Cameroon’s Safacam and rural communities are in constant arm wrestling

By Franck Foute
Posted on Thursday, 15 July 2021 19:20

Synaparcam’s Emmanuel Elong answered questions from the press about Safacam's disputed RSPO certification in Yaoundé on 1 July 2021 © VOA

For years, farmers in the Littoral region have been fighting for their rights and land against Safacam and its huge rubber and palm oil plantations.

Emmanuel Elong’s face is marked by years of struggle in the fight for his community’s rights. On 1 July, the president of the Synergie Nationale des Paysans et Riverains du Cameroun (Synaparcam) greeted journalists with a wry smile and calloused hands. On that same day, he travelled as part of a delegation to Yaoundé to denounce the RSPO certification that was granted to the Société Africaine Forestière et Agricole du Cameroun (Safacam) on 30 September 2020.

This credential is used to certify that the company uses good practices to manage its rubber and oil plantations. “But the process has not been inclusive,” says Elong in his criticism of the work carried out by the experts from SCS – the organisation responsible for the certification.

In particular, he points out that local communities were – for the most part – either unable or uninvited to participate in consultations. Several land conflicts were also ignored, villagers intimidated and SCS experts only deployed to the ground for a relatively short time.

“Our rights are not being respected”

Like Elong, several local community representatives are calling on the SCS to resume its work. “The report that was presented does not indicate that they have been to Dikola, for example,” says Catherine Bakamba, a resident of the village within the Littoral region where the company’s fields are. “The auditors must come back so that we can tell them about our rights which are not being respected.”

Michel Essonga, a farmer in Dizangue, mentions that consultations lacking in “confidentiality, security and independence” are being carried out in the villages. “I did not have an actual interview with the auditor who came because he was accompanied by Safacam agents. I only gave him documents,” Essonga says.

Everyone concerned needs to get around the table to discuss certain issues, especially those relating to land.

That day, farmers who came to express their anger were from four communities that lost ancestral land due to development of rubber and oil palm plantations in Nsèppé Elog-Ngango, Dikola, Koungué Somsé and Koungué Lac Ossa villages that are also located within the Littoral region. The farms were set up in 1987 when Cameroon was still a German protectorate. Since then, the Cameroonian authorities have leased them for long periods of time. Today, Safacam’s plantations cover nearly 15,000 hectares.

Increasingly difficult cohabitation

After several changes in ownership, the company was taken over by Socfin (where the Bolloré group is a minority shareholder) in 2014. But the company’s ambitious business development project has increased tension among local populations, with whom cohabitation is becoming increasingly difficult.

“Ever since our land was taken in 1897, Safacam hasn’t even given us a fountain,” says Raymond Priso, an influential figure from Nsèppé Elog-Ngango village. “On the contrary, the water in our villages is full of pesticides and makes us sick.”

The company is also accused of claiming land that falls beyond the limits of the title deed, with help from some traditional chiefs and Cameroonian administration officials. “They have taken our land and destroyed our forests to build their camps. Camp 7, in particular, is not mentioned in the land deed. We don’t even have any space to cultivate,” says Bakamba.

We reached out to Socfin but the company did not wish to respond to any of our questions. However, in recent months, its Cameroonian subsidiary has communicated extensively on the process of acquiring the RSPO, on the progress made in terms of sustainable management of plantations and on their improved relations with local communities.

Safacam, for its part, highlighted the environmental impact study that it had carried out, the new facilitated access to the company’s documentation and the training that its employees had received to raise their awareness.

However, all these measures are not enough for Elong and representatives of the affected communities who have been campaigning for nearly 20 years, to have Littoral’s agro-industry take them into account.

“Everyone concerned needs to get around the table to discuss certain issues, especially those relating to land,” says the president of Synaparcam, which was created in 2014 to defend peasants’ rights. “We need to get to work again.”

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