The 35-year-old Ferdinand Ndjelee says that they don’t deserve such misery. (Photo: Nathalie Bertrams)
PAIN FOR PROFIT
When the ‘strangers’ came – Chinese rubber giant ‘destroys’ rainforests, indigenous lives in Cameroon
By Tristen Taylor, Arison Tamfu, Ingrid Gercama and Nathalie Bertrams
In southern Cameroon, about 150km from the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo, a bitter story from the colonial era is playing out. Rubber companies are once again destroying rainforests and communities.
Nyabibété’s houses and stalls stretch along the road. The majority ethnic group of Cameroon’s South Region, the Bantu, dominate the village. But in the middle of Nyabibété about 100 indigenous Baka people sit in poverty, crowded into a handful of huts. The Baka are Cameroon’s indigenous hunter-gatherers and have, for thousands of years, relied on Central Africa’s forests for survival.
According to Moise Ndjelee (80), the evictions started when “strangers” told the Baka to leave their land, a primary rainforest only a 20-minute walk from Nyabibété. “They told us to come and stay here temporarily so that our children can attend school. We agreed and that changed our lives forever,” he says.
“When they destroyed the forest,” he says, “they were actually destroying our homes.”
Most of the Baka in Nyabibété are illiterate and struggle to speak French or English, the common languages in Cameroon. They also suffer from discrimination, often derogatorily called “pygmies” and “uncivilised”. Emile Ambili (19) is one of the few who can speak French fluently, and among even fewer receiving an education: he’s just enrolled in primary school.
“We are encircled by graves,” he says. “Even [our] houses have been constructed on graves because we do not have enough land.”
What used to be the Baka’s rainforest home is now the 450km2 Sudcam rubber plantation.
Building a rubber giant
In December 2011, a Singapore-based company, GMG Global Ltd, won a series of investment incentives from the Cameroonian government. It had acquired two land concessions in the South Region for the creation of two rubber plantations from the government through its subsidiary company, Sud Cameroun-Hévéa S.A.
The 2011 deal, replacing a temporary one granted in 2008, set down the benefits for GMG Global. According to the deal’s documentation, first published online by Greenpeace Africa and which Daily Maverick has authenticated, Sud Cameroun-Hévéa would get 450km2 of forest on a 50-year lease, which could be renewed for another 25 years. The company was granted the exclusive right to build the plantation and was empowered to run its own private security.
In terms of investment incentives, Sud Cameroun-Hévéa wouldn’t pay tax for the first 10 years, thereafter would pay a continuous flat tax rate of 15% for the next 40 years. The deal indicated that the rent, paid to the Cameroonian government, would be $1 per hectare and $0.5 for unplanted land.
Then the deforestation began. In addition to the Sudcam plantation, there’s the second concession, the Hevecam plantation. They have a combined area of 978km2. As of the end of 2022, and according to company documents, 314km2 are under rubber cultivation.
Cool Mekodane, another Baka resident of Nyabibété, is 28 and a mother of two. She describes the impact of the Sudcam plantation: “Before we had everything we needed in the forest for an easy and happy life. We no longer have that. We lived on hunting and farming but not anymore. We have nothing.”
GMG Global’s plantations soon attracted the interest of a rapidly expanding corporation with very deep pockets.
Halcyon Agri completed its Initial Public Offering (IPO) and listed on the Singapore Exchange in 2013 and promptly went on a buying spree, acquiring rubber factories, plantations, laboratories, distribution centres and other companies up and down the rubber supply chain.
The moment Halcyon Agri went big was in 2016 when it merged with GMG Global and Sinochem Natural Rubber. Now with a 54.99% stake, Sinochem International (Overseas) Pte Ltd, a Chinese state-owned enterprise, came to control Halcyon Agri.
By the end of 2022, Halcyon Agri had 395km2 of rubber under cultivation and was selling 1.4 metric tonnes globally. In terms of its nearly $2.7-billion in sales, Asia accounts for 61%. Twenty-one percent of sales are in Europe. Halcyon’s position in the global market is substantial: for example, it supplies 11% of all the rubber used in tyres and related products. There is a good chance that, at some point in your life, you’ve used something that involves Halcyon rubber.
David Li Xuetao is an important name to remember at this juncture. He was the CEO of GMG Global when it merged with Halcyon Agri. The merger didn’t result in his unemployment. He became the CEO of Halcyon Agri in 2020, a position he remains in.
An acceptable front
One of the companies in which Halcyon Agri acquired a 100% stake was Corrie MacColl, the basis of Halcyon Agri’s proud claim to 200 years of trading experience. In fact, Corrie MacColl didn’t really exist in 2018, the year of purchase. The brand was shut down two years before that. Halcyon willingly bought the name and history. An acceptable front was resurrected.
When Edgar Corrie founded the Liverpool company in 1780, some of his very first clients were owners of slave plantations in Jamaica, then part of the British Empire. He also specialised in cotton from the Americas, also a product of slave labour. With that experience in pocket, Halcyon Agri put the management of the Sudcam and Hevecam plantations into Corrie MacColl’s hands.
Daily Maverick requested interviews with Halcyon Agri and Corrie MacColl. While only Corrie MacColl responded to the request, all of its written responses were approved by Halcyon Agri’s head office.
In terms of the 2011 agreement outlined above, Corrie MacColl states: “The original agreement was valid for 10 years, and was subsequently renewed in 2019.”
And in regards to rates of taxation and land rent, Corrie MacColl would only state: “The company pays corporate tax in line with the financial regulations in Cameroon, and pays rent in line with the financial law.”
Paul Biya (90) has been Cameroon’s president for the past 40 years. Roland Ngam, a Cameroonian project manager at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, describes Biya as “an autocrat who has packed all state institutions with his tribesmen and members of the main chiefdoms. He used and continues to use state institutions to maintain a vice-like grip on power.”
According to Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, Cameroon is one of the most corrupt places on the planet, ranking 142 out of 180 countries studied. By way of comparison, South Africa is far less corrupt, coming in at 70. Ngam explains that “Paul Biya appoints people who then loot the institutions they head in order to hold regular rounds of sham elections, keep the Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement in power and the international community onside.”
When reviewing Halcyon Agri’s corporate structure, it seems that the company definitely prefers 100% ownership of its subsidiary companies. The fact that the two subsidiary companies owning the Sudcam and Hevecam plantations aren’t fully owned is unusual.
Société de Production de Palmeraies et d’Hévéa S.A. (SPPH), a shadowy company outside of the public domain, owns 20% of Sud Cameroun Hevea S.A. The other 80% belongs to Corrie MacColl.
Greenpeace Africa claims that an unnamed but influential member of the Cameroonian political elite owns SPPH.
Murky and complicated define the natural resources sector in Cameroon. “The Biya regime reproduces itself,” Ngam states, “through elaborate rent-seeking relationships characterised by looting of donor funds, land grabs, and the granting of rights for logging and oil & gas projects.”
In response to Daily Maverick’s request for clarity, to put the damning allegations of corruption to rest once and for all, Corrie MacColl wrote: “The 20% shareholder of Sud Cameroun Hevea S.A is SPPH, and the 10% shareholder of Hevecam is the state of Cameroon. In view of data protection and privacy concerns, this is all the information we are able to provide.”
To date, the Cameroonian government has not responded to Daily Maverick’s query about the ownership of SPPH.
A momentous change swept over Halcyon Agri on 22 March 2023. The China Hainan Rubber Industry Group, a state-owned enterprise listed on the Shanghai Stock Exchange, acquired Halcyon Agri with a controlling shareholding stake of 62.357%. Hainan Rubber is the distributor for 22% of the world’s consumption of rubber, has 2,760km2 of rubber under cultivation and runs 72 processing factories.
The Sudcam plantation is now one of its assets. Hainan Rubber didn’t respond to Daily Maverick’s request for an interview.
Hainan Rubber’s website proudly touts its work on “building” the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). For example, Li Zhenzhong, the representative of the CCP’s Provincial Commission for Discipline Inspection, told the senior employees of the company in 2021 that “Hainan Rubber, as a leading domestic natural rubber enterprise, must shoulder the responsibility of a state-owned enterprise and earnestly fulfil the important responsibilities entrusted by the Party and the state.”
According to Sarah Eaton, a professor of Transregional China Studies at Humboldt University Berlin, the CCP has considerable but not complete power over state-owned enterprises. During the current Xi Jinping era, Beijing is trying to deepen its control of Chinese overseas investment, primarily to curb tax evasion and bad investments. The party uses Commissions for Discipline Inspection and cadre deployment to control state-owned enterprises.
“The practice of ‘joint appointments’,” Eaton explains, “in which one company leader serves simultaneously in two or more of the top executive and Party leadership roles (Party secretary, general manager, and/or board chairman, if a board exists) is very common in SOEs. Through these dual roles as enterprise head and CCP official, the Party seeks to ensure that state firms stay loyal to the Party.”
Roland Ngam points out that Cameroon’s links with China go back decades.
“Paul Biya was one of the first African leaders to develop a close relationship with China,” he says. “The Chinese do not necessarily have massive flagship projects in Cameroon. Instead, what they have done is give the government of Cameroon billions of dollars in loans. In exchange, the Cameroon government gives the Chinese access to artisanal mines (gold, diamonds, etc), forest timber and local markets.”
The Baka’s struggle for reparations and a return to the rainforest isn’t an easy one. They aren’t just up against the Cameroonian government, the plantations and one of the world’s leading rubber conglomerations. They have the power of the People’s Republic of China to contend with.
A green desert
Cameroon’s rainforests are being chainsawed. According to Global Forest Watch, from 2002 to 2021 nearly 8,000km2 of its primary forest disappeared, with the main drivers being urbanisation and commodity-driven deforestation. The price of cocoa, rubber, palm oil and other agricultural products is axiomatically a factor in deforestation rates.
When the Sudcam concession was granted in 2011, the global price of rubber was trading at a historic high. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis, rubber was selling then at a monthly average of $2.40 a pound. But those very favourable market conditions for clearing rainforests and planting rubber have changed. In 2018, the monthly average price went down all the way to $0.70 a pound and it has more or less stayed there ever since.
The Sudcam plantation and the adjacent Dja Faunal Reserve are in the northwestern part of the wider Congo Basin, which is the world’s second-largest rainforest covering about two million square kilometres. The biodiversity is immense: more than 10,000 plant and animal species, including forest elephants and pygmy hippos. An estimated 60 million people depend on the basin for their livelihoods, including about 40,000 Baka.
Yet deforestation has accelerated since 2000 and the past five years have been particularly bad. The Central Africa Forest Observatory warns: “If the current pace of deforestation and forest degradation continues, 27% of the undisturbed moist forest in Central Africa (including Angola and Uganda) that existed in 2020 will have disappeared by 2050.”
The Centre for Environment and Development is a Cameroonian NGO that protects the rights of indigenous and local forest communities. It works closely with the Baka community in Nyabibété and other nearby villages.
“The commodity that has the most problem with deforestation is rubber,” says the NGO’s director, Samuel Nguiffo. “When you have a monoculture of one plantation, the biodiversity disappears.”
According to Corrie MacColl, deforestation stopped at the Sudcam plantation in December 2018. Daily Maverick checked this claim with satellite image experts, Digital Earth Africa, which is based at the South African National Space Agency. After independently examining satellite images, the organisation concluded that deforestation at Sudcam did indeed stop in 2018, albeit after eight years of intense clearing.
Corrie MacColl consistently maintains, in its public announcements and during its communication with Daily Maverick, that it inherited the “legacy” issue of deforestation. The impression the company gives is that it, as a responsible corporate citizen, came in in 2018, the year the rubber price crashed, and put an end to the deforestation that others had done. So much so that it won’t provide information on deforestation before 2016, when Halcyon Agri took possession of Sudcam.
This is a remarkable sleight of hand.
As mentioned before, the current CEO of Halcyon Agri is David Li Xuetao and he was the CEO of GMG Global when Halcyon Agri took over in 2016, when the trees were falling down. In fact, Xuetao was there from the beginning. From 2008 to 2011, he was the chief operating officer of GMG Global and became the CEO in 2015. Moreover, his 20-year career in the rubber industry is marked by stints in senior positions at Sinochem, which has been a major shareholder of both GMG Global and Halcyon Agri.
And it is not only him. For example, Yongsheng Liu was appointed to Halcyon Agri’s board of directors at the end of 2022. He was also at GMG Global with Xuetao, as the chief finance officer of Sudcam from 2011 to 2012, and has worked at Sinochem ever since.
Corrie MacColl is nothing but a user interface. Two deeply interconnected, massive Chinese state-owned enterprises are the engine: Sinochem and Hainan Rubber. The only real mystery here is: why use a name that got its start in representing the trading interests of the owners of slave plantations in the West Indies?
There might be another sleight of hand in play. Instead of clearing even more of its land to grow more rubber trees, Corrie MacColl has started an outgrowers programme, where it aims to buy rubber from up to 13,000 small-scale farmers. The company states that it will only buy from rubber planted on degraded land, which will total 270km2.
Greenpeace Africa’s Ranèce Ndjeudja is afraid that the programme “might mean that those smallholders will now be the ones deforesting on behalf of the production of rubber. And, of course, at the end of the day, benefiting Sudcam.”
By 2012, the Baka had been evicted from Sudcam lands. Security around the Sudcam plantation is tight. Everyone who enters has to pass security controls, beyond which and along dusty roads is the rubber. Tree after tree after tree. Where the rubber grows, a green desert arises.
Forever promises of reparation
Under Cameroonian law, the Baka and other affected communities were supposed to be compensated. According to the Baka in Nyabibété, when Daily Maverick visited the area earlier in 2023, neither this compensation nor any meaningful restitution from Corrie MacColl, Halcyon Agri or Hainan Rubber had arrived.
And this is patently obvious when you visit the Baka. Unlike the corporate executives living in Singapore and China, and also unlike President Biya, who has one of his palaces only 7km from the Sudcam plantation, the Baka aren’t doing so well.
“Nothing, nothing at all, has been done,” village elder Ndjelee tells Daily Maverick. “No houses, no school, no electricity. We are merely struggling to survive.” Cool Mekodane adds that Sudcam has met the villagers several times but that at “every meeting they just tell us that everything will be fine”.
In the neighbouring village of Edjom, to which Baka people from the Sudcam concession have also been relocated, Pierre Yele (40) is a bit more positive. He says of Sudcam that “they have started paying school fees for our children and have also provided a borehole where we fetch clean water. Every end of the year, they give us rice and wine.”
And then there is a wider question of whether compensation is even possible. Nguiffo points out that when a plantation replaces forest “the users’ rights also disappear. They don’t even have the right to get into a place. And there’s no compensation for that.”
“If you ask those communities,” Ndjeudja says, “what they will prefer, losing their ancestral land to benefit from those social investments, I’ll put it that way, or having their land back, the answer will clearly be having their land back.”
On the point of returning the remaining forest to the Baka, Corrie MacColl says “the Baka communities can freely access Sudcam’s forest land without any obstruction”.
If that statement is correct, then something seems amiss. Baka in places like Nyabibété want their old lives back. To return to their traditional ways in the rainforest, what they have been doing for thousands upon thousands of years. Yet they aren’t. Many are afraid.
Europe’s new leaf
“We know that we lose every year around 10 million hectares of forests, over 10% directly linked to our European consumption,” says Christophe Hansen, a member of the European Parliament. “So this is our complicity in losing more forests, all over the world.”
There’s also a historical moral complicity as well. The German colonisation of Cameroon (1884 to 1916) was brutal. People were stripped of their lands and worked like slaves. Discipline was achieved through punishments such as the cutting of limbs and genitals and decapitations. And it was the Germans who first brought rubber plantations to southern Cameroon.
While little is known about the impacts on the Baka during German colonisation, the French period (1916 to 1960) did have profound consequences. Dr Fernande Abanda Ngono has researched the impacts of rubber plantations and logging on the Baka, including where the Sudcam plantation and the Dja Faunal Reserve now are.
According to her, the French appropriation of forests in southern Cameroon pushed the Baka closer to Bantu villages and accentuated their material dispossession. She states that “rubber plantations have been, and remain, a weapon for monopolising and deconstructing these communities, who have not only been evicted at the whim of the agro-industry, but are now forced to abandon their traditional subsistence activities.”
The EU consumes more than a million tons of rubber annually, Germany is the single biggest importer, and Halcyon Agri is happy to meet some of that demand. In 2022, the company sold $583-million of the stuff to Europe. Since the EU doesn’t produce natural rubber, it depends on imports from Africa and South-East Asia, both of which are biodiversity hotspots.
To rectify driving deforestation through consumption, the European Parliament approved a law (the European Union Deforestation-Free Products Regulation) that bans the importation of commodities produced on land that was deforested after 31 December 2020. The law came into force on 1 June 2023, with a grace period of 18 months.
If Halcyon Agri was still chopping down the forests at Sudcam, it wouldn’t be able to import the rubber produced there to the EU. But deforestation isn’t the only thing the law covers. It also covers human rights abuses and in particular indigenous people’s land tenure rights. Hansen was one of the leading proponents of the law and he says: “We always say that the indigenous people that live off the forest and in the forest are the best protectors as well.”
But there is a problem. Hansen says EU enforcement will happen mainly through satellite imaging and that “on-the-ground inspections are not foreseen right now”. Without such, it is hard to see that the EU could act in a case like at Sudcam, where the local indigenous people and the company are stating two different and diametrically opposite things.
In a written response to Daily Maverick’s queries about the EU’s new law, Cameroon’s Minister of Forestry and Wildlife Jules Doret Ndongo states: “Thus, while it is agreed that the European Union, in the interests of its populations, is determined to take measures to help improve their living conditions, the fact remains that its development relates to a number of fundamental challenges that the subregion [Congo Basin] will have to address with diligence.”
These key challenges include, in his view, the political and economic threats, risks and benefits of the EU’s new law. The response to the law also needs, according to Ndongo, an “analysis of the balance of power in the context of global geopolitics concerning the management of forest resources and climate”.
And the balance of power has shifted in the Congo Basin. The Central Africa Forest Observatory’s 2021 report notes that because of anti-deforestation policies in the West, there is a trend for companies to supply forest products to less-demanding countries such as China, India and Vietnam.
Fuelling the trend, according to the report, is “the intensification of multisectoral cooperation between Congo Basin countries and China over recent years and the massive influx of Chinese capital into the Central African forestry sector. This shift means that countries in the Global North can ease their conscience by not importing products that contribute to deforestation, while not actually doing anything to prevent it in producer countries.”
Samuel Nguiffo thinks that the new law might be a missed opportunity for Cameroon to change. He says: “Because this is our land, we are in charge of defining the role for the production. But we don’t do it. We just let people do what they want. The models that we have in our minds are very colonial, still very old.”
When Daily Maverick inquired about what was being done to protect the Baka, Minister Ndongo preferred only to talk about forest conservation.
And it’s happening again
Halcyon Agri’s annual reports, a requirement of being a listed company, are comprehensive and much of the information in this article comes from those reports. In addition, there are financial notices in the public domain, the company’s IPO documentation and a degree of information on its and Corrie MacColl’s websites. We even know about Hainan Rubber’s work on building the Communist Party.
Rubbercam is the exact opposite. This unlisted company has nothing to do with Halycon Agri, Sudcam, Corrie MacColl or Hainan Rubber. It doesn’t have a website and it refused to engage with Daily Maverick. Although preliminary information indicates that a French car dealer owns the company, this cannot be determined with confidence at this date.
The 10km2 Rubbercam plantation, located 50km away from Sudcam, started clearing the land for rubber trees only five years ago. And that meant clearing out people, including Baka.
At the impoverished village of Avebe, people are too frightened to have their names published. They claim that their sacred sites in the forest have been seized and that access to hunting and fishing sites are either barred or severely restricted.
The Avebe Village Development Committee has launched a court case against the government, claiming that the Rubbercam plantation does not have the correct permits. However, Cameroonian courts are notoriously slow. The matter has been ongoing for more than three years. The Ministry of State Property and Land Tenure is investigating the matter.
Neither of these processes is expected to return the Baka’s land.
One of the wider problems in Cameroon, according to Samuel Nguiffo, is that “the focus is on investment. Not on people’s rights, not on the environment. That’s the major issue here.”
“So the question is,” he says, “do we want to protect them, their culture, or do we want to be part of their destruction? What they did there is very clearly against the interest of indigenous people.”
Conflicts such as the one over the Sudcam plantation are often filled with many voices and competing claims. A fog can descend upon the affair. The issue is who is best placed to answer Nguiffo’s question. Is it Hainan Rubber making millions of dollars under the gaze of the Chinese Communist Party? The Biya government that granted the concessions? Environmental NGOs? The former colonial powers?
Or is it Ferdinand Ndjelee, 35 and shipwrecked in Nyabibété?
“Our previous life is over,” Ndjelee says, “but we didn’t deserve this misery.” DM
This article was developed with the support of Journalismfund.eu