Last week, Green Cameroon, an NGO located just down the street from us, put on ‘Green Week,’ a series of environmentally themed lectures, workshops, films, etc. Each day a different topic was addressed: water resources, pollution, agriculture, deforestation.  At the end of the week, participants were invited to join roundtable discussions on each topic with the aim of identifying relevant problems and proposing solutions to be shared with the local council. (We even had a YAN student join the roundtable at our invitation!)  We attended several sessions over the course of the week, and as teachers focused on helping students to advocate for issues in their communities, we were excited to see the advocacy work of another NGO.  One lecture we attended proved especially interesting and thought provoking—I thought it would be worth sharing here.  Disclaimer: this lecture tells one side of the big agriculture story, and so I have also told only one side.  There is an important debate to be had about this issue, so I encourage readers to think critically as they read on.

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 “Herakles Farms”, Nasako Besingi told the small audience attending his Thursday lecture, “has no legal right to the two areas it is planning to develop in the South West province of Cameroon.   However, they have bribed local chiefs, made illegal agreements with the government, and secretly staked out and claimed land during the night.”

Nasako Besingi, South West province native, has been fighting Herakles Farms for 4 years, a project which has brought him to New York, Washington DC, and Paris, among other international cities.   His work has garnered the support of several national organizations, as well as international groups such as Cultural Survival, Green Peace, and Save Wildlife.  Herakles Farms is a rather mysterious foreign company that has connections (conveniently difficult to trace) with several other similarly mysterious local organizations.   They have leased two large tracks of land from the Cameroonian Government (leases that, according to Mr. Besingi, are not valid because of breaches in environmental regulation and social responsibility), with the plan to replace the existing small-scale agriculture/forest complex with palm plantations for oil extraction. (You’ll be surprised how ubiquitous palm oil is if you start looking carefully at the ingredients in shampoo, lotion, many processed foods…) 

The bulk of Mr. Besingi’s talk outlined his opposition to Herakles development:  they have cut old growth forest to create palm nurseries without publishing Environmental and Social Impact Assessments, they are operating without a certificate of environmental conformity issued by the Cameroonian government, they have falsified agreements with the villages they will be displacing and similarly lied to villages about having government permission to do so, and they have paid off the police to oppress local protestors (to illustrate this point further, Mr. Besingi put up a picture and explained: “that’s me being attacked by the Herakles people.  They wanted to drag me into the forest and chop off my head.”)   

Mr. Besingi and his national/international partners have several strategies for halting Herakles development: (1) fostering community awareness and empowering locals to protest non-violently (although some locals are so fed up at this point that they want to use witchcraft against the Herakles leaders); and (2) bringing legal action against Herakles for violating Cameroonian environmental laws and basic human rights (the case is now in the Cameroonian supreme court).

I could go on and on about the details Mr. Besingi shared about the Herakles Case, but there is a broader story to tell here.   Big companies are leasing land abroad (for next to nothing), replacing subsistence farming with large-scale monoculture, and employing a fraction of the people they have displaced. (Herakles predicts 8,000 people will be displaced by their development in the South West province, and has guaranteed employment for 7,000, but local organizations have calculated that Herakles development will realistically affect more like 27,000 people.  As Mr. Besingi put it, “the original maps drawn up to designate Herakles development were created by people like Sarah Palin who think Africa is 1 country and don’t understand there are communities in/around forested areas.”  What a mark American politics has left on the world…).  

Investment in large-scale agricultural projects has seen an incredible boom since the 2008 economic crisis—what’s more predictable than the fact we all need food?

(Check out Indian land leasing in Kenya for a terrifying example of foreign control of farmland.)   In extremely corrupt countries like Cameroon, it is especially easy for foreign companies to buy access to natural resources without having to keep their promises to improve infrastructure (roads, potable water, schools).   The political elite pocket the profit…and rarely check to see if newly installed water taps are actually flowing…


P.S. One of the most interesting aspects of Mr. Besingi’s talk was the response it prompted in audience members.   A man from one of the towns affected by Herakles development stood up at the end, thanked Mr. Besingi, and proceeded to explain that his younger brother was a chief who had been bought out by Herakles.  “I told my brother,” this man explained indignantly, “ ‘if you sell all the land, what will our children have for their patrimony?  Of what will you be chief?’”  He ended by asking Mr. Basingi to come to his village and give a presentation to the people and to his brother.   A lecturer from the University of Buea (UB) also stood up after the lecture and recounted how Herakles had approached UB to ask for help mapping out forested regions in the South West.  Staff and students from UB took on the project but Herakles never returned for the results.  “I maybe understand now why they never returned, and I’m glad.  I think you are on the right footing, Mr. Besingi.  I will join you.”