by Rachel Fritts on 6 April 2018
- Satellite data indicate the rubber plantation, operated by China-owned Sud Cameroun Hévéa (Sudcam), is now less than one kilometer away from intact primary forest habitat. Development is ongoing amidst concerns about threats to endangered species within and outside the park, as well as alleged violations of community land rights and political affiliations with the Cameroonian government.
- The expansion of this rubber plantation is “by far the most devastating new clearing of forest for industrial agriculture in the Congo Basin,” according to Greenpeace.
- Rubber expansion also stands to affect the 9,500 people who live in villages on the reserve’s periphery. According to Greenpeace Africa, Sudcam did not obtain Free and Prior Informed Consent (FPIC) from these communities before acquiring the land and residents have claimed that subsistence farmland has been taken away with little or no compensation.
- Members of the conservation community say that in order for rubber development to happen sustainably in Cameroon, companies need to collaborate with conservation NGOs to create robust buffers around wetlands and streams, develop wildlife corridors, establish areas to filter the runoff of toxins and sediment, and create bushmeat alternatives. They also recommend regulatory actions be taken in the U.S. and EU, which are major buyers of rubber.
An industrial rubber plantation is currently developing land right on the edge of Cameroon’s Dja Faunal Reserve. And it’s getting closer, according to an analysis of satellite data released by Global Forest Watch. The data indicate the plantation, operated by China-owned Sud Cameroun Hévéa (Sudcam), is now less than 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) away from intact primary forest habitat. Development is ongoing amid concerns about threats to endangered species within and outside the park, as well as alleged violations of community land rights and political affiliations with the Cameroonian government.
Global Forest Watch analyzed satellite data collected by the University of Maryland’s Global Land Analysis and Discovery (GLAD) lab. It indicates that expansion is accelerating, with 10 square kilometers (3.9 square miles) of tree cover affected between November 2017 and January 2018 alone, according to the report. To date, Sudcam has been awarded more than 450 square kilometers (177 square miles) of land for development, of which it has cleared over 90 square kilometers (35 square miles). A 2018 Greenpeace report called this expansion “by far the most devastating new clearing of forest for industrial agriculture in the Congo Basin.”
Biodiversity under threat
The Congo Basin contains one of the largest tracts of tropical rainforest in the world. The area protected within the Dja Faunal Reserve is considered one of Africa’s most undisturbed and species-rich rainforests. The reserve’s pristine condition and biodiversity have led to its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Important Bird Area. Dja is home to 107 known mammal species, including critically endangered western lowland forest gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla), endangered chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and African forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis), and vulnerable giant pangolins (Manis gigantea). The reserve is also home to the indigenous Baka people, who carry out their traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyle within the forest.
The development of agroindustry is currently one of the top three major threats to biodiversity in the Dja area, according to Manfred Aimé Epanda, country coordinator for Africa Wildlife Foundation (AWF). He said poaching, another key threat, would likely be exacerbated by increased human traffic and accessibility brought about by plantation development. Clearing forest for the plantation will also fragment the habitat of endangered primates and disrupt wildlife corridors used by forest elephants, Epanda said. In addition, nearby waterways are at risk from pesticide pollution and sedimentation due to agricultural runoff and erosion.
“A strategic impact assessment study of the periphery of the Dja is needed in order to capture impacts on biodiversity,” Epanda told Mongabay in an email.
While the reserve contains the most untouched tracts of forest, dense areas of tropical rainforest lie within the concessions awarded to Sudcam as well. According to a 2016 paper by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), an environmental impact assessment of the land earmarked for rubber plantations found that “the project area has abundant wildlife biodiversity.” CIFOR concluded that rubber development “may have serious negative impacts on the [region’s] rich biodiversity … particularly through the destruction of plant cover, increased hunting and poaching, and wildlife disturbance.”
Communities at risk
Rubber expansion also stands to affect the 9,500 people who live in villages on the reserve’s periphery. According to Greenpeace Africa, Sudcam did not obtain Free and Prior Informed Consent (FPIC) from these communities before acquiring the land. Under the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), FPIC is a right that allows indigenous peoples to grant or refuse consent for a project that could affect them or their land. Cameroon was one of the countries that voted in favor of the declaration at a U.N. General Assembly session in 2007. In the case of Sudcam, however, affected residents have claimed that subsistence farmland has been taken away with little or no compensation, Greenpeace Africa forest campaigner Sylvie Djacbou told Mongabay.
“The Baka also stress the fact that graves and sacred sites which are very important to them spiritually were also destroyed,” Djacbou said.
While the CIFOR paper stated that Sudcam intended to “build collective social and economic service facilities in the local communities,” Greenpeace says that community residents they interviewed told them that such facilities had not been made accessible. “The school and hospital supposedly built for communities are deep inside the concession, and inaccessible to members of local communities,” Djacbou said. “Since both the school and hospital are just inside Sudcam’s employee camp, we can assume that they are for its employees and not for the communities.”
In addition, land tenure experts say Cameroon’s expropriation laws fail to recognize customary land rights. The CIFOR report states that “this causes particularly serious consequences to minority peoples who do not have formal legal titles to land and rely on respect of customary access rules for their subsistence.”
Lack of transparency
Critics say a lack of transparency has dogged plantation development, adding to the discontent of local communities. According to CIFOR, Sudcam was awarded a temporary land concession of more than 450 square kilometers through presidential decree in 2008. However, an annual report for 2013 produced by Sudcam’s parent company GMG Global Ltd. lists Sudcam as the outright owner of the land it had originally leased. Since November 2016, GMG Global has been operating as a subsidiary of Halycon Agri Corporation Ltd.
“Greenpeace’s understanding is that Cameroonian law does not provide for freehold allotment of national lands, and Sudcam’s April 2013 land lease clearly indicates that its plantation is on national land,” Djacbou said.
In addition, CIFOR’s report states that portions of the concessions now owned by Sudcam had been temporarily granted to logging companies, which were expelled to develop rubber plantations. Since, by law, national domain in Cameroon can only be granted if the land is not currently occupied or used, the report’s authors write that this suggests another breach. In its investigation, CIFOR learned that 20 percent of Sudcam’s shares were owned by an unknown “influential member of the Cameroonian political elite.” This lack of transparency in ownership, along with the suggestion of ties to the Cameroonian government, has led to rumors about possible political motivations behind granting Sudcam the land.
Through interviews with 25 communities affected by plantation activities, Greenpeace Africa has learned that community members fear confronting the company and local authorities with their concerns due to a widespread belief that the president’s family is directly linked to the plantation. Further fueling this belief is the plantation’s close proximity to a mansion owned by President Paul Biya himself, according to the organization.
Recent evidence suggests that Sudcam might be developing land outside its concession. In a report titled “The Coming Storm,” the non-profit environmental research organization Earthsight found that Sudcam had cleared roughly 3.3 square kilometers (1.3 square miles) of forest outside of the concession boundaries. While it is possible that additional permissions may have been given to Sudcam that Earthsight was not aware of, “it is notable that Sudcam parent company Halycon Agri did not take the opportunity to deny this specific allegation in their response to our findings prior to publication,” Earthsight director Sam Lawson told Mongabay.
Mongabay reached out to Sudcam, Halycon Agri and the Cameroon government for comment, but received no responses as of publication time.
Recommendations for moving forward
Epanda of AWF told Mongabay that there were a number of ways to mitigate the negative environmental impacts of rubber expansion. These include collaborating with conservation NGOs to create robust buffers around wetlands and streams; developing wildlife corridors between plantation blocks; setting up areas to filter the runoff of toxins and sediment; and creating bushmeat alternatives.
On a national level, Greenpeace Africa “calls upon the Cameroonian government to suspend Sudcam’s lease agreements until clear preconditions and modalities are established.” Greenpeace also recommends participatory national land use planning and increased transparency. This would include obtaining the free, prior and informed consent of communities living in areas being considered for development.
According to Earthsight’s Lawson, countries that are the ultimate destination for the rubber in a plantation, like the U.S. and the EU, must also take responsibility. “These governments need to take regulatory action, as they already have on timber, which forces importers to carry out due diligence to ensure their products and raw materials were legally sourced in the countries of origin,” he said.
“They also need to use their influence to encourage the governments of producer countries like Cameroon to improve land governance, including being much more transparent regarding licensing.”
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