GRAIN | 22 October 2010
Cameroon is one of many African countries being targeted by foreign investors for agricultural lands. As of late, a French investor has taken a huge swath of land for sugar cane and the Malaysian company Sime Darby is in the process of negotiating for 300,000 ha in the southern part of the country for palm oil plantations. Chinese investors are also keen on acquiring farmland in Cameroon. In September 2010, GRAIN visited the Upper Sanaga region, in the centre of the country, to take a closer look at the project of one such Chinese company. We were accompanied by people from the affected area.
The Chinese company behind the project is the state-owned conglomerate Shaanxi Land Reclamation General Corporation (also known as Shaanxi State Farm). In Cameroon, it operates through its subsidiary IKO Ltd, which, in turn, has established a local company called Sino-Cam Iko Ltd. IKO is involved in various agricultural ventures, most notably ostrich breeding, claiming to be the largest ostrich producer in Asia.
IKO plans to eventually bring its ostrich farming to Cameroon, but for the time being it is more concerned with the production of agricultural crops.(1) Bilateral negotiations between the governments of China and Cameroon in 2005 opened the door for IKO to begin exploring the potential for the production of rice and other crops in the country. It took an interest in several sites, including an abandoned 120 ha rice farm in Cameroon's central district of Nanga-Eboko in the Upper Sanaga region. That farm was originally established through Taiwanese cooperation in the 1960s but was abandoned when Cameroon switched allegiance to the People's Republic of China a decade or so after.
A year later, in 2006, convinced of the potential for production in Cameroon, IKO signed a US$120 million investment agreement with the Government of Cameroon, giving it the Nanga-Eboko rice station and a 99-year lease for another 10,000 ha of land-- 2,000 ha in Nanga-Eboko (close to the rice farm) and 4 000 ha in nearby Ndjoré District, as well as 4,000 ha to the west of the country in Santchou. Various sources told us that the lands were given to the company for free.
So far, however, the only significant operations have occurred at the rice station in Nanga-Eboko. The company is constructing several large buildings on the site that it says will be used to train local people on rice production. Irrigation to the site, which draws from the adjacent Sanaga River, is being rehabilitated, and most of the lands are still not under production. Apparently the company has been experimenting with different varieties of rice and some of the production has been sold on the local market. First efforts with Chinese varieties are said to have failed though, and the company has since been developing new varieties in collaboration with IRAD, the national agricultural research centre.
The 2,000 ha concession in Nanga-Eboko near to the rice farm is located in an area of savannah bordering thecommunity of Akak, next to the village of Nkollo Akpwa. Some maintain that the concession actually covers 4,000 ha and others say as much as 6,000 ha.(2) IKO has not started production on the site, and currently it is being used by local communities for farming as well as hunting and gathering. Local villagers we spoke with were unsure about how the concession was allocated to IKO. The mayor, however, Romain Roland Eto, has said that neither he nor any other local officials were consulted before the concession was given.(3)
The 4,000 ha concession in the District of Ndjoré is just a few kilometers away from Nanga-Eboko along the highway leading to the capital city, Yaoundé. For these lands, IKO is said to have negotiated directly with the Chief of Ndjoré. There was no consultation with the community and none of the locals that we spoke to were aware of any compensation. One villager, however, said that he was told that the company would help them to sell their local cassava production.
The land in Ndjoré has already been staked out by IKO, with collaboration from local authorities. As the company could not identify enough suitable land in the area to meet the 4,000 ha, some land across the river is also being considered. IKO has already tried production of maize on a portion of the Ndjoré lands but their stated intention is to pursue cassava production.
Yet, while the Government of Cameroon has committed to provide IKO with 10,000 ha and the lands have already been identified, there are questions as to whether the final go-ahead for the project has been given. The contract for the land is reported to be still sitting with the Office of the Prime Minister, and apparently is being studied by an inter-ministerial committee.
IKO's not happy about the delay. The company's director in Cameroon, Mr. Zhao, recently said that the "administrative procedures are uselessly long."
"We have only 100 ha that have already been brought under production. We want more lands to continue with our work. It is too bad that that they make us wait years just for a piece of paper," said Zhao.(4)
Meanwhile, at the Nanga-Eboko station, construction of the "training centre" continues. The Centre is one of 15 agricultural technology demonstration centres that the Government of China committed to build in Africa at the Beijing Summit of Sino-African Cooperation in 2006. In this case, the overlap between China's cooperation programmes and the interests of its companies is clear. The centre in Cameroon, which currently houses about 60 Chinese workers, serves as the site for the development of IKO's rice operations and will be used by the company to promote its model of agriculture in this region where small-scale peasant agriculture and pastoralism dominate.
"It's time for the people of Cameroon to understand that the future is in agriculture," says Zhao. "It must move towards the mechanisation of its agriculture. It can no longer continue in these times cultivating with a hoe and a pickax. That will get you nowhere. Cameroon also needs considerable capital investments for the development of its agriculture."
So far, however, the local people's experience with the Chinese project in Nanga-Eboko shows few signs that IKO is going to improve their future. Workers at the site are paid about US$2 a day, without any benefits or even a contract.
"We don't even see where the rice goes that we die producing every day," says Keman Essam, a worker at the Nanga-Eboko site. "It's too much, and I'm going to leave if nothing changes."(5)--
(2) Jean-Bruno Tagne et Simon Gouin, "Quand le Cameroun nourrit la Chine," 21 October 2010, Politis.fr.(3) Charles Nforgang, "Chinois au Cameroun : une incompréhension foncière", Syfia, 6 January 2010.
(4) Jean-Bruno Tagne, "Enquête sur la riziculture chinoise," Quotidien Le Jour, 18 August 2010.(5) Ibid.