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Growing Pressure for Land Reform in Cameroon

  • Ntaryike Divine Jr.

In southwest Cameroon, forests are razed for a palm oil plantation. (Courtesy Center for Environment and Development Cameroon)

In southwest Cameroon, forests are razed for a palm oil plantation. (Courtesy Center for Environment and Development Cameroon)

The village of Adjap is on the fringes of the tropical rainforests of Cameroon’s South Region. It is home to some 2,000 inhabitants who say they are living life on the edge.

Over the years, the government has constantly annexed their land, only to sell it to foreign agribusinesses and logging companies. Marcelling Biang, the local tribal chief, says their ancestors settled here in 1903, and they always considered the forest land theirs until the government began carving out large portions as private state property, arresting anyone cutting trees for firewood or for use in building houses

Alongside thousands of neighbors in 17 abutting villages, the Adjap natives have eventually been squeezed into a 14,000-hectare strip of land. That’s one-third of the close to 50,000-hectares they thought belonged to them under pre-colonial customary law.

They’re now encircled by foreign-owned oil palm plantations and timber companies and complain the steady erosion of rights to forested land is having a disastrous impact on their livelihoods.

Luther Abessolo, the traditional ruler of Akom I, a neighboring village, says he and his subjects now live in uncertainty because the government can decide to seize their land at short-notice anytime. As a result, he adds, the people lack the motivation to cultivate the land.

Among the worst-affected here are aboriginal pygmies. They’ve been dislodged from their homes in the bush and made to live in villages.

Martin Mbah, the head of a community of 32 Bagyieli pygmies, says they used to make a living hunting and gathering medicinal plants in the forests. But now, he says, their very existence is in danger.

Despite their despair, these people may be luckier than many others in similar situations.

Initially, the government appropriated all of their land so they could be used by foreign investors. But three years of advocacy resulted in the government giving back a portion of the land, along with limited rights.

Away in Cameroon’s southwest however, it’s a different tale. The livelihoods of some 14,000 villagers and numerous endangered plant and animal species are in jeopardy.

US-owned agribusiness Herakles Farms has ignored the objections of scientists and activists to go ahead with a 600 million USD oil palm plantation. The venture calls for the razing of 73,000 hectares of dense natural forests.

Protesting locals have frequently ended up behind bars as company officials repeat their view: the land has been leased for 99 years from the government, and will bring jobs and infrastructure development.

But the global environment watchdog, Greenpeace, has reported on several aspects of the deal that are bringing renewed public attention. They include Herakle’s less than 50-cents-per acre annual tax to the Cameroon government, the absence of a presidential decree authenticating the concession, pending lawsuits, and flawed environmental impact assessments.

The Herakles land acquisition controversy is not Cameroon’s first. Across the country, hostilities frequently erupt between nationals and Chinese agribusinesses growing rice, maize and cassava exclusively for their home markets.

Research findings published in March by Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI) indicate Cameroon has committed over 10 million hectares of forest land to various concessions. It says investors are expected to spend up to $ US 18 billion in the agribusiness, forestry, mining and infrastructure sectors in the country.

Since 2009, RRI has been leading a campaign for the government to enact land reforms recognizing and restoring local communities’ ownership rights over their forest habitat. Four years ago, it convened government representatives, civil society and related institutions to begin lobbying for such reforms to be legislated by 2015.

Reports presented at a follow-up regional dialogue in Yaoundé in early March indicate that only half of the 26 West and Central African governments have revisited their tenure systems. Even so, it adds, they only granted indigenous people weak secondary rights including limited access and usage privileges.

RRI Coordinator Andy White says there's been some progress.

"Some governments in the region have initiated new land reforms," he says. " But the laws and policies they’re proposing are really inadequate. The crisis has become much greater over the last four years than we expected and there’s been far too little action.. . crisis in terms of loss of live, crisis in terms of the systematic destruction of the culture of the forest peoples like here in Cameroon. It’s just alarming."

New recommendations from the Yaoundé conclave prescribe fast-tracking prior government promises to grant local communities stronger rights, and to reinforce the lobbying power of NGO’s and civil society organizations.

HM Bruno Mvondo, a bureau member of the Cameroon Council of Traditional Rulers, says "We want to build a network of traditional rulers to constitute a lobby to defend our rights. For us traditional rulers, the land belongs to the community. But in front of modern law, our customs don’t have any strength."

While debates regarding who owns Africa's lands gather momentum; fresh findings suggest wealthy nationals and elites are also increasingly joining the rush to purchase community lands.