Under threat of land grabbing by agribusiness company Biopalm, indigenous Bagyeli women from the department of Océan say no to oil palm production in their forests.
Cameroon, Village of Mounguè: "Nda Bagyeli"
Well into her 50's, Régine Louanga has completed her farming activities by 10 am on 8 April 2019. She wants to attend the village meeting on the Biopalm project. With a brown scarf tied around her head and wearing a long flowery dress, locally known as a “Kaba”, this indigenous woman and mother of six is the first to arrive at the meeting venue in “Nda Bagyeli,” which in English means “House of the Bagyeli.”
Considered the stronghold of the indigenous Bagyeli community of the village of Mounguè in the district of Bipindi, “Nda Bagyeli” is located at the end of a forest road, about fifteen minutes’ walk from the dirt-track Elogbatindi-Bipindi departmental highway, which connects the district of Bipindi to the district of Lokoundjé, also in the department of Océan.
As soon as she arrives, Régine gets busy gathering her brothers and sisters. Within minutes, almost all the young people, women, men and children are gathered together around the palaver tree “Nda Bagyeli.” Without protocol or formalities, Charles Madjoka - a Bagyeli leader and President of ARBO, the Océan Association of Bagyeli Representatives (Association des Représentants Bagyeli de l’Océan) - takes the floor. He greets his brothers and sisters in Bagyeli and raises the “Biopalm issue," a matter of concern for the whole community.
The information spread in the community over the past few days about Biopalm’s arrival has now been confirmed. Decree No 2018/736 of 04 December 2018 - signed by the President of Cameroon - authorises “the signing by special exception of an emphyteutic lease between the state of Cameroon and PALM RESOURCES CAMEROON LTD (BIOPALM) on land that is part of private state property.”
It is difficult for communities to get a copy of the decree. But in the document titled Newsletter on the Mandate of Great Opportunity found online, the decree on Biopalm is cited in the list of 84 decrees signed by the President of the Republic in December 2018 (p. 82).
Article 1(1) of the full decree, obtained from a source, provides that:
This decree authorises the signing of an emphyteutic lease between the State of Cameroon as represented by the Minister of State Property, Surveys and Land Tenure and PALM RESOURCES CAMEROON LTD (BIOPALM), as represented by Mr. BISSO EYA Joseph on land that is part of private state property in the areas of “Gwap, Nkollo and Bella”, District of Lokoundjé, Department of Océan, with a view to establish an agro-industrial oil palm plantation.
According to the decree, the land in question covers more than 18 thousand hectares. Article 2 states: “The emphyteutic lease entered into for a period of 50 (fifty) years renewable, takes effect upon signature of the lease agreement between the state of Cameroon and PALM RESOURCES CAMEROON LTD.”
According to the Lokoundjé Communal Development Plan developed by the National Participatory Development Programme (PNDP) in 2011, the villages of Gwap, Nkollo and Bella include 4 settlements of indigenous forest communities. The Bagyeli community of Moungué is also affected as the land they use overlaps with that used by the Bagyeli from Gwap. As the first inhabitants of this forest, their survival largely depends on resources provided by the forest.
The Bagyeli communities cannot believe it. They have long expressed their opposition to the establishment of Biopalm in their forests, but the state has decided otherwise. The Bagyeli in the Océan Department are now afraid of losing the forests on which they depend entirely for their survival, like any indigenous forest community.
On the map showing Biopalm’s concession boundaries, the Bagyeli of Mounguè note bitterly that the agribusiness company will occupy the land of their indigenous brothers from neighbouring villages. Indeed, the map produced by civil society organizations based on the geographical boundaries specified in the presidential decree shows that Biopalm’s concession substantially encroaches on the land of the Bagyeli from the villages of Gwap, Nkollo and Bella.
As hunters-gatherers, the Bagyeli’s forest activities leave no trace. This allows neighbouring communities to share the same forest areas without any conflict. One more area of concern for the Bagyeli of Mounguè.
Pointing his finger at the map, an elder attending the meeting violently takes off his hat and exclaims to the audience,“They [Biopalm/employees] must not come in here. Do you hear me? If they come here, we’ll lose everything. For example, now we make a living from fishing, we will not do that any longer.”
A few steps away, sitting on a log surrounded by young girls and boys from the community, Régine raises her arms and asks herself, “We will leave this forest to go where?”
Paying close attention to the discussion, and after reviewing the information on the map, Catherine Ngo ko’o cannot imagine a life away from her forest. At 17 years old, the young Bagyeli women from Mounguè wishes to see her forest preserved to perpetuate the Bagyeli culture.
“If we lose our forest, I, for instance, will not have anywhere to camp during the main hunting season. We also rely on this forest to continue collecting our honey and other forest produce, hunting rats. We don’t need Biopalm here!” she hammers out.
To properly explain how Biopalm’s arrival would impact on their daily lives, Régine Louanga stands up, walks towards the forest and argues.
“Our home is in the forest. We cannot accept Biopalm since we don’t have another habitat, we cannot remain on the road. Biopalm will plant palm trees here behind our houses. If Biopalm comes, we will no longer have access to our forest. We will be forced to stay in our houses and will have very limited space to carry out our activities,” says the woman who settled in Mounguè as the wife of a local Bagyeli son some thirty years earlier.
People’s faces show concern, but also fierce determination to find a solution.
Our forest is our hospital
The Bagyeli of Gwap
Located in the district of Lokoundjé, department of Océan, South Region, the village of Gwap is renowned for the warm hospitality of its communities. And the Bagyeli of Gwap are no exception. The village of Gwap shares territorial boundaries with the village of Mounguè and like the latter, its two communities, i.e. the indigenous Bagyeli people and the Bantu (Bassa’a) people, coexist.
The news that a lease was to be signed between Cameroon and Biopalm for oil palm production in Gwap, Nkollo and Bella comes as a hammer blow to the Bagyeli of Gwap. They have heard about Biopalm since 2012, following Decree No 2012/168 of 29 March 2012, allocating by a temporary grant to Biopalm company two areas of national land encompassing 3,348 hectares located in the area of Bella. This was followed by a second decree, No 2012/3509/PM of 1 November 2012, under which 21,552 ha of the land that formerly formed part of the UFA 00-003 were “dedicated” to agricultural use through an unclear procedure.
The communities did not become aware of this second decree until much later. Referring to the first decree, the communities of Gwap thought that only the village of Bella was to be affected by Biopalm’s oil palm project. But they witnessed the presence of the company on their land as well. Concerned that the State would plan to allocate their land to the agribusiness, they spoke out against the project early on. On 31 August 2015, the Development Committees of the villages of Gwap, Mounguè and Nkollo sent a letter to the Governor of the South Region with the following subject matter: “Inhabitants of the villages of NKOLLO, GWAP and MOUNGUÈ opposing BIOPALM project implementation.” Subsequently, many other letters of opposition, also including the Bagyeli and Bantu communities of Bella (although part of the Bantu community in Bella, including their traditional chief, are in favour of the project) were sent to the government, particularly to the President’s Office.
The new decision is hard to accept for the Bagyeli peoples. But they remain determined to defend what is theirs: the forest.
Gathered around a palaver tree, in the heart of the Bagyeli territory, community members reaffirm their opposition to Biopalm’s arrival. Upon hearing the explanations contained on the map, a young man sitting on a log among his people uses a fly swat to draw boundaries on the ground and adds emphatically: “We had insisted so much that we didn’t want Biopalm. Why are they so stubborn?”
Almost in unison, some women shake their heads and say: “We don’t want Biopalm on our land”.
Well into her forties, Virginie Ngo Woulè is part of those Bagyeli women of Gwap with a strong personality. Born in Gwap and mother of five, Virginie is now a grandmother of four. For her, Biopalm’s arrival jeopardises the future of Bagyeli sons and daughters:
"If this project comes here, our forest will disappear. They [Biopalm] will snatch our land away. We have a lot of good things in this forest. We accept to preserve it as we greatly benefit from it. In contrast, this palm plantation thing: we don’t need it. We want what secures our forest."
Securing their forests is a priority for these communities. “We prefer community forests because they maintain all of our activities. But if our forests are allocated to Biopalm, we are lost. I’ll never be able to accept this,” Virginie states. In Gwap, as in the neighbouring villages, community forests are seen as a strategy to avoid land grabbing.
With support from civil society organisations (particularly the Association Okani and Forest Peoples Programme), the communities of Gwap, Nkollo and Mounguè are currently in the process of securing their forests through Community Forests. They filed their application for a Temporary Agreement with the State for Community Forest Management in November and December 2018. The community of Bella wanted to do the same, but their application remains blocked by their chief, a supporter of Biopalm, who refuses to sign.
The communities of Gwap, Nkollo and Mounguè were still awaiting a response from government authorities about this application when they found out about the Biopalm decree. The indigenous and Bantu communities of Mounguè, Gwap and Nkollo don’t know what will become of their project to create Community Forests. Indeed, according to the map prepared based on the data specified in the decree, the new Biopalm concession, which covers more than 18 thousand hectares, overlaps with the plots of land identified by these communities to establish Community Forests.
Securing forests is also a critical issue because of the medicinal functions of several forest species for the health of the Bagyeli. As evidence, Virginie goes to her field, located just behind the concession area, holds a plant and says: “For example, you see this herb? When I feel pain, I use it to heal myself. I eat it and it heals many illnesses.”
Daniel Ndete, a local traditional healer, confirms it. The village of Gwap does not have a health center. The communities always rely on the forest to resolve their health problems. Born in Gwap and father of eight, the fifty-year old man never misses a chance to talk about the medicinal properties of the forest:
This bark and these leaves I hold in my hand are a traditional medicine. Actually, yesterday, my daughter was sick. I put a small amount in water. She drank it and she’s better now. Trees are blessed. Each tree in the forest heals at least one illness. This is why I defend this forest, as this is my pharmacy. So, I cannot accept that Biopalm comes and takes this forest. How will my children and I manage?
Even access to drinking water is a real problem for these residents. Due to the lack of water points in Gwap, many Bagyeli use water from the rivers located just behind their houses. Others have to go to the next village, Nkollo, located around ten kilometres away to get drinking water.
Village of Nkollo, Bagyeli community
As opposed to Gwap, the village of Nkollo has a few water points. But the health situation is just as worrying as in Gwap, particularly given the thorny issue of the high number of child deaths.
Among the Bagyeli women we interviewed in Nkollo, out of eight women over the age of 20 who have given birth at least once, seven say they have lost at least one child. And yet there is a health centre in the village. However, corroborating sources report that this centre’s nurse is now working only part time.
Here, no one wants to hear about Biopalm. Pregnant women, women who are already mothers, or those without children, are ready to fight up to the ultimate sacrifice for future generations. They are fighting for lasting food security for Bagyeli communities. This is the case of Émilienne Kedi, currently pregnant with her next child:
"If I agree to let Biopalm come, what will I live off of? If I have my field, I can sell food. I am pregnant. When Biopalm comes, where will I do farm work to make a living for me and my children? Where and how will I pick wild mangoes to earn money? For us, the forest is cyclical. We use it and we must preserve it for our children."
Suzanne Ngo Mba, also pregnant, shares the same view. In her black dress with white dots that clearly outlines her belly, she fights against the tiredness that can be seen in her eyes to voice her opinion.
“I am pregnant. When the palm plantation invades us (since you want us to leave you our forests), we will no longer have access to rivers to go fishing. Even with those palm trees, we will not be allowed to cut nuts from them or pass through to go pick fruits in the forest. Even if I dare to go find a space, the company’s guards would shoot me, and I would die for nothing. I don’t accept the plantation here,” says the 29-year old woman who has already given birth to nine children, of whom only two are still alive.
Bagyeli never consulted for the Biopalm project
In Nkollo, young Merveille Ngo Mbogo looks puzzled. No matter how much she analyses the Biopalm case, her questions remain unanswered. Only one thing is clear for this 25-year old woman: the Biopalm project does not take the views of her community into account.
“Regarding this palm plantation project that they want to impose on our village, I don’t agree at all. Here women and men are still making children. Where will we and our children go hunting? Where will we find natural remedies to heal our children? What will we, as mothers, teach or pass on to our children as Bagyeli cultural values when there will be no more forest?”
Like a sting covering up a wound, her words awaken the Bagyeli community of Nkollo. With a thoughtful look, some move closer to the Biopalm boundary map, look at it attentively and shake their heads with dismay.
Joseph Lipani, leader of the Bagyeli community of Nkollo, shows a look of surprise and anger. Wearing a T-shirt with a picture of the head of state Paul Biya, he can hardly believe that the president of the Republic of Cameroon could sign this decree at the expense of the indigenous Bagyeli communities. “By signing this kind of text, is the head of state not aware of the existence of the Bagyeli in his country?” he asks himself before leaning back on his seat.
Village of Bella, district of Lokoundjé
Just as Nkollo and Gwap, Bella is one of the villages where the Biopalm project is to be established. The village’s neighbourhoods, Bella-Haut and Bella-Bas, are home to Bantus (Bakoko), but also - importantly, to two indigenous Bagyeli communities.
In Bella-Haut, community leaders look over the map showing the Biopalm concession boundaries set at their expense. Surprised, they ask one another why the Bagyeli’s views were not sought before this project.
“How can the state sell land without having a title? And even if it does have one, who attended the discussions? Did the state consult us as Bagyeli?”
The Bagyeli sons and daughters of Bella say they were not consulted before the decree on Biopalm’s agribusiness concession was signed. The indigenous communities of Mounguè, Gwap and Nkollo make the same complaint. However, according to the international conventions of which Cameroon is party, the ancestral lands and territories of the Bagyeli – and other traditional communities – belong to them, even if not officially recognized by the state. Therefore, Free Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) must be required by the state before any form of land grabbing takes place. These rights stem from, inter alia, the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ rights and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) adopted in 2007.
According to the Free, Prior and Informed Consent Guide for RSPO Members (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil), “FPIC is the right of indigenous peoples and other local communities to give or to withhold their consent to any project affecting their lands, livelihoods and environment.” Such consent should be given without any form of coercion or intimidation, sufficiently in advance of any authorisation or commencement of activities. The strong opposition from the communities leaves no doubt: these communities never gave their consent.
While men still focus on the decree issue, Ms. Bibanga, one of the Bagyeli women from Bella, cuts things short.
“Tell Biopalm to stay where they are now, not to come here.” She continues: “Biopalm must not come to Bella, first of all because our forest is not big, and we have no other livelihood than this forest. If they destroy the whole forest, what benefit will we get? This is why I, as a Bagyeli woman, refuse to let Biopalm come here in our village.”
Laurent Bibanga follows the same vein as his wife:
“How will we even benefit when Biopalm is here? What good is this project to us, the Bagyeli? For us Bagyeli, Biopalm is useless. They will come and establish their plantation here, eat their money, occupy our lands for years. We will not be able to hunt anymore, we may even go to jail. They’ll have guards who will kill us,” Laurent says, upset.
Lessons from experiences elsewhere
Marie Djoki, age 45 and mother of one, is a woman from Bella. Engaged in the fight for Bagyeli women’s rights and empowerment, and a member of the Océan Association of Bagyeli Representatives, Marie breastfeeds her baby while participating in the Bagyeli community meeting in Bella Bas.
She believes that lessons need to be drawn from experiences elsewhere to avoid repeating the same pitfalls.
“If the state takes away our forest, it takes away our lives because when we see the plantations in other places, we see no benefit for local development. Among our brothers in Kilombo (in the district of Lokoundjé where Socapalm plantations are located), for example, the communities no longer have anywhere to farm, to hunt or anything else because of the palm plantations. Accepting the palm plantation means we are dead.”
Boniface Baman, a 31-year old father of two, dreams of a future for the Bagyeli children of Bella, of which he is a part. He is convinced that development in his village will not come about through establishing an oil palm agribusiness company.
“We have travelled to villages that were affected by such plantations. There, people only cry out of misery. If palm plantations were developed, why did they not develop those villages? Will they develop Bella?” young Boniface asks inquiringly. Continuing his argument, he condemns this situation, which he considers unjust. “Even if it’s a presidential decree, they should leave our forest alone because we live in this forest. When they come here, we learn only that they are in the forest. Since they have the money and we are poor, is this why we should disappear from life? We don’t like this way of doing things.”
From Mounguè in the district of Bipindi, to Bella in the district of Lokoundjé, the call for help from both Bantu and Bagyeli communities is the same. This rejection of the Biopalm project implementation is not new, and neither is the Biopalm issue.
Biopalm, information kept away from communities
The first announcement related to Biopalm dates back to 2011. On 25 August 2011, the online news outlet Cameroon Today “Over 900 billion FCFA will be invested in this project to generate over 40,000 direct jobs and contribute in reducing palm oil deficit in Cameroon,” according to MINADER, the news outlet states.
According to the article, the Singapore-based company Biopalm Energy Ltd., a subsidiary of SIVA Group, planned to invest in over 200,000 hectares for oil palm production and processing. However, the company was to start investing in 3,348 hectares in Bella, in March 2012 according to the Memorandum of Understanding signed on 17 January 2011 between the Cameroonian government and SIVA Group representatives, which states that the Government will provide the 200,000 hectares needed for the project.
Furthermore, the reporter notes that “officials of SIVA Group and those of the Cameroon government were in the village of Bella on April 17, 2011 to negotiate the first 20,000 hectares of land in which the company intend to start the plantation in the upcoming three years.”
March 2012, the President of the Republic formalised the project. Article 1 of decree No 2012/168 of 28 March 2012 states: “A provisional concession is hereby granted to BIOPALM ENERGY LIMITED, for a period of three years from the date of notification of this Decree, over two areas of National Land encompassing 3,348 hectares located in the area of “Bella”, district of Lokoundjé, department of Océan.”
Article 2 says that the concession in question is aimed at establishing a long-term palm plantation for palm oil production. The state gives the company three years to invest in accordance to specifications (never seen), failing which the concession would be revoked. According to the same text, at the end of the provisional concession, “the concession holder shall only be entitled to conclude an emphyteutic lease with the state of Cameroon.”
An apparently unrelated event occurs months later. Cameroon’s Prime Minister signs Decree No 2012/3509/PM of 1 November 2012 on the re-zoning of an area of forest that is part of Private State Property.
Article 1(1) of the PM’s decree states: “The area of forest encompassing 21,552 hectares located in the district of Lokoundjé, department of Océan, South Region, and which is part of a larger area of 125,568 hectares, incorporated into the state’s private property as a ‘production forest’ under Decree no 97/073/PM of 5 February 1997 shall be as from the date of signature of this decree dedicated to agricultural production.”
The remaining part, covering an area of 104,016 hectares remains dedicated to timber production. This leads to a change in the boundaries of the Forest Management Unit (Unité forestière d’aménagement – UFA) No 00 003 owned by the Forestry Company of Kribi. Note that the UFA No 00 003, formerly owned by MMG (Mba Mba Gregoire), was transferred to FCK.
So far, the communities haven't made a connection between Biopalm and the new re-zoning of the forest. To the contrary, they hope that the decommissioned area will be granted to the communities. In fact, they are not aware of the specifics of the re-zoning, which they only find out about many years later when the civil society organisations that support the communities manage to obtain a copy of the decree.
In the village of Bella, years go by and Biopalm does not start operations. However, the shadow of the agribusiness company is still hanging over the department of Océan, including Bella, Nkollo, Gwap and Mounguè.
In May 2016, knowing that Biopalm’s three-year provisional concession has been over for more than a year and lacking clear information about the project, traditional chiefs write to the President of the Republic. The subject matter of their letter speaks volumes about its content: “Opposing land grabbing from the Bagyeli, Bassa and Bakoko communities of the villages of Mounguè, Gwap, Nkollo and Bella in the districts of Bipindi and Lokoundjé.”
As a result of these various procedures, the authorities convene a meeting with these communities. On this occasion, both the Bantu and the Bagyeli reaffirm their positions and believe they have been heard.
Within the community however, men and women witness the daily and ever-accelerating destruction of their forest. Trucks loaded with logs leave the village several times a week. On the logs piled up in the back of the tractors-trailers, one can read VC (vente de coupe or sale of standing timber). The goal, according to several corroborating sources, is to clear-cut the forest in order to pave the way for the development of the Biopalm concession. Heavy machinery used to haul or lift logs can also be found in the yard of various family concessions.
Under the threat of their land being grabbed, the indigenous Bagyeli communities are advocating for the preservation of their forests for future generations, as the knowledge of indigenous communities - recognised as the first inhabitants of the forests of Cameroon and across the Congo Basin - teaches.