What can solve growing conflicts between agricultural giants and communities in Cameroon?

The government’s measures have so far remained ineffective in reducing land-related conflicts between agro-industries and communities. Image by Dylan Collins.

Mongabay | 17 July 2023

What can solve growing conflicts between agricultural giants and communities in Cameroon?

by   | Translated by Lindsay Kaslow

Tensions between local communities and large-scale agriculture companies are running high in Cameroon and disputes over land and environmental impacts have increased over the years.

  • The Cameroonian government views industrial agriculture companies as drivers of future economic development and is encouraging the sector’s development, but their establishment is marred in land issues arising from colonization.

  • The government’s adopted solutions to conflicts have proved ineffective, and it is struggling to implement adequate measures to curb disputes.

  • Civil society groups and organizations are calling for the reform of Cameroon’s land policy as communities turn to popular protests as a way to meet their demands.

YAOUNDÉ — It’s already been three years since the nearly 4,000 inhabitants of Apouh, a village in eastern Cameroon, have been locked in an intractable conflict with Socapalm, a local subsidiary of Belgian agriculture giant Socfin which owns plantations in a dozen African countries.

The crux of the problem revolves around the population’s land claims. They oppose the company replanting another batch of palm oil trees in areas located at the edge of the village where the community envisions setting up farm lots to feed their families.

“In front of our houses, there are palm trees. Behind our houses, more palm trees,” says the chief of the village, Ditope Lindoume. “We have no yards. They’ve planted everywhere. The fundamental problem is land grabbing. We want to have living space for our families.”

In another town in northern Cameroon, Tibati, Indigenous communities are fiercely opposing the government’s allocation of 95,000 hectares (234,750 acres) of land to a Cameroonian company, Tawfiq Agro Industry, to develop the agro-pastoral sector.

These are but a few examples of an exhaustive list of conflicts arising from industrial agriculture companies establishing their presence in or near Cameroonian villages.

In Cameroon, agro-industries are viewed by the government as drivers of development that are supposed to generate wealth and contribute to the country’s economic growth. This remains a challenge in the predominantly import-oriented economy whose trade deficit increased to $1.9 billion in 2022.

The country is crumbling under the weight of production deficits in virtually all sectors of agriculture and pastoral activity, according to Gabriel Mbairobe, Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development. He sees the promotion of large-scale projects as a way to encourage domestic production.

“Ninety percent of our production comes from family farms. But today, with the growing demand from an increasing population and the demand for livestock, aquaculture, pig and poultry farming, we need to move to another dimension,” said Mbairobe in a radio-interview while introducing the creation of a 400,000-hectare (nearly 990,000-acre) land reserve for large-scale agriculture projects.

These agribusiness companies, backed largely by foreign investment, are criticized by environmental organizations and opposing villagers, namely small-scale farmers, for the social and environmental impacts their activities have in the villages where they operate.

There are various sources of conflict, including the loss of family farm land, pollution of rivers with agrochemicals, destruction of gravesites and massive deforestation, as is the case of Cameroon Vert SARL (CAMVERT) cutting down 60,000 hectares (over 148,000 acres) of forest in the south of the country.

But these conflicts around land issues are becoming ever greater.

In 2016, the Cameroonian ministry overseeing land affairs revealed that about 85% of cases brought before administrative courts concerned land issues.

This issue results from “the conflict between the state law and customary law on land ownership,” says Dr. Samuel Nguiffo, secretary general of the Center for Environment and Development (CED), an independent organization that strives to promote environmental justice and protect the rights of Indigenous communities in Central Africa.

He explains that previously in Cameroon, there were many tribes and no governing state as is established today. Each tribe had its customary land rights in which the village was recognized as owning all its land. Then, during colonization, land laws were introduced that also structured land ownership in Cameroon but contradicted customary rights. The state thus considered areas otherwise recognized as belonging to the community as vacant and took ownership of them.

“Many of our villages do not have land titles, so the State considers the land as belonging to no one and liable to being attributed to someone else,” says Samuel Nguiffo. “That is how agro-industries established themselves on land that was considered vacant but had a customary owner.”

Measures for conflict prevention and resolution

Samuel Nguiffo speaks out about the obsoletion of this trend, outlined in the Cameroonian land law, and advocates for its reform as a solution to help prevent and reduce conflicts. The law has tried to outline processes for conflict resolution a posteriori, establishing an advisory committee to be overseen by the sub-prefect, the central government representative at the community level.

To prevent land disputes, the government also planned to hold preliminary public hearings prior to the start of major projects that would have a high socio-economic impact on communities in order to gather a range of opinions and demands from the population regarding the aforementioned projects’ implementation. Environmental impact studies are also required before the start of any agribusiness operation. These are conducted by the Cameroonian Ministry of Environment.

However, these measures have remained ineffective in reducing land-related conflicts between agro-industries and communities.

In 2020, the CED drafted a civil society land policy note outlining a catalogue of proposals, including the establishment of a customary court to settle disputes regarding national land. The decentralization of land management and the creation of land administration representatives within communes to better involve local authorities in land management, may also help solve some conflict, according to CED.

Indeed, Cameroonian legislation does not yet give local mayors any authority to intervene in land management. This power is accorded to sub-prefects, who are central government representatives at the community level.

Popular protests used to settle the score

In recent years, the Cameroonian government, caught between vague land laws and an upsurge in conflicts between companies and village communities, has been forced to cancel some previously awarded land and logging concessions to avoid popular uprisings.

Such was the case in May 2021 with the company Neo Industry, whose 26,000-hectare (64,247-acre) concession in southern Cameroon, which was to be used for growing cocoa and involved deforestation, was canceled by the government following large protests. The same was true for the July 2020 cancellation of the Ebo Forest logging project, which would have exploited 130,000 hectares (321,236 acres) of the coastal area forest, following protests by local traditional authorities, local communities and the diaspora.

In some cases, community protests have also resulted in companies making concessions. In the villages of Mbonjo and Bomono, residents had to protest numerous times for Socapalm to abandon certain plots in order to restore sacred community sites that were buried in rows of palm trees.

Most of the time, however, popular protests do not lead to concessions or cancellations of industrial agriculture projects.

Indeed, back in the village of Apouh, where the community has been locked in a three-year dispute with Socapalm, chief Ditope Lindoume was arrested and detained by police authorities for directing popular protests and “disturbing the public order.” He was later released after authorities made him sign a document promising to maintain order in the village and stop protests against the palm oil company.

Now, a commission of the Ministry of Land Affairs has been set up to try to find a solution as the community and agricultural giant await their verdict.

This article was first published here on June 20 on Mongabay’s French website.

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