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How a U.S. Company Is Breaking Laws and Grabbing Land in Africa

Indigenous people in Cameroon claim a company is stealing communal land to build a palm oil plantation -- a dispute that could lead to conflict, hunger and human rights abuses.

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Editor's Note: Azore Opio is a reporter for the Post in Cameroon. After submitting this article for publication, he never received a response from the paper’s editorial board, whether due to intimidation by the government, the company concerned or self-censorship. It is no wonder that Cameroon’s press status is rated as " not free" by Freedom House.

In recent years, large-scale land acquisitions in sub-Saharan Africa have increasingly attracted the attention of the media, environmental scientists and conservationists. But these acquisitions have come with enormous ecological costs that affect local people by cutting off access to the resources they depend on for their livelihoods.

The current dispute raging between the American-owned SG Sustainable Oils Cameroon PLC (SGSOC) and the indigenous people of Toko and Nguti, in the southwest region of Cameroon, is an extraordinary case in point.

In 2009, SGSOC signed a 99-year contract with Cameroon's government for around 70,000 hectares (over 170,000 acres) in the Ndian and Kupe-Muanenguba regions of the country. The company plans to develop a large industrial palm oil plantation and refinery on 60,000 hectares of the concession, and produce palm oil and other products. SGSOC insists that the plan will create 7,500 jobs, as well as generate revenues for Cameroon's government, improve road infrastructure and deliver other social services.

However, local and international NGOs are raising concerns about the impact the project might have on the environment and human rights. The company’s contract gives it the right to arrest and detain people within their concession. It also practically exonerates the company from paying taxes, and states that all contractual terms are valid even if they are in conflict with Cameroonian law.

SGSOC is a subsidiary of American agribusiness corporation Herakles Farms. In turn, Herakles Farms is a subsidiary of Herakles Capital, a New York-based venture finance firm that specializes in investments in developing countries. Herakles Farms, in partnership with its non-profit, All for Africa, is focused on large-scale sustainable agricultural projects in sub-Saharan Africa.

SG Sustainable Oils Cameroon has also been a member of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) since March 2008, whereas Herakles Farms was only approved as a member in 2011. RSPO requires its members to use best-practice social and environmental standards when developing new industrial palm oil plantations.

The company has not lived up to those standards.

SGSOC been accused by the indigenous people of the region, as well as local NGOs and environmental conservationists, of "grabbing" communal land, which could dispossess hundreds, if not thousands, of people from their ancestral land and sources of livelihoods. The continuing dispute could lead to conflict, hunger and human rights abuses.

The government of Cameroon, for its part, doesn’t seem to have helped matters.

According to four wildlife and environmental conservation groups, the government of Cameron approved the company's environmental and social impact assessment (ESIA) in September 2011. But by then, the company had already cleared at least 28 hectares of forest.

This was in blatant violation of Cameroonian laws that lay down what is subjected to an environmental impact assessment.

And last year, the German Federal Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development criticized the lack of transparency SGSOC displayed when interacting with stakeholders during an informal meeting.

Cameroon's government gave no heed to the complaints nor did it react to the German Minister’s criticism. Instead, on August 4, 2011, a senior territorial administrator attempted to force stakeholders present at a separate meeting into accepting the proceedings of the meeting as a green light for SGSOC.

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