By the Human Rights, Economic Development, and Globalization Clinic, École de Droit, Sciences Po
Oil, and palm oil in particular, has been hot news in France, especially due to the controversy over the so-called “Nutella tax,” which aims to cut obesity by tripling the tax on products that use oils such as palm oil. This is despite an unprecedented boom in the use of palm oil in the past decade.
Yet people in France often forget that the production of palm oil also has environmental consequences, notably vast deforestation, reduction of biodiversity, soil depletion, and water pollution. This also impacts inhabitants of the areas concerned, especially by displacing populations and negatively impacting sustainable and people-based development.
Prime areas of palm-oil cultivation include countries in Southeast Asia, such as Malaysia (4,819,483 hectares) and Indonesia (7,527,760 hectares); Central Africa, such as Sudan (3,123,430 hectares), Ethiopia (2,412,562 hectares), and Cameroon (147,980 hectares); and Central and South America, such as Brazil (3,871,824 hectares) and Argentina (1,505,020 hectares). Foreign investment in plantations most often comes from former colonial powers such as France, and emerging economies, such as the Gulf countries and China, whose interest in palm oil mainly stem from its use in biodiesel and a desire to produce a clean environment in their own countries.
On Saturday the 2 February 2013, Greenpeace activists, led by coordinator Fréderic Amiel, met at the Place du Palais Royal in Paris to demonstrate against the Herakles Farms project in Cameroon. For the completion of this project, a subsidiary of U.S.-based Herakles Farms called SG Sustainable Oils Cameroon PLC will demolish 70,000 hectares of forest in the Ndian and Kupe-Manenguba Divisions of Southwest Cameroon to make space for a palm oil plantation. The project is based on a questionable contract including a 99-year lease where SG Sustainable Oils will pay a rent of only about $1 per hectare. The company estimates that the project will impact 14,000 people, a figure which local and international associations and NGOs fighting the project denounce as representing half of the real number of affected people.
Greenpeace has focused its efforts on this case because of its highly negative impact on the livelihoods of local communities, and its potential to set precedent and excite repercussions on future land-grabbing cases. Land grabbing is indeed a controversial issue, which reflects a quasi-absence of regulation of sovereign and private actors conducting themselves, at times, in a neo-colonial fashion. As of today, estimates show that national and international investors have claimed more than 80 million hectares of land, primarily in Africa and in low-income countries, with the primary intention of producing cash crops, and with little focus on local environmental or human impacts.
Brendan Schwartz, member of the Cameroonian NGO Réseau de Lutte contre le Faim (Network fighting Hunger in Cameroon), and Samuel Nguiffo, associate of the Center for the Environment and Development, have joined forces to protest the illegality of the lease contract under Cameroonian law, as well as international conventions to which the country has signed. Despite ongoing legal proceedings, injunctions from Cameroonian courts, and contrary evidence from environmental and social impact studies, the project has continued its operations.
Paul Biya, President of Cameroon since 1982, came to the Elysée presidential palace in Paris from January 30th to February 2nd to meet with President François Hollande and to discuss the development of economic ties between the two countries. During his visit, several environmental organizations, including Greenpeace, denounced the silence of the government of Cameroon regarding the Herakles Farms project. At this stage of the ongoing campaign against the project, a transnational coalition of NGOs and advocates is coordinating a series of advocacy initiatives, including the arrival in France of Nasako Besingi, Director of the NGO Struggle to Economise the Future Environment, who has been a central figure in this campaign. Mr. Besingi and some of his volunteers were jailed for two days without official cause, although it appears their arrests resulted from their fight against violations of the rights of affected communities generated by the SGSOC and the Herakles Farms project.
In light of the past and present relationship between Cameroon and France, due to the alarming increase in land acquisitions in the Global South, and with willingness to contribute to a wider and deeper understanding of large scale land investments, the Paris-based Sciences-Po Law School Clinic has decided to include the Herakles Farms case among the ongoing projects of its Human Rights, Economic Development and Globalization (HEDG) program. The first in France to link academic theory with legal and multidisciplinary advocacy in this emerging field, HEDG involves teams of law and international affairs students, Ph.D. candidates, faculty, and practitioners affiliated with the Clinic. A HEDG team is currently working to analyze the legal and economic dimensions of the Herkales Farms project, as well as potential advocacy and recourse mechanisms in support of those locally affected.