MongabayBY RACHEL FRITTS ON 1 MAY 2019
- A massive rubber plantation operated by rubber supply group Halcyon Agri through its subsidiary Sudcam has come under fire in recent years for what many say are unsustainable environmental practices, lack of transparency, and negative impacts on local communities. Reports document the displacement of indigenous communities to make way for development, and felling has occurred right up against the intact rainforest of Cameroon’s Dja Faunal Reserve.
- Initially silent about the rebuke of Sudcam, Halcyon unveiled a number of sustainability measures late last year and has actively sought to open a dialogue with NGOs. In response to criticisms, the company issued a “cease and desist” order on logging in Sudcam, developed a Sustainable Natural Rubber Supply Chain Policy, and created an independent Sustainability Council.
- Satellite imagery indicates no further clearing has happened since the deforestation ban was issued in Dec. 2018.
- Representatives of conservation NGOs that have been critical of the plantation in the past say they are pleased with Halcyon Agri’s response, and hope that the company will continue to improve conditions at its Sudcam plantation.
Halcyon Agri Corp, the world’s largest rubber processor, is taking steps toward a more sustainable and transparent natural rubber supply chain following vocal public outcries from environmental NGOs last year. Organizations like Greenpeace, Mighty Earth, and Rainforest Foundation UK (RFUK) have put a spotlight on unsustainable practices in Halcyon’s two Cameroon plantations — Sudcam and Hevecam — currently run by subsidiary Corrie MacColl.
Sudcam in particular has been under fire for unsustainable environmental practices, lack of transparency, and negative impacts on local communities. Reports document the displacement of indigenous communities to make way for development, and felling has occurred right up against the intact rainforest of Cameroon’s Dja Faunal Reserve. Hevecam has also been investigated by Mighty Earth, particularly regarding its community impacts. Possibly as a result of this scrutiny, Norway’s Government Pension Fund Global divested from Halcyon Agri in 2018 following an assessment of “sustainability risks.”
Halcyon acquired 80 percent ownership of Sudcam from GMG Global in 2016. The remaining 20 percent is owned by “Société de Productions de Palmeraies et d’Hevéa,” an entity shrouded in mystery with alleged ties to the Cameroonian government. Initially silent about the rebuke of Sudcam, Halcyon unveiled a number of sustainability measures late last year and has actively sought to open a dialogue with NGOs. In response to criticisms, they issued a “cease and desist” order on logging in Sudcam, developed a Sustainable Natural Rubber Supply Chain Policy, and created an independent Sustainability Council.
Raising the alarm
Starting Jan. 2018, Greenpeace Africa has been publicizing concerns about Sudcam through reports and press releases. Their criticisms of Sudcam operations fall into two major categories of impact: environmental and social. The most pressing environmental concern is deforestation within the Sudcam concession, and the proximity of this land clearing to Cameroon’s Dja Faunal Reserve.
Dja contains 90 percent untouched forest and is part of the Congo Basin, Africa’s largest surviving tract of rainforest. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site home to critically endangered western lowland forest gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla), as well as endangered chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and African forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis). According to a report released by RFUK this week, plantation development would likely lead to more intensive hunting and fishing at the edge of the reserve and disrupt wildlife corridors used by primates and elephants. Greenpeace Africa has called Sudcam development near the reserve “the most devastating new forest clearance for industrial agriculture in the Congo Basin.”
Satellite data recorded by the University of Maryland’s Global Land Analysis and Discovery (GLAD) lab and visualized on Global Forest Watch sheds light on how much forest has been lost thus far. Between 2012 and 2018, Sudcam cleared around 12,700 hectares (127 square kilometers) of rainforest. The latter half of 2018 showed particularly high clearance activity, with around 25,000 deforestation alerts occurring between September and December. According to Global Forest Watch, nearly all of the forest cleared in the Sudcam concession was old growth rainforest.
In addition to the threat Sudcam has posed to rainforest biodiversity, local communities affected by both Sudcam and Hevecam report a lack of transparency and compensation.
“Most of their grievances have to do with the way the land was allocated, behind closed doors, without them having a say in the process,” said Maud Salber, policy advisor for environmental non-profit RFUK, who spoke with affected communities last year. “They complained a lot about the lack of information and communication on the part of the company. Sudcam hasn’t shared information as basic as the map of the concession with them.”
Critics say Sudcam’s lack of transparency has been particularly harmful to the area’s indigenous Baka communities with customary lands in the concession. RFUK reports that about 120 Baka people have been forced to relocate to neighboring Bantu villages.
“Three Baka communities were forced out of the forest lands they had been living in for generations, where they were depending on hunting and forest products for their livelihoods,” Salber said. “The Baka leaders I met explained to me that since then their community members were facing severe discrimination and abuse, including rape. Bantu people, on the other hand, complained that their villages cannot integrate this amount of people.”
Lack of compensation for financial losses attributed to plantation development has also been a major source of concern for local communities, according to watchdog organizations like RFUK and Greenpeace. “While some have later been compensated for the invasion of their farming land and destruction of their crops, they say this compensation process was completely opaque, arbitrary and in no way commensurate with the long-term losses incurred,” Salber said.
According to RFUK, one example of this under-compensation is the valuation of timber harvested and later sold when land is converted for human use. While average domestic prices for timber removed from the concession amount to at least $143 per cubic meter, clearing permits conceded by the Ministry of Forestry would grant communities less than one euro ($1.12) per cubic meter for timber extracted from their traditional lands. RFUK recommends additional studies “to verify whether there is effective surveillance of the amount of timber being extracted and of the amount of money that local authorities and communities are receiving.”
Normally, communities would be entitled to at least 20 percent of a ground rent tax that the company is required by law to pay. However, Greenpeace Africa reports that the plantation’s Establishment Convention signed in 2011 “exempts Sudcam from paying taxes for a 10-year period.” Given what communities see as favorable treatment of Sudcam by the Cameroonian government, Salber said they “widely see the plantation as ‘the president’s project,’ with very little tolerance for dissenting voices.”
Halcyon’s other Cameroon plantation, Hevecam, has also been under investigation from the global environmental campaign organization Mighty Earth. “We were made aware of the situation at Sudcam mainly through Greenpeace,” said Julian Oram, Mighty Earth’s advisor on rubber. “In parallel with that, we were looking at the sister plantation, Hevecam, and speaking with the NGO that has been working with the communities affected by that plantation.”
Last year, Mighty Earth publicly called out the tire company Goodyear for sourcing rubber for its specialty tires from Hevecam. According to the Mighty Earth report, Hevecam has “been responsible for extensive deforestation in biodiverse areas, land grabbing and human rights violations,” and by sourcing from the plantation, Goodyear was “turning a blind eye to the possibility of tainted rubber entering their tire supply chain.”
After Mighty Earth published their report, they reached out to Halcyon to communicate their findings.
“I doubt that the senior leadership of Halcyon was really aware at a more granular level of the breadth and nature of the concerns with Sudcam and Hevecam,” Oram said. “But they have seemed to genuinely take on board the concerns that we’re raising. From what we can tell compared to other rubber companies, they have accelerated their pace of engagement on sustainability issues probably faster than any other company.”
Addressing the issues
NGOs have a number of recommendations for Sudcam to improve the plantation’s environmental impact and community relations. Last August, Halcyon invited three WWF representatives to visit the Sudcam concession and speak with chiefs and community members from six surrounding villages.
To address environmental concerns, WWF recommended that a gap analysis of Sudcam’s Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) be conducted, as well as a re-assessment of High Conservation Value (HCV) and High Carbon Stock areas within the concession. They also recommended turning part of the Sudcam concession into a conservation area.
To improve relations with local communities, WWF recommended that Halcyon “establish a complaints mechanism for local villages and civil society in general to communicate grievances and resolve grievances in a timely manner.” This recommendation was echoed by Mighty Earth, Greenpeace, and RFUK. They also recommended that Halcyon “prepare a smallholder lands development plan” and a “food security strategy.”
RFUK has also spoken directly with local communities. Residents of villages affected by Sudcam want “training and support for local development,” Salber said. “The few short-term, low-skilled job opportunities that were given to local people and ad hoc local development initiatives such as the distribution of health vouchers are nowhere near enough to truly compensate them for the loss of their customary lands and traditional livelihoods.”
Salber says displaced Baka communities in particular want to be granted rights over forested lands that would allow them to carry out their traditional lifestyle, as well as compensation for what they have lost.
Change on the horizon?
Halcyon Agri and its natural rubber subsidiary Corrie MacColl have taken steps to address the recommendations put forward by WWF and other NGOs. “The way that we’re looking at it is that Greenpeace has brought these issues to the surface,” said Ryan Wiener, a representative from Corrie MacColl. “We’re looking at this as not a negative thing but as a positive thing, because they’ve created this platform for us, and we had already initiated steps to combat the legacy issues that we encountered in taking over the plantation.”
In August, WWF found that Halcyon has been taking more steps to contribute directly to local development than the previous owners of Sudcam. Thus far they have implemented “drinking water improvements, rubber training centers, construction of primary schools, and a well-resourced hospital.”
In the last several months, Halcyon has taken some major steps towards a more sustainable natural rubber business model. In November 2018, Halcyon released its Sustainable Natural Rubber Supply Chain Policy. The policy addresses many of the recommendations given to Halcyon by WWF and other NGOs, though it is still too early to tell how this policy will translate into practice.
“Our view on the policy is that on paper, they cover all the right bases,” said Oram with Mighty Earth. “What we would say is that from the interviews we’ve done with the communities, there are clearly a lot of places where there’s a big gap between that policy and what has been happening to date.”
To help enforce the sustainability policy, Halcyon has also put together an independent Sustainability Council populated by representatives from the Cameroon government, NGOs, and the local community. The Cameroon Sustainability Council (CSC) held its inaugural meeting on April 16. As one of the first orders of business, Proforest, a not-for-profit natural resource management organization and a founding member of the CSC, was tasked with carrying out an ESIA gap analysis.
The CSC will be required to communicate all of its findings publicly, said Robert Meyer, CEO of Halcyon. “We will respond to the Council as and when the Council requests, and we are going to respond exclusively in the public domain.”
Additionally, the company announced a full “cease and desist” order for clearing and felling trees within Sudcam’s concession Dec. 9, effective immediately. “Not a single bit more rainforest will be cut or felled by Halcyon Agri anywhere in the world, period, full stop,” Meyer told Mongabay. “We’ve cancelled all clearing and felling contractors, we’ve paid them whatever needed to be paid to terminate the contract.”
Analysis of satellite imagery collected by Planet Labs reveals no forest in the Sudcam concession has disappeared since Dec. 9, indicating that Halcyon is, so far, making good on its promise to stop deforestation.
This commitment to zero net deforestation, as defined in the sustainability policy, will be made possible by a transition to an outgrower program, where rubber will be grown on smallholder farms. Meyer is also hoping to use the outgrower scheme to address concerns about food security for the local villages.
“When I talk to constituencies in and around our estate, the number one complaint is that the cost of food has gone up,” Meyer said. “I’m coming there and employing people who didn’t used to live there, so the whole food mix in that area doesn’t account for the people who are employed there. So I said, let’s go and talk to people in and around where we are who have already taken possession of land. There is enough land available to rehabilitate in a way that creates income for the farmer and reforestation to the community.”
Halcyon representatives said they talked to agronomical and microfinance advisors to see what kind of smallholder farming system could be designed that would adequately address food security and income needs, since rubber trees take seven years to start producing. Halcyon says it will provide training for farmers to assist them in growing a mix of crops in addition to rubber to increase food security.
Salber cautions that “outgrower programmes can potentially be successful, but generally only when they are accompanied by a push to clarify and secure tenure rights to local communities, done in a way that is environmentally sustainable, and in genuine consultation with local communities involved.”
Meyer says he’s also pushing to secure land titles for smallholder farmers, and has been in talks with the Ministries of Forestry and Agriculture (both of which have representatives on the CSC). “We said, ‘Look, if we provide assistance to local communities, would you be prepared to issue land titles to them?’ The short answer was ‘Yes’.”
Finally, Halcyon intends to declare 25,000 hectares of Sudcam a Biodiversity Reserve. The reserve will run adjacent to the Dja Faunal Reserve and will provide protection to native flora, fauna, and indigenous peoples, and will be managed by the CSC.
“We’re really pleased that Halcyon aren’t hiding or running away, and they genuinely seem to have the leadership and the will to tackle these issues,” Oram said. “We hope to see that they will go about things the right way.”
Editor’s Note: This story was powered by Places to Watch, a Global Forest Watch (GFW) initiative designed to quickly identify concerning forest loss around the world and catalyze further investigation of these areas. Places to Watch draws on a combination of near-real-time satellite data, automated algorithms and field intelligence to identify new areas on a monthly basis. In partnership with Mongabay, GFW is supporting data-driven journalism by providing data and maps generated by Places to Watch. Mongabay maintains complete editorial independence over the stories reported using this data.
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