Nguti Sub-division to call a meeting between April 9-2 2013, to resolve the land disputes ensuring maximum participation of the villagers.
Despite the obvious objections from the people, some officials including the SDO for Nguti Henry Pasang have been trying to convince them about the necessity to support the project on grounds that it will benefit the region.
Some villagers want and support Herakles and are as vocal as its detractors. Divine Eben, Youth President for Ebanga village argues that there are no companies in Nguti and the establishment of the oil palm project could ease the suffering of the people.
“SG SOC sustains people, look around, life here is very difficult, and those who gave land did so on an agreement, and know what they benefit though I may not know”.
Eben thinks the villagers need to respect any contracts they have signed with Herakles Farms
“I cannot tell my elder father not to give land, if our parents say the reason is because they want development, I cannot drag them back”.
Daniel Agoons from SG SOC said the company wanted 40,000 hectares of land but this had been reduced to just 12.348 hectares because some land owners and villagers were against the acquisition.
SG SOC signed a convention with government to use 73,000 hectares of land for 99 years.
The land consultative board recommended that the villagers initially cede 18.000 hectares of land to Herakles Farms.
Two villages, Sikam (3110 hectares) and Nguti (2532 hecatares) are objecting to cede their land as recommended
Only the president can authorize the leasing of any land above 50 hectares so the final decision on the number of hectares Herakles farms eventually uses will be down to the presidency.