Greenpeace, a non-governmental environmental organisation, recently published a report on the destruction of tropical forests and land grabbing in Cameroon by Sudcam, a Cameroonian subsidiary of Halcyon Agri, the global rubber giant which supplies rubber to major global tyre brands including Michelin, Bridgestone, Goodyear and Continental. The report has made the shocking revelation that between 2011 and 2018, Sudcam cleared more than 10,000 hectares of dense tropical rainforest — an equivalent of 10 football pitches a day — to make way for a rubber plantation.
In an interview to Rubber Asia, Irene Wabiwa Betoko, Senior Forest Campaign Manager, Greenpeace Africa, says Africa is now the ‘new frontier’ for deforestation and land grabbing because of limited democratic institutions, and the situation in Cameroon is alarming. The problem of land grabbing is a complex web that has corruption, greed and power abuse interwoven, she adds. EXCERPTS

How grave is the issue of the land grabbing and deforestation for rubber plantations in Cameroon?

The issue of land grabbing and deforestation is becoming alarming in Cameroon especially after the Government launched its 2035 emerging economy propaganda to make Cameroon an emerging economy. Large-scale areas of Intact Forest Landscape are being cut down at a very rapid rate destroying the biodiversity, local source of income and livelihood.

Is land grabbing and deforestation for rubber plantation happening in African countries?

Yes, Africa is now the new frontier for deforestation. Countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Republic of Congo and Gabon, to name a few, are all witnessing the influx of multinationals from Europe and Asia in search of land for large-scale plantation.
What are the factors that lead to land grabbing and deforestation for rubber plantation in Cameroon or African countries?
The economic reason is a major factor. In Cameroon, for example, the Government seeks to safeguard food security by opening up space for industrial agriculture. In a country where farming is mostly rudimentary and cannot support growing domestic demand, this might be considered laudable. However, the manner of implementation is so problematic that many local and indigenous communities have been crying aloud.
The need to create investment and provide employment opportunities in a country like Cameroon, where unemployment is at about 70%, is alluring. Multinationals are thus encouraged to invest in the country. But because laws are not usually implemented to control the activities of many private companies, they exploit the laxity of a system that lacks adequate checks and balances.
Governance and the rule of law also play a key role in fostering land grabbing and deforestation. Corruption, non-application of the law and power abuse by those in authority, who are always out to make the most out of vulnerable local communities who are ignorant of their rights, compound the problem.
Social and cultural aspects also accentuate the land grabbing problem in Cameroon. Many local and indigenous people lack basic information about the issues of land while some are ignorant of basic legal and regulatory procedures to safeguard their rights.

How does this land grabbing and deforestation nexus, including private companies, Government authorities, local bodies, local communities and even financial institutions, works?

The problem of land grabbing is a complex web that has corruption, greed and power abuse interwoven. Because the Government wishes to encourage development initiative and promote employment opportunities, multinationals are encouraged to invest in the agricultural sector. But there is a due process to follow including Free Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) between the multinational and local communities. The relevant ministries are charged with regulating the activities and relationships between the prospective investor and local communities.
However, private companies are almost always never satisfied. Their compensation to local communities is minimal; legally required buffer zones are not respected and there’s limited corporate social responsibility. The local communities do not often see any benefits from these private companies.

Could you please elaborate on the impact of land grabbing and deforestation for rubber plantations on local communities and the environment?

There is destruction of rich forest biodiversity that may never be restored. This has, no doubt, reduced ecotourism that in most cases should earn revenues for local and indigenous communities.
Also, there is loss of community water catchment as deforestation consumes everything. The plantation and the resulting activities will disrupt the flow of water forcing local communities to seek alternative sources. Because most local communities are ignorant of the law, they have nowhere to turn for help and they often have no trust in legal institutions.
The abuse of the rights of local and indigenous people is inevitable at the hands of private companies who have little regard for cultural and traditional identity. Local communities are limited from accessing the forest that they depend on and their livelihood is destroyed. As a result of losing their land right, there is pressure on rang-eland as private companies push local communities out from their ancestral land.

Do you think the international authorities concerned are intervening enough to tackle the issue?

I think the international authorities concerned are not doing enough because they do not understand the scale of land grabbing and the repercussions on local and indigenous communities.
Most African governments portray land grabbers as multinationals out to develop the agricultural sector, provide employment and guarantee food security. This is often not the case as illustrated by our recently published report on Halycon Agri and Sudcam, its Cameroonian subsidiary.
Also, most private companies actually connive with a few elites and Government officials to shield the issue of land grabbing from public scrutiny. Although most NGOs cry foul about the issue, many international authorities see them as anti-developmental who do not appreciate a good effort.

Do you think African countries are more vulnerable to be exploited for rubber plantation?

Where the rule of law is limited, transparency and accountability curtailed, people become vulnerable and are ripe for exploitation by greedy multinationals. It’s unfortunate that most African countries are suffering from land grabbing because of limited democratic institutions.