Inhabitants of Adjap, deep in the heart of the tropical rainforests of southern Cameroon are living life on the margins. Over the years, its people 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 tribal chief, Marcellin Biang.
The Adjap natives 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.
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”
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.
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. The organisation has been pressing for government forest land policy reforms that recognise and restore land ownership rights of local communities. RRI warns the tenure crisis is worst in Africa, where only 0.4% of forest land is formally owned by local people, as opposed to around 24% in Asia and Latin America.
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.