Asian governments backing deforestation in Gabon and Cameroon

Thursday, March 22nd, 2018

In March 2018 Earthsight, the investigative non-profit behind Illegal Deforestation Monitor, released The Coming Storm, a report exposing the secrecy and collusion in industrial agriculture which are threatening the Congo Basin’s forests. In an extract from the report, this post exposes the connections between the Singaporean and Chinese governments and two of the projects which have cleared the most forest to-date.

The most rapid industrial plantation development in the Congo Basin in the last five years has been in Gabon, where Singaporean agro-commodity giant Olam is developing a giant series of palm oil and rubber plantations. Satellite images reveal that some 35,000 hectares of dense forest has been cleared by the company across four different sites during the last six years. In February 2017, after a high-profile exposé of its continued destruction of Gabonese forests[1], Olam agreed to suspend further clearing for a year. The commitment has since been extended to January 2019.[2]

Olam’s oil palm plantation at Ngounie in Gabon ©Jonas Gratzer

Olam is majority-owned by the Singaporean government, through its sovereign wealth fund. The second largest destroyer of Congo Basin forests is also government-backed. Sudcam, a subsidiary[3] of the giant Chinese state-owned oil and chemical conglomerate Sinochem, has cleared almost 10,000 hectares of dense tropical forest in Cameroon[4], in a project which Greenpeace has labelled “by far the most devastating new clearing for industrial agriculture in the Congo Basin”.[5] The project is directly adjacent to the Dja Faunal Reserve, a World Heritage Site home to large numbers of endangered gorillas and chimpanzees whose status UNESCO classifies as ‘critical’. A 2012 UNESCO report specifically cited the threat to the reserve posed by the rubber project.[6]

The plantation is mired in scandal. Researchers have alleged that the award of the concession to Sudcam violated local regulations, because much of the land was already awarded to logging firms.[7] Some recent reports suggest that the company has been forced to hand back some of the land for this reason.[8] Local inhabitants allege that the plantation has dispossessed them of their community lands, and that local government authorities have reacted to their protests with threats and intimidation.[9] 

Our analysis of the latest satellite images shows that the rate of clearing accelerated during 2017. Twelve football pitches’ worth of forest are being bulldozed every day, or roughly one every hour.[10] Our analysis also indicates that around 330ha has been cleared outside the concession boundaries to-date, including as much as 1.5km from the boundary.

While Sinochem controls 80 percent of the project, the owner of the remaining 20 percent remains secret. Credible sources have alleged that these shares are owned by very senior government officials, perhaps even the family of President Biya himself.[11] In June 2017, inhabitants of several affected villages told Greenpeace that the project has been presented to them by company representatives as the president’s plantation and Sudcam as the president’s company.[12]

Presented by Earthsight with the evidence above in advance of publication, Sudcam’s parent company Halcyon Agri told us that the company is “committed to continuous improvement in the way we operate our assets globally. We view the environment and the communities within which we operate as key stakeholders, and we have implemented solid documentation and progress measurement tools on the ground”. It did not include any response to our individual findings.

Bulldozed forest within the Sudhevea rubber plantation in Cameroon, January 2016, with close-up (inset) (WV2 image from Google Earth). The river forms the boundary of the Dja Faunal Reserve.

[1] http://www.mightyearth.org/blackbox/, December 2016

[2] Mighty Earth, ‘Mighty Earth and Olam Renew Agreement’, 25th Jan 2018, http://www.mightyearth.org/mighty-earth-olam-renew-agreement/

[3] The rubber holdings are split between two Cameroonian firms. Hevecam SA is ultimately 90% owned and Sud Cameroun Hevea SA 80% owned by Halcyon Agri Corporation Ltd, which is in turn 55% owned by Sinochem (Halcyon Agri Annual Report 2016)

[4] Earthsight’s own analysis of satellite imagery on GFW; only includes Sudcam plantation in Meyomessala and not Heveacam plantations at Kribi/Niete where activities are claimed to be replanting of old existing rubber plantations

[5] Greenpeace, 2018, Justice for People and Planet, Ending the age of corporate capture, collusion and impunity, pp90-93, http://www.greenpeace.org/international/Global/international/publications/other/2018/Justice-for-people-and-planet.pdf

[6] Leila Maziz, , Yousseph Diedhiou and Hervé Lethier “Rapport de mission de suivi réactif de la Réserve de Faune du Dja. République du Cameroun. 27 Février – 5 Mars 2012,” World Heritage Committee (UNESCO),11 June 2012, p. 19 at http:// whc.unesco.org/document/117236

[7] Samuel Assembe-Mvondo, Louis Putzel and Richard Eba’a Atyi, “Socioecological responsibility and Chinese overseas investments: the case of rubber plantation expansion in Cameroon,” CIFOR, 2015, p. 10 at http://www.cifor.org/publications/pdf_files/WPapers/WP176CIFOR.pdf

[8] Blog by Mireille Tchiako, ‘Hévéaculture : SUDCAM perd 13 000 ha de sa concession’, 12th April 2017, https://mireilletchiako.wordpress.com/2017/04/12/heveaculture-sudcam-perd-13-000-ha-de-sa-concession/#more-669

[9] Rachel Agnew, “The impacts of agri-business in Cameroon laid bare,” Mapping for Rights, 22 July 2016 at http://blog.mappingforrights.org/?p=1359

[10] Satellite images reveal an average of 200ha being cleared each month, which works out at 9ha per working day; there are 0.72ha in an average-sized international-standard soccer pitch.

[11] CIFOR researchers were told by a local representative of the Ministry of Environment that the President’s family has a stake in the company, but other sources would say only that it was an influential member of the Cameroonian elite (Samuel Assembe-Mvondo, Louis Putzel and Richard Eba’a Atyi, “Socioecological responsibility and Chinese overseas investments: the case of rubber plantation expansion in Cameroon,” CIFOR, 2015, p. 10 at http://www.cifor.org/publications/pdf_files/WPapers/WP176CIFOR.pdf); official corporate reports have in the past given one Sudcam Director as Michele Boucher, who is reportedly been the sister-in-law of Bonaventure Mvondo Assam, a nephew of President Paul Biya (Greenpeace, Justice for People and Planet, 2018); Greenpeace researchers in Jun 2018 were told by local people that the brother of Viriginie Baroux, the French wife of the president’s son Franck Biya, is a Sudcam shareholder (ibid).

[12] Greenpeace, 2018, op cit