Who Owns the Land? Cameroon’s Large-Scale Land-Grabs by Foreigners

Filed under: Africa |
Cameroon Land Grab photo

African land is being bought up by foreigners at a record pace

AFRICANGLOBE – As part of a trend that is accelerating across Africa, thousands of Cameroonians have been displaced from their homelands to make way for large-scale agribusiness projects.

Inhabitants of Adjap, a largely deprived hamlet nestled deep in the heart of the tropical rainforests of southern Cameroon are living life on the margins. Over the years, its roughly 2,000 denizens have watched their ancestral forest lands continually annexed by the government and ceded to foreign agribusinesses and logging companies.

“Our ancestors settled here in 1903. We considered the land ours until 1947 when the colonial government suddenly seized it as private state property, arresting anyone cutting down trees for firewood or to build”, explains Adjap chief, Marcellin Biang.

Alongside thousands of neighbours in 17 adjacent villages, the people of Adjap have eventually been squeezed into a 14,000-hectare strip of land – less than a third of the near 50,000-hectare expanse they controlled under pre-colonial customary jurisprudence. They complain that the steady erosion of their tenure rights is having a disastrous impact on livelihoods.

In Akom I, chieftain Luther Abessolo says his subjects are increasingly lazy as a result of the prevailing tenure insecurity. “We live in utter uncertainty because the government can decide to seize our land at short notice anytime. Our people lack motivation to cultivate the land”, he says.

Similarly affected are some 32 aboriginal Bagyieli. They’ve been dislodged from their traditional forest environs and constrained to survive as misfits in unfamiliar village settings. “Before, we led normal lives, hunting and gathering medicinal plants for a living. But logging companies and agro-industries have destroyed the forests”, says a Batwa community head, Martin Mba.

Yet despite their despair, these groups are comparably lucky. Initially, the government appropriated all their lands for use by foreign investors. But three years of pressure from 2006, masterminded by local NGO Cameroon Ecology (CAMECO), resulted in the government backpedalling and retroceding a portion of land over which the Bagyieli now have some limited rights.

Less fortunate, however, are some 14,000 villagers in Cameroon’s southwest whose existence – as well as that of numerous endangered floral and faunal species – is under threat. US-owned agribusiness,Herakles Farms, is razing some 73,000 hectares of dense natural forests for a $600 million oil palm plantation despite local objections.

Some locals have been arrested for protesting. Herakles officials say that the company has legitimately leased the land for 99 years, but Greenpeace insisted in February that the meagre 50 cents per acre per year rent to the government, the absence of a presidential decree authenticating the concession, pending lawsuits, and flawed environmental impact assessments, among other things, call the investment into question.

This is snapshot of battles being fought out across much of Cameroon. Hostilities have frequently erupted elsewhere between nationals and foreign firms, including Chinese agribusinesses growing rice, maize and cassava exclusively for their home markets.

Findings from research released in March by Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI) indicate that over 10 million of Cameroon’s estimated 22 million hectares of forest lands have already been committed to various concessions, and that some $18 billion has been pipelined for investment in the agribusiness, forestry, mining and infrastructure sectors in Cameroon.

From Periphery to Priority

Large-scale land acquisitions by foreign governments and investors – a phenomenon termed “land-grabbing” by activists – peaked following the 2008 global food price spikes. Governments and venture capitalists from the Gulf States, Asian tiger economies, EU and US rushed to acquire large terrains in developing countries to grow and secure food supplies for their populations and biofuels for expanding markets.

But the practice has been increasing for at least a decade. The Land Matrix Partnership estimates that 227 million hectares of land have been ‘grabbed’ worldwide since 2001. And according to the World Bank, 70% of the current demand for forest and arable land is concentrated in Africa, with its vast parcels of “cheap” and “unoccupied” terrains. Liberia, for example, has reportedly sold off three-tenths of its territory in five years.

“Once seen as marginal, this issue has emerged as one of the development priorities of our different governments”, Cameroon’s Forestry and Wildlife Minister, said Philip Ngole Ngwese.

Indeed, across West and Central Africa, an escalating number of poverty-stricken men, women and children in rural areas are being chased off ancestral lands they have relied on for generations for farming, grazing and hunting. They are increasingly squatters and low-paid labourers for the incoming foreign investors and local elites.

“When the government takes this land and gives it out in a lease for 40, 50 or up to 99 years, the people often lose access to these commons resources”, Michael Richards, Natural Resources Economist with the UK-based Forest Trends, notes.

“In some cases, they do allow access for the extraction of certain products. But in other cases, they put great fences which stop communities having access.” Land grabbers also usually obtain unlimited rights to water use, Richards adds, implying curtailed availability for downstream users.

Part Two 

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