Mystery shrouds firm set to clear 60,000 hectares of Cameroon forest for palm oil

Friday, December 20th, 2019

Camvert Sarl named as company behind a planned palm oil development that locals and activists fear will put communities and native forests at risk in Southern Cameroon.

Agribusiness developments have long been contested in the West African country. Credit: Shutterstock.

Where does a firm with only 5 million CFA (£6,470) in capital find 150 billion CFA (£19m) to invest in a palm oil development and do so when it has never before overseen an agri-commodity project?

This is one of the many questions facing Camvert Sarl. The company is under mounting pressure from activists in Cameroon to explain its dealings and ownership structure after it was named as the proposed developer to clear 60,000 hectares of primary forest for a major palm oil site.

Alarm bells were first raised in May when a public notice signed by Cameroon’s Forest Ministry detailed plans to change the heavily forested area for “agricultural production” and named Camvert as the proposed developer.

An additional government document signed by prime minister Joseph Dion Ngute in November and seen by Earthsight reveals that the 60,000ha of classified forest had been declassified under decree 2019/4562 to approve the planned oil palm development.

Located in the Ocean Department of Southern Cameroon, the declassified area is composed of one northern bloc of 40,000ha and a southern bloc of 20,000ha, according to the document.

If the full area is converted for oil palm production it would potentially become the second largest agri-commodity site in the country after SOSUCAM’s 61,000ha sugar plantation and it would become the largest palm oil plantation, according to the Cameroon Forest Atlas.

Little is known about the proposed developers. During a meeting with civil society and local journalists in September a representative of Camvert, Abdou Fata, said the company was owned by a 42-year-old Cameroon national but refused to give further details about the firm or its funders.

According to local media reports, Fata said that 5,000ha of the proposed area would be reserved for smallholder farms and he believed the development would benefit local communities.

However, the Nyete community, who could lose up to 3,000ha of their land if the entire area is developed, are not convinced. The Nyete chief Ebande Charles said that past agribusiness developments had not aided his community.

“Everybody likes development, but the development that Hevecam (a rubber plantation) and Socapalm promised the people is not being felt in our villages,” he told local media. “What the people feel is instead misery.”

Green Development Advocates (GDA), one of many civil society groups concerned about the proposal, said that in approving the development the government is ignoring community rights and conservation laws.

“GDA thinks that the decommissioning of 60,000 hectares around Campo National Park is a bad signal that Cameroon is launching the site for the national and international communities,” GDA’s Aristide Chacgom told Earthsight.

“It contradicts the commitments that the country has set itself in terms of respect and protection of the environment and biodiversity, protection of the rights of rural communities and in particular of the Indigenous Peoples whose way of life depends closely on the forest to fight against climate change. It’s really a shame.”

Another concerned group is the Environmental Governance Institute. EGI was one of 40 NGOs to sign a letter to the government challenging the project and told local news outlet The Post that the proposed area is “in a really ecologically sensitive zone with the Campo Ma’an National Park which is a protected area under the Cameroon law.”

“There is also a gorilla habitation programme which is right close to the park and the proposed protected area,” the organisation’s executive director John Tarkang said.

Camvert did conduct an Environmental and Social Impact Assessment prior to the declassification but despite the local concerns about the threats to biodiversity of the development, 50km of which border the Campo Ma’an National Park, the development is proceeding.

Meanwhile, a public consultation was announced by the government and Camvert in August but no further details of the process have seemingly emerged nor any dates on the planned consultation period.

The fears of locals and activists are well placed in a country where allegations of human rights and environmental abuses by corporate land developers are alarmingly common.

A November release by Greenpeace Africa laid bare fresh details of abuses by rubber giant Sudcam. The report said that Sudcam’s promises of development had proved hollow and that they instead had overseen “forced displacements and the destruction of dwellings, sacred areas and graveyards.”

SOCFIN, a natural rubber, palm oil and seed producer, has faced numerous cases of abuses including at its Cameroon palm oil subsidiary Socapalm where allegations of human rights abuses and poor working conditions have persisted for several years.