Secrecy, illegality and deforestation in a billionaire’s pet palm oil project in 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. This extract details a company in Cameroon which at the end of 2017 was clearing forest faster than any other in the region.

In 2011, a company called SGSOC began clearing dense forest for a giant new oil palm plantation in Cameroon, right on the edge of a protected area home to rare wildlife. The company began its operations illegally, without required permits.[1] Local communities and conservationists, supported by international groups, fought long and hard to halt the plantation. They succeeded in forcing the government to cancel two-thirds of the license and brought the development to a halt by persuading financial backers to pull out.[2] But now history appears to be repeating itself, in a different part of Cameroon.

In late 2017, our analysis shows that some of the most rapid deforestation anywhere in the region is being carried out by Greenfil SA, a company owned by one of Cameroon’s richest men, billionaire Nana Bouba.[3] The development is intended to provide raw materials for Bouba’s existing soap manufacturing firm, called Azur, whose products are used across Africa. Around six football pitches-worth of dense forest are currently being bulldozed by Greenfil each day.[4] At present, the project is by far the biggest source of oil-palm driven deforestation anywhere in the region. This project, like SGSOC and so many others in the region, is also shrouded in both secrecy and scandal.

There are no publicly available maps of the planned plantation. Some reports say it could cover as much as 123,000 hectares[5], though other sources suggest a more modest 30,000 hectares.[6] The clearing is taking place close to the border of the Ebo Wildlife Reserve, home to an array of precious wildlife including an estimated 700 chimpanzees.[7] One academic study found evidence that the company had started its operations illegally, before it had received the required permits. An Azur executive and local officials told researchers in 2016 that the Ministry of Agriculture had given ‘informal’ permission for the company to begin clearing forest, though consultations, surveying activities and negotiations with the government remained underway, and the required Presidential Decree had yet to be signed.[8][9]

Local conservationists allege that the minimal buffers the company is proposing to retain along the Reserve’s borders breach the terms of its plantation agreement. They also claim that the Environmental Impact Assessment was conducted by a company closely connected to Azur, and cannot be trusted to be impartial.[10] Earthsight’s analysis of the latest satellite images shows that the clearing has already reached to within five kilometres of the Reserve. Though local opposition to the project is building, it is hampered by a lack of transparency. None of the contracts, maps or plans relating to the development are publicly available, making it impossible for third parties to monitor whether it is abiding by legal requirements.

[1] Lawson, 2014, op cit

[2] The project still exists and remains a threat, however. The previous owners, US firm Herakles Farms, abandoned all operations in 2015, before selling their stake. Satellite images show very little activity since then. SGSOC’s license expired in November 2016, but the company claims it received a ‘provisional extension’ in March 2017. It claims to currently be operating on 2500ha in Nguti sub-division (SGSOC website, http://mybrandworkz.co.uk/, accessed 18th Jan 2018)

[3] Business in Cameroon, ‘Cameroon: with the expertise of Malaysian Felda Ipco, billionaire Nana Bouba sets out to conquer the palm oil market’, 15th Jan 2017, http://www.businessincameroon.com/agribusiness/1501-6814-cameroon-with-the-expertise-of-malaysian-felda-ipco-billionaire-nana-bouba-sets-out-to-conquer-the-palm-oil-market

[4] Calculated by Earthsight based on analysis of 2017 satellite images

[5] Mongabay, ‘This is not empty forest’: Africa’s palm oil surge builds in Cameroon, 30th March 2016, https://news.mongabay.com/2016/03/this-is-not-empty-forest-africas-palm-oil-surge-builds-in-cameroon/

[6] Business in Cameroon, 2017, op cit

[7] Mongabay, Ebo forest great apes threatened by stalled Cameroon national park, 3rd April 2017, https://news.mongabay.com/2017/04/ebo-forest-great-apes-threatened-by-stalled-cameroon-national-park/

[8] Harmann, S. Sustainability and Governance of Palm Oil Development in Sub-Saharan Africa: Evidence from Cameroon, May 2017, https://atrium.lib.uoguelph.ca/xmlui/bitstream/handle/10214/10437/Hamann_Steffi_201705_PhD.pdf?sequence=3&isAllowed=y

[9] Pers comm., Stephanie Harmann, University of Guelph, Canada, Jan 2018

[10] Mongabay, Ebo forest great apes threatened by stalled Cameroon national park, 3rd April 2017, https://news.mongabay.com/2017/04/ebo-forest-great-apes-threatened-by-stalled-cameroon-national-park/