Cables obtained by the non-profit Oakland Institute through a Freedom of Information Act request reveal that US government officials pushed the Central African nation of Cameroon to approve a deeply controversial oil palm development owned by Herakles Farms despite full knowledge of the project’s negative impacts on the environment and local communities.
Sithe Global Sustainable Oils Cameroon (SG-SOC), a subsidiary of US agribusiness firm Herakles Farms, signed a convention with a Cameroonian government minister in 2009 to develop a large-scale palm oil plantation that included a 99-year lease for 73,086 hectares (about 180,600 acres) of land in the Ndian and Kupe-Manenguba Divisions in southwest Cameroon. The development was contentious from the start, as the convention was likely illegal, given that land in excess of 50 hectares can only be granted by presidential decree under Cameroonian law.
Nonetheless, the company began clearing forest and developing nurseries in 2010, converting pristine tropical rainforest into monoculture oil palm plantations despite massive local opposition, according to a report released today by the Oakland Institute. The area where SG-SOC began operating is considered a biodiversity hotspot, and its operations allegedly put the livelihoods of 45,000 people at risk.
Herakles Farms ignored local court orders to cease these operations, “one of which specifically ordered the company to cease work until a proper environmental impact assessment was conducted, compensation was made to those directly affected by the project, and a Memorandum of Understanding was negotiated with local indigenous peoples,” the report states.
Then, four years later, SG-SOC got the decree it needed. President Paul Biya signed three decrees in November 2013 green-lighting the project, though it had been scaled back significantly, from a 99-year lease to a three-year probationary lease for just 19,843 hectares.
“It was shocking that President Biya signed the decrees despite the mountain of evidence exposing the vast social, economic, and environmental consequences of the project,” Frederic Mousseau, Policy Director at the Oakland Institute, said in a statement. “We now know that behind the scenes, US government officials were applying serious pressure to the Cameroonian government to grant Herakles Farms the land.”
In at least three meetings in May 2013, for instance, Cynthia Akuetteh, then-Deputy Assistant Secretary for African Affairs at the US State Department, pressed President Biya, Prime Minister Philémon Yang, and other Cameroonian officials to end the “investment dispute” with Herakles.
This is from a cable authored by the US Embassy in Cameroon and dated May 31, 2013:
Akuetteh urged the Prime Minister to make a decision and take action to resolve the dispute. She told Yang that the United States does not want to tell Cameroon what decision to make, but Cameroon should act quickly and avoid arbitration or protracted legal proceedings. She warned that a failure to act could cause uncertainty in the local business climate and have a chilling effect on future foreign investment…
And this is from a cable authored by the US Embassy in Cameroon and dated May 24, 2013:
Akuetteh said that we hoped that the Government could resolve its dispute with palm-oil producer Herakles Farms. Biya responded that nongovernmental organizations are adamantly opposed to this project…
Just six months later, President Biya signed the decrees granting Herakles the three-year probationary lease. Requests for comment by the US State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs were not returned by press time.
The cables also appear to show that the US government was aware of the flaws in the SG-SOC project, but pushed for its acceptance anyway, according to the Oakland Institute. Internal correspondence from February 25, 2013 includes a detailed briefing with the title “Herakles Farms: The Environment vs Palm Oil in Cameroon with a Dose of Unethical Behavior Mixed In.” The memo notes the existence of major local opposition to the project, the flawed environmental impact assessment prepared by the company, the ongoing illegal tree felling, the negative socio-economic and environmental impacts, and the fact that the Cameroonian government had rejected an earlier proposal over concerns about the size and location of the plantation, among several other issues.
The memo even details an incident that occurred in 2012 in which company representatives are alleged to have physically assaulted and attempted to abduct a local activist, Nasako Besingi, who serves as director of Struggle to Economize Future Environment (SEFE), a local NGO that has organized against Herakles Farms for years. A cable dated February 25, 2013, states: “In August 2012, SG-SOC representatives physically assaulted Besingi, who was riding his motorbike along a road in or near the SG-SOC project site.”
As the Oakland Institute points out in its report, US officials were lobbying for SG-SOC and Herakles Farms in “blatant contradiction” of official US policy and goals around climate change and conservation — policy backed up by numerous projects financed by the US in the region.
In a cable dated May 17, 2013, embassy staff wrote that “Efforts to combat deforestation of the Congo Basin, which constitutes the world’s second largest rain forest and extends into southeast Cameroon, are critical to protecting a vital carbon sink and offsetting global warming. Our efforts in this area, coordinated through USAID’s Central African Regional Program on the Environment (CARPE), have multiple side benefits, including improving the economic prospects of populations, combating poaching, protecting endangered species and biodiversity, reducing the spread of contagious diseases, and developing the capacity of law enforcement and border protection authorities.”
Herakles Farms’ three-year probationary lease must be renewed by November of this year. Greenpeace Africa reported earlier this year that although Herakles Farms appeared to be pulling out of the project as recently as the summer of 2015, it was merely restructuring and selling SG-SOC to new investors.
“While all materialization of the Herakles Farms name has disappeared in Cameroon, the new owners are making up for lost time by rapidly clearing forest, planting new palms and orchestrating a public relations campaign to get the SGSOC plantation land lease extended later this year,” Greenpeace Africa said in a post on its website. “But our research reveals that they have failed to engage in any meaningful way with the local communities that oppose the project or implement environmental safeguards.”
The Oakland Institute’s Frederic Mousseau said that he’s hoping the revelations made by publicizing the cables will help give Cameroonian officials the cover they need to kill the project once and for all.
“This November, the government of Cameroon will decide whether to extend Herakles Farms’ lease or end the project for good,” Mousseau said. “By exposing the dubious tactics of the US government, we hope that Cameroonian officials will side with the people and bring an end to this project that remains unfavorable to the people and the economy of Cameroon.”