- Title: CAMEROON: Palm oil farming boom threatens rainforest
- Date: 18th July 2012
- Summary: LITTLE GIRL STANDING OUTSIDE MUD HOUSE, GRAFFITI ON DOOR READING: ''THE STRUGGLE OF A MAN BEGINS AT BIRTH''
- Embargoed: 2nd August 2012 13:00
- Location: Cameroon
- Country: Cameroon
- Topics: Business,Industry
- Reuters ID: LVACKL3Q4TC4E8LWGS1GMBK9BAXB
- Story Text: The village of Fabe is home to a new type of African oil boom. Here in southwestern Cameroon, one company's push to meet the increasing global demand for palm oil is causing controversy.
Herakles Farms, owned by New York venture-finance firm Herakles Capital, wants to build a palm farm that would cut through Fabe's rainforest home. Although Wangoe Philip Ekole, the village chief, has given his blessing to the project, not everybody wants Herakles to plant its seed in their village.
Some residents were so angered by the chief's decision to support Herakles that they placed a curse on a local oil palm nursery, prompting petrified workers to lay down their tools and flee. Many of his 200 or so subjects accused him of seeking to enrich himself through the project. Some even disowned him as their leader.
But the chief hasn't backed down. He says the plantation will bring wealth and jobs to the 200 people living in his village.
''Is it the right of a chief to refuse light and to accept darkness?" Ekole asked a group of visiting local managers from Herakles Farms.
The dispute is a glimpse into Cameroon's role in the worldwide struggle to increase food production. With land in Asia becoming scarcer, Cameroon's soil is viewed as prime real estate for new oil palm plants.
Global demand for the low-cost grease has doubled in the past 12 years. It's the world's most important vegetable oil, and the product can be found in everything from margarine to soap to bio fuel.
Herakles supporters in Cameroon say increased production could mean jobs and investment for some of the country's 20 million citizens, who live on an average of $3 a day.
"We can create a lot of jobs and added value. We can get more foreign currencies and also save on currencies if we no longer import crude palm oil. So it's a highly strategic product for the Cameroonian economy," said Caroline Mebande, a technical adviser in the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development.
Critics argue that expanding palm oil plantations will threaten the Central African country's ancient forests.
If the Herakles project goes ahead, it would encompass at least 30 villages inside of a land concession that would span over 70,000 hectares.
Companies and farmers are attracted to the oil palm plant for its efficiency. On average, one hectare of a palm plantation generates up to four tons of oil per year - that's 10 times more oil than soybeans. Combine that benefit with a global price that has tripled since 2000, and it's easy to see why companies are eager to lay down roots in Cameroon.
Despite the lure of more jobs and infrastructure, some locals say they are better off if the land stays the way it is - mostly small-scale farming.
The country's farms currently produce up to 230,000 tons of palm oil each year. That makes Cameroon the world's 13th largest producer.
That rank is high enough for one politician from Mundemba village, who says the last thing local families need is more oil palms.
''Giving out land for a palm plantation means removing all the forest land and the beds where we started, you see? Even we the human beings, it will not only affect the biodiversity, to habitants, human beings, this is our problem," said Peter Okpo Wa Namolongo, Deputy Mayor of Mundemba, which is near the proposed plantation.
Mundemba village is nestled next to Korup National Park - a pristine forest. The park is part of a network of protected lands that were set aside as conservation areas in the 1980s. It is home to a number of endangered species, and some estimate it contains more biodiversity than any other spot in Africa.
But it's also off limits for farming, and residents of Ikenge, a village inside the park, must use nearby land to grow food for their families. Much of that land is now claimed by Herakles.
''We don't have much that really we can give for SG SOC for 38,000 hectares because if we give, the area will be completely finished and we don't think our children's children coming will have something to live with,'' said the chief of Ikenge, Joseph Mbongue.
At their Cameroonian office, Herakles works to convince residents that the new plantation will benefit them. The company says it has conducted public consultations to explain the plan and win local support.
But whilst they point to local deals they have struck to alter boundaries and make way for hunting areas and shrines, Herakles knows more needs to be done.
"So there are a number of ways and a number of levels at which we can and we'd like to increase transparency, one is on the ground and for me that is the most important one, so that everyone on the ground in terms of the communities sees exactly what we're doing," said Herakles Cameroon project manager, Hamilton James.
Activists argue that the country is selling the land at too low of a price, after unconfirmed reports surfaced that Herakles is paying just $.50 per undeveloped hectare.
Others add the company has yet to commit on how much they will pay local employees.
And conservationists are adding to the fray. Some are worried about the project's environmental impact and are urging Cameroon to suspend the plantation.
''It is the heart of a biodiversity hotspot, globally known as a biodiversity hotspot, with amazing biodiversity, so if there is going to be a project in that location it's going to have to really go under the microscope and every single step of the way has to be done extremely carefully given the ecological sensitivities in the area," said Conservation Director for the World Wildlife Fund, Cameroon David Hoyle.
But supporters for the plantation say the benefit to the people of Cameroon will largely outweigh future harm to the wildlife.
"In Cameroon, we cannot put animals first, above people's hunger. That's the consideration we need to apply. Should our people remain impoverished because the gorillas will fret and grow thin? So what?" asked Caroline Mebande, a technical advisor in Cameroon's Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development.
The fate of the Herakles plantation could have an impact felt throughout Cameroon. Foreign investors have already filed requests to access another 1.2 million hectares in the country. That's 20 times more land than the proposed Herakles plot.
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