Tucked amongst the hilltops of Yaoundé are the signs of a country and an economy on the move. Cameroonians fill high-end grocery stores, bars and restaurants, often spilling out onto the street in the capital city streets to watch the traffic and people pass, by while enjoying the tropical capital’s surprisingly temperate weather with a glass of beer and a grilled fish.

But it’s not all rosy economically for Cameroon, with growing pains evident in cities throughout the country: Poverty still abounds as the seams of cities like Yaoundé and Douala stretch beyond their infrastructures’ capacities. Cameroonians living abroad sent more than $150 million in remittances back to their country in 2013, about 0.5 percent of GDP, an indication that many of the country’s highest earners reside outside the country.

A mature oil palm plantation outside Limbe. Photo by John C. Cannon.

A mature oil palm plantation outside Limbe. Photo by John C. Cannon.

And while the unemployment level sits at around 4 percent, it’s almost double that for young people under 25 years of age. In Yaoundé and beyond, the government is resettling residents along roadways, razing their homes and shops to make way for presumably sturdier and more attractive dwellings.

To accelerate their nation’s rise, leaders have set their sights on income sources that they hope will buoy the economy – or at least bring more money in – and one of the founts they hope will pay off is oil palm.

Cameroon in many ways is a microcosm of the surge in oil palm investment set to take much of tropical Africa by storm. The country has a history with the crop dating back more than six decades to colonialism under the French. Many Cameroonians today produce palm oil for themselves and for sale on the local market, and a few international companies have begun to test the waters, developing large-scale industrial plantations, often with the blessing of key government officials who see the crop as a critical rung on the ladder toward Cameroon becoming an emerging nation.

But along with that development has come signs of the issues that have arisen with oil palm’s industrial application elsewhere in the world, notably in Southeast Asia. Poor coordination and opaque land laws have led to disenfranchised local populations, who have seen their forests appropriated by big companies and promises from those corporations often going unfulfilled.

One of the big questions that arises with any sort of agricultural development is where to put plantations that can be tens of thousands of hectares in size. The most sustainable option, and the one espoused by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) – thus far the only international sustainability certification system – is to select degraded land for development, rather than tapping into forested areas.

But protecting these forests – and the biodiversity, carbon stores and resources for local communities that they support – isn’t quite so easy. A lot of degraded land isn’t in the huge tracts that industrial-scale oil palm agriculture demands. It’s more often held by individual farmers in small plots. And in some areas, the degraded land that’s available to developers isn’t suitable for growing oil palm. As a result of these and other factors, monitoring reports indicate forests are still being targeted for palm oil plantations — even in places and by companies that have made zero-deforestation commitments.

Herakles moves in, stirs contention

Cameroon’s people haven’t been spared from the conflict that so often accompanies huge land developments for agriculture. In 2009, a minister in Yaoundé quietly awarded a 99-year lease of more than 73,000 hectares of land – an area larger than Singapore – in the country’s southwest to Sithe Global Sustainable Oils Cameroon, a subsidiary of U.S. agribusiness Herakles Farms. The move touched off a firestorm of controversy in the communities around the proposed plantation.

The concession has been contentious from the start. Legally, a minister should not have signed a contract for that amount of land. According to land tenure laws dating back to 1976, the “Minister in charge of lands” can only temporarily grant areas of land smaller than 50 hectares in size. More than that, and the grant must be done by presidential decree, which did happen in 2013 – four years after Herakles arrived in Cameroon.

Between 2009 and 2013 is when Herakles really became embroiled in controversy. Greenpeace published a report asserting that 89 percent of the land Herakles intended to develop held “dense natural forest.” Subsequent surveys of the land found a plethora of endangered primates and other mammals living in the area – red colobus monkeys, Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzees and forest elephants among them.

And environmental groups cried foul when the Cameroonian government lifted an earlier suspension of Herakles’ activities in mid-2013, before the presidential decree was signed. By that point, it had become clear that the company didn’t plan to meet the requirements of the RSPO – the world’s primary international certification organization.

But from early on, it wasn’t just government leaders in Yaoundé who saw the promise of the type and size of investment that Herakles represented.

“When they started working, we were very happy,” said Chief Philip Wangoe of the village of Fabe, about 13.5 kilometers from Mundemba. He said the workers for the company bought goods and rented living space from people in Fabe. “We loved the company.”

The company’s managers came with promises of cash payments, scholarships and jobs for the locals – some of which have panned out, and some that haven’t, Wangoe said.

Recently, however, amid the company’s financial, legal and public relations problems, it has scaled back work on its plantation near Mundemba, leaving a skeleton staff in place to tend the nursery. But Wangoe said the company’s managers have promised to return, and he looks forward to that day.

Others living in the area have endeavored to stop Herakles’ work completely, with some paying a high price for their dissidence. Nasako Besingi, director of the NGO SEFE, which stands for Struggle to Economize Future Environment, started holding community meetings shortly after he noticed the arrival of the company in the Mundemba area, about 7 years ago.

Besingi said that since then, he has spread the word about the company’s intentions through information-sharing meetings with communities, to which he said representatives were always invited. His efforts have been supported by Cameroonian and international NGOs, including watchdog groups such as Greenpeace and the Oakland Institute.

Besingi’s activism against Herakles has not been regarded lightly. He’s been attacked physically by people he claims worked for the plantation. And the government has levied a series of what he says are “false” legal charges against him because his efforts “incite the population.”

Stemming from a criminal complaint filed by Herakles’ lawyers in 2012 about Besingi’s “campaign to intoxicate the public and to raise ill feelings and resentment against the project initiated by Herakles Farms,” Besingi was convicted on four criminal counts including defamation and spreading false information on the Internet.

Their complaint directly referenced an email that Besingi sent to several Cameroonian and international NGOs that Herakles had organized a physical assault by company employees against him on August 28, 2012. Besingi’s lawyer, Adolf Malle, is in the process of appealing this conviction.

In January 2016, Besingi was convicted of unlawful assembly that same month, requiring him to pay a fine of 25,000 francs CFA ($42) plus about $900 in court costs with a 2-year suspended prison sentence for taking “part in one organization and holding of an undeclared public meeting” in the village of Myangwe in July 2012.

But Besingi maintains that his activism against Herakles’ activities in the Mundemba area is not just about his opinions as an individual. He says he is providing a voice for the environment and local communities.

“We were not speaking for ourselves, but we’re speaking for the community, whose voices cannot be raised beyond the horizons of their villages,” Besingi said in an interview with Mongabay in February 2016

Forest recently burned in preparation for planting in Mundemba, Cameroon. Photo by John C. Cannon.

Forest recently burned in preparation for planting in Mundemba, Cameroon. Photo by John C. Cannon.

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The pro-Herakles camp argues that employment, especially of young people, is direly needed, both to lift off the yoke of poverty and to keep communities intact. (Local leaders often voice concerns that their children, faced with few opportunities, will flee hinterland towns and villages for the promise of bigger cities.)

However, Peter Namolongo, the former deputy mayor of Mundemba, told Mongabay that little information, whether from the company or the government, has been shared with the people actually living on the land.

“Everything is manipulated in Yaoundé,” Namolongo said, with few, if any, attempts to keep local populations apprised of the situation, he added.

Palm oil creeps closer to critical wildlife habitat

In addition to impacting the livelihoods of Cameroonians who depend on the land and the forest for their existence, Besingi has been concerned about the effects that large-scale industrial agriculture will have on the nearby forests, home to

Cameroon’s palm oil plantations all lie along or near its coastal region.

Cameroon’s palm oil plantations all lie along or near its coastal region.

a dizzying array of primates, including the rare Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee, and Korup National Park, also teeming with life.

The original borders of the Herakles plantation would have butted right up against the park’s buffer zones.

Elsewhere in Cameroon, scientists and conservationists are hard at work to safeguard other biodiversity hotspots challenged by nearby oil palm development. The 142,000-hectare Ebo forest sits less than 150 kilometers from Yaoundé and even closer to Douala, both cities with populations approaching 2 million. Like Korup National Park, Ebo is also home to a wide variety of wildlife, including the rare Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee and the drill (Mandrillus leucophaeus), a highly endangered baboon-like monkey that, until the 1980s, scientists had written off as extinct.

As a field biologist, Abwe has worked all over the country. “The Ebo Forest is, I would say, one of the most bio-diverse places I have visited in Cameroon,” he said. He saw a gorilla on the first day of his first visit to the park, and chimpanzees are also a common sight.

Recently, though, a Cameroonian oil palm company called Azur has begun preparations for an oil palm plantation west of the proposed park that at 123,000 hectares would dwarf even Herakles’ original holdings.

Abwe said he’s hopeful that a compromise can be struck, even as he and his colleagues have done all they can to push through full protection of the forest. Based on discussions that he and his colleagues have had with Azur representatives, he said, “They’re not out to destroy the forest.”

Still, the destruction of important habitat is a real threat, Abwe said. And because the Ebo forest is so close to Cameroon’s two biggest cities, he is worried about the likely increase in bush meat hunting, as incoming plantation workers look for ways to boost their meager incomes.

“That is not empty forest,” he said. “This is forest that is actually is a harbor for all of these primates and these other animals, as well as unique plants.”

That’s an important issue with industrial agriculture. Forests, in Africa and elsewhere, support life of all types. And advocates for communities and the environment say it is becoming clearer that for all involved — from the communities that depend on forests to the plants and animals that live in them, to even the businesses themselves — decisions about land use cannot be made solely in offices hundreds of miles away from the territories in question.

“African governments need to find a better way to address this issue,” Besingi said.

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