Village women take on palm oil firm in Cameroon

Tuesday, September 25th, 2018

A recent report by Fern, a European conservation NGO, has revealed damning testimony by local residents of the impacts of an oil palm firm previously subject to allegations of illegal deforestation.

In 2000, the Cameroonian government privatised Socapalm, which produces nearly 70 percent of the country’s palm oil. Société Financière des Caoutchouc (Socfin), a Swiss group and the largest oil palm planter in Africa, acquired the company and started managing the plantations in Dizangue.

As previously reported by IDM, a 2016 Greenpeace report alleged that a Socfin subsidiary illegally cleared forest on São Tomé island, after satellite and field analysis showed the firm had felled 470 hectares outside its agreed concession. The report also alleged that the subsidiary had not conducted a satisfactory environmental and social impact study despite the presence of endangered species, and had failed to establish sufficient buffer zones around water courses within their concession.

In interviews with local residents in Dizangue, Fern has found that Socapalm, Socfin’s subsidiary, has made use of the police, military and its own security agents to intimidate and harass people and prevent them from accessing their lands or extracting oil from their own palm nuts.

Carine, a young woman from the village of Mbongo, told Fern that her father was forced to sign a document “which obliges my dad to no longer consume the nuts from his palm grove” under threat of losing his job at Socapalm. According to Carine, for the past two years the family has been forced to sell all their nuts to Socapalm.

In Mbonjo, a neighbouring village, Louise Nkakè and her husband Sieur Ebongue say they’ve faced threats and violence from the military to stop them from using oil palm nuts grown in their own plantation. Nkakè alleges having been attacked by soldiers. “They said that the nuts that I was roasting did not come from my palm grove, They confiscated everything – more than three tonnes of palm nuts,” Nkakè explained to Fern.

According to Fern, the story of “Socapalm or their agents preventing people from using their own vital natural resource” was “widely repeated”. Other testimonies related how Socapalm’s employees and security agents have dug trenches to prevent villagers from accessing their plantations and roam villages on motorbikes to monitor people’s activities.

In addition to the land and resources issue, local residents have complained of water contamination originating from Socapalm’s plant, which has caused soil erosion and bad odours at the villages.

Despite threats and intimidation by the police, military and Socapalm agents, a group of women led by Marie-Noelle Etondè, the president of the National Association of Peasant and River Populations of Cameroon, or Synaparcam, is demanding access to their lands and the right to make use of their own resources unimpeded.

The women have complained of lack of consultation, transparency and information, citing meetings between Socapalm, traditional leaders and the authorities that exclude them and other stakeholders. They are planning to set up cooperatives to develop agriculture and livestock once they get their land back, which has been the focus of their complaints.

According to Fern, Socapalm “must respect the rights of […] the people affected by its palm oil operations, and open a genuine and transparent dialogue with them to address […] the essential issues including land and water pollution”.

In a response to Fern’s findings included in the report, Socapalm denied that it had stopped villagers pressing their own palm nuts and that it had polluted rivers. It said the military were called in only after gendarmes “had felt overwhelmed” by the situation around the plantation. It rejected claims that it had taken community land, on the grounds that the land belongs to the state.