12 Sep 2011: Report

A Huge Oil Palm Plantation
Puts African Rainforest at Risk

As global agricultural companies turn to Africa, a U.S. firm is planning a massive oil palm plantation in Cameroon that it says will benefit local villagers. But critics argue that the project would destroy some of the key remaining forests in the West African nation and threaten species-rich reserves.

by rhett butler and jeremy hance

Industrial palm oil production is coming to Africa, its ancestral home. The world’s most productive oil seed has been a boon to Asian economies, but the looming arrival of large-scale plantations in Africa is raising fears that some of the same issues plaguing Malaysia, Indonesia, and other leading producers — deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity loss, conflicts with local people, and poor working conditions — could befall one of the world’s most destitute regions.

One of the biggest palm oil projects in Africa is being developed by Herakles Farms, a New York-based agricultural firm that is planning to cultivate a 60,000-hectare (148,000-acre) plantation in Cameroon. The problem is that Herakles’ proposed plantation lies in the middle of one of Africa’s most biodiverse — and threatened — landscapes. The 99-year lease granted to the firm by the Cameroonian government is adjacent to several important reserves, including world-renowned Korup National Park, and is set to replace forests and small farms. Environmental groups, led by SAVE Wildlife Conservation Fund of Germany, warn that the plantation will destroy rainforest and disrupt the lives of local people.

Given the environmental importance of the site of the proposed Herakles plantation, conservationists are asking, why there? Considering that Africa
Given the environmental importance of the plantation site, conservationists are asking: Why there?
has more than 400 million hectares of degraded forest land available for development, why not choose an area where the forest is already gone? “Given the versatility of oil palm and so much degraded, deforested land across the tropics, surely there are better places to make this kind of investment,” said Nigel Sizer, director of the World Resources Institute’s (WRI) Global Forests Initiative, who met with Herakles officials to express his concerns.

But the company seems determined to move ahead with the project in its current location, saying the plantation will provide economic development for the region while inflicting minimal environmental harm. Herakles vows to abide by strict environmental and social standards and to bring jobs and opportunity to a part of the world that desperately needs both: Forty percent of Cameroonians live on the equivalent of less than a dollar a day, and underemployment rates top 75 percent.

In fact, Herakles claims its commitment goes beyond providing employment. The firm has created the non-profit organization, All for Africa, to fund social ventures across the continent with profits from its palm oil operations in Cameroon. But conservationists view this charity through a different lens, seeing it as a vehicle for marketing a controversial project and downplaying environmental and social concerns.

Click to enlarge
Cameroon palm oil plantation

SAVE Wildlife Conservation Fund
Area of Herakles oil palm plantation
The final hurdle Herakles faces is winning environmental approval from the Cameroonian government. Bruce Wrobel, president & CEO of Herakles Capital, said, “There isn’t a question of it going forward, more of what the exact [total] area will be.”

But more than 80 conservation and civil society organizations are opposing the project in its current form, hoping that their opposition will scare away the investors that Herakles needs to fund its project. “The challenge Herakles now faces is where to raise the $300 million or more to implement the plan,” said WRI’s Sizer. “Many potential investors will shy away from a project that involves reputational risks from forest loss and complicated negotiations with local communities.”

The plantation site sits amid four protected areas, including Korup National Park, Rumpi Hills Forest Reserve, Bakossi National Park, and Banyang Mbo Wildlife Sanctuary. Korup itself is home to more than 600 species of trees, nearly 200 species of reptiles and amphibians, an estimated 1,000 butterfly species, 400 bird species, and 160 mammal species, including one of the richest assemblages of primates in the world. Korup contains 14 different types of primates, including such threatened or endangered species as red-eared guenon, Preuss’s red colobus, the drill, and the Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee, the most imperiled of the world's chimpanzee subspecies. Leopards, bushpigs, duikers, brush-tailed porcupines, and forest buffalo roam the lowland rainforest as well.

Environmentalists contend that the proposed plantation will likely disrupt important wildlife migration routes and isolate wildlife populations by preventing them from dispersing and intermingling. The plantation, which
Environmentalists contend the proposed plantation will likely disrupt important wildlife migration routes.
is half the size of Korup Park, could create a barrier for forest elephants traveling between Korup and Rumpi.

Environmental groups also argue that the plantation will hurt wildlife by worsening the already problematic bushmeat trade. Such concern is not without precedent. In Southeast Asian palm oil plantations, some workers — who often live below the poverty line — illegally get their dinner through wildlife snares and hunting.

In fact, a conservation scientist with detailed knowledge of the area and the oil palm industry said that given the draw of jobs, people would migrate to the region, making it only a matter of time before wildlife suffered under a rising human population.

“Animals will be wiped out and the current conservation infrastructure is ill-equipped to do anything about it,” said the scientist, who requested anonymity. “So, unless Herakles plans on hiring and training hundreds of ecoguards in each protected area, funding environmental education programs throughout the plantation area, restricting immigration into the area, and providing non-bushmeat alternative protein to its employees and surrounding residents, Korup is in big trouble.”

Cameroon Palm Oil Nursery
SAVE Wildlife Conservation Fund
A Herakles oil palm nursery located at Fabe village, which borders Cameroon’s Korup National Park.
Herakles counters by saying it will abide by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) guidelines, which include not cutting down primary forest. Herakles Farms is a subsidiary of Herakles Capital, a New York-based venture finance firm that specializes in investments in developing countries. In 2009, Herakles Farms acquired SG Sustainable Oils Cooperatif (SGSO) and its proposed Cameroon palm oil project from Sithe Global. Sithe Global is owned by the Blackstone Group L.P., a major, New York-based private equity and asset management company. Although Blackstone has been targeted by some environmental campaigners, Peter Rose, Blackstone’s senior managing director for public affairs, said that Blackstone has “no connection to this [Cameroon] project, directly or indirectly.”

Already Herakles has foresworn development of 10,000 hectares of its initial 83,000-hectare concession. The company says the loss of forest will be “primarily degraded secondary forest” and that the area to be cultivated was heavily logged less than 20 years ago. Herakles also says it is considering creating wildlife corridors and is discussing that prospect with experts.

As for worsening the bushmeat trade, Wrobel maintains the plantation will remedy the problem instead of exacerbating it. “We believe that the opportunity to have cash incomes for the first time in this area will actually have quite a significant impact in terms of reducing illegal bushmeat hunting and logging,” said Wrobel.

Herakles has already signed the lease granting it use of the land for 50 cents to $1 per hectare annually, and some preliminary forest clearing has begun. “Many people in these villages are against this development because it would mean losing their forests, and either being surrounded by oil palms or being forced to relocate,” said a press release from Save Wildlife Conservation Fund “Most of these villagers rely heavily on farming to feed their families and earn an income. They also rely heavily on the non-timber forest products.”

Letters from impacted communities express concern and, in some cases, outright opposition to the plantations, accusing the company of already illegally clearing forests. But the letters aren’t necessarily supportive of conservation groups, either. In one, local people bemoan that they have already lost nearly half a million hectares to protected areas and ask, if the
In a letter, local residents asked, ‘What quantity of land will then be left for our prosperity?’
deal with Herakles proceeds, “What quantity of land will then be left for our prosperity?”

In August, a local organization, the Bima Cultural Union for Development (BICUD), drew up a list of demands, including a reduction in the length of the lease to 30 years, renewable once; a massive reduction in the size of the plantation; and more engagement with local chiefs. BICUD said its members didn’t want to give up any more land to “protected areas, council forests, other villages, or an American company.”

For its part, Herakles, says the plantation will not result in any local people being relocated and will lift many in the region out of poverty by creating 9,000 jobs.

“We believe that developing a sustainable and responsible palm oil industry in Africa is key to food security on the continent,” said Wrobel. “We expect that when complete we’ll move half of families in the economic impact area into the middle class. We have lofty social ambitions there.”

A key vehicle for those ambitions is the charity created by Herakles, All for Africa, which will own 7,000 hectares of palm oil plantations. Wrobel is also the CEO of All for Africa, which the company says will use proceeds from its portion of the plantation to support a number of African non-profits, from those focusing on water and sanitation to education and community health. The charity, which has received accolades from former U.S. President Bill Clinton, says it is hoping to plant a million palm oil trees to raise $750 million for the initiative.


By Barcoding Trees, Liberia
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By Barcoding Trees, Liberia Looks to Save its Rainforests
A decade after a brutal civil war, the West African nation of Liberia has partnered with the European Union on a novel system for protecting its remaining forests — marking every harvestable tree so it can be traced to its final destination. But given Liberia’s history of conflict and corruption, will it work?
All for Africa has also portrayed its scheme as a climate change mitigation mechanism. But that claim isn’t supported by science, especially if a significant portion of the plantation is carved out of primary tropical forest. A 2009 study by the World Agroforestry Centre found that palm oil plantations store less than 40 tons of carbon per hectare over their 25-year lifespan. By comparison, logged forests store 70 to 200 tons of carbon per hectare, while some untouched forests, particularly in temperate zones, store more than 400 tons of carbon per hectare.

The charity allows donors to buy a “tree of the month.” But it appears that every month’s tree is oil palm, an example, some conservationists say, that All for Africa’s plan is misguided at best, disingenuous at worst. To date, the organization says that people have donated 32,350 trees.

“All for Africa likely has the best of intentions,” said William Laurance, a tropical forest scientist with James Cook University who has worked in Cameroon. “But how would donors respond to know a forest will be cut down to plant their tree?”

POSTED ON 12 Sep 2011 IN Biodiversity Climate Forests Oceans Policy & Politics Africa Africa North America 


SG Sustainable Oils Cameroon Ltd has violated the provision of Law No 96/12 0f 5/8/96 relating to Enviromental Management and of decree No.2005/0577/PM of 23/02/2005 fixing the modalities for carrying out of Enviromental Impact Assessment report with IMPUNITY.In violation of article 1(2) of the said decree,SG SOC went ahead to bulldoze large areas of land and fell all timber therein in two locations within Mundema (Fabe-Bima) and Toko (Lowe Batanga) Sub Divisions and establishing nurseries when not yet authorized to do so.Furthermore, they totally disrespected the provisions of article 5 of the said decree in failing to hold consultation with all segments of the society as stipulated therein. And it was only when they were dragged to court by a local NGO that SG Sustainable Oils Cameroon hurriedly arranged public hearingsin Mundemba as from 29thAugust to 3rd September 2011 at a time and place where they knew that very few persons will be in attendance of the bad state of the roads in the area this raining season. The public hearings were also fixed in violation of article 12 of the Decree of 2005 as SG SOC did not make available to the representatives of our communities, a draft of SEIA document.

Posted by BARRISTER VERINE EKOLE on 13 Sep 2011

If readers are more interested in WRI's work mapping lands in Africa with restoration potential, cited early in the article please go to:


Posted by Nigel Sizer on 13 Sep 2011

I'm surprised the paid palm oil pundits (like PalmHugger) haven't weighed in on this one yet. Anyway it seems like this project could be done the right way or the wrong way; at this point it could go either way. Herakles seems to say the right things, but it is undermining itself with its actions and marketing tactics. To me it seems like greater consultation and transparency could alleviate some of the concerns and turn this project into something that could bring economic benefits without the environmental costs.

Posted by Timothy M on 13 Sep 2011

Palm oil production rapes our earth.

Posted by lori Barrie on 13 Sep 2011

And on a river of palm oil the planet will be carried to a settle point of 1000 ppm co2 by the year 2150.

Posted by Mark J. Fiore on 13 Sep 2011

A forest is more precious than it's product.

Posted by Gloria Picchetti on 13 Sep 2011

Given how easily "seductive" development can ruin our (the planet's) dwindling ecological resources, we need to include the environment in our writing and discussions more aggressively than we do. We also need the kind of American leadership that reconciles the prerogatives of the planet and those of nation states.

Posted by TRB on 13 Sep 2011

All that these big companies care about is the money that they are raking in, they care nothing about who gets hurt in the process!

Posted by Ruth on 14 Sep 2011

Now we see the reason to have a government, who insures the rules, laws and policies defend the people and environment from greedy and corrupt back stabbing profiteers, who only seek exploitation of natural resources to make themselves rich and wealthy at our expense.

Create the environment you want to prosper, so that it can happen. The "monetary system" takes no responsibility for the well-being of ALL people.

Everyone on this planet ALL want to experience a better quality of life. The question becomes what are "WE" doing to create that existence, by creating that environment, so that it can exist and happen?

What do we care about that effort we give each day to see that is does happen?

Posted by Gao Hongming 高洪明 on 15 Sep 2011

@Timothy M. For a paid hack, we're surprised with your moderate stance. What a breath of fresh air! If only all hacks were as objective as you.

We agree that the economic benefits of the project has to be balanced with the environmental impact.

However, consider what will happen if Herakles should choose to plant another edible oil crop instead of palm oil?

The environmental costs would be up to ten times higher as the average palm oil yield per year is nearly 6 times that of its nearest competitor, rape seed which is Australia's third most important crop, 8 times that of sunflower and 10 times that of soyabean.

Imagine the deforestation and devastation in the 'developed' countries and tropical forests if oil palm is prevented from production and expansion to meet the world's demand for oils and fats. The oil palm is a perennial tree crop and in no way, can the other competing annual crops be more 'green' or sustainable.

Finally, the WRI should be commended for its stance. It is certainly desirable for palm oil to be planted on degraded land if such land exists in Africa. However, planting palm oil on the concession area would definitely be more environmentally friendly than planting other edible oilseed crops. Unless your position is that Africans should be denied the right to exploit their own agricultural resources and economic development to salve the conscience of western environmental types who have never hesitated over the centuries to plunder and destroy their own and other countries' forests for their own economic benefit!

Posted by Palmhugger on 16 Sep 2011

I've been to Korup National Park. I'm not sure what to make of this development.

It should be noted that there are already a lot of plantations around there - not anything like the scale of the proposed development, but still, they are around. I remember the regular rows of trees as I was waiting for a jeep after coming out of the park. The drive to Mundemba (just outside the park) from Kumba is a terrible road, and the plantation would help develop those roads and infrastructure in the region.

However, Cameroon is a huge country, and there must be better places for such a development rather than right up against a series of beautiful national parks. It seems to be that the proposed location must be because it's cheaper to establish the site there than elsewhere (e.g. in the Cameroon's northeast). It would be useful to have a clearer idea of where else was considered for the plantation, and why those sites were rejected.

Posted by Mat Todd on 17 Sep 2011

Palmhugger: I'm curious who pays me. I'd like to know since I haven't seen the check. You on the other hand are funded by interests in the Malaysian palm oil industry--you should admit as much.

As usual, you've set up a false juxtaposition of palm oil versus crops that aren't going to be grown in the region. The choice is thus not between palm and rapeseed/soy but palm and forest.

Posted by Timothy M on 17 Sep 2011

This is just another example of how monetary system is "really" working today. Cut down forests for more profit, dishonest about the fact of bring more jobs. My question is, if the environmentalist & others could foresee the long coming problems, what about the American firm?!

Plus, 99 years is a long time, most people who are in part of this deal won't even be around anymore. I think it's silly to sign such a long contract when no one knows what might happen in the future.

I believed the definition of what we need is base on individual's situation. Food and shelter are basic, their living cost is less than $1 per day...but how much more could dollar value raise in their condition?! to $2000 per month like the North America stander? If not, which means food and shelter could cost less than what the society think the locals might need.

SO, corporation can stop using the excuse of "bring in better economic"...because dollar volume is not everyone's need. To communicate more is the key, not direct dealing with government is the only thing that needs to be done.

One last thing, I just hate to see how selfish and greedy companies are these day. What happen with social responsibility? What happen to business moral? If you propose the same idea in North America, besides the dollar volume, what else would people say if anyone comes their door and interrupt their daily life ( for example for fisher man or farmer or anyone who is even so tidy with their yard ) Stupid corporate method with selfish needs~~

Investor, DON'T invest your money. Crazy to cut off forest for personal profit.

Posted by Bonnie on 23 Sep 2011

The people who run SGSOC or HERAKLES farms are doing all this for their selfish reason.They have made several promises to villagers who do not know anything about the environmental and socio-economic impact of the project.After one year of illegal activities, nothing has been done to the villagers apart from offering them black collared jobs.

Thank God the former Minister of Forestry and Wildlife have been sacked.I hope this will reverse the situation

Our forest is not for sale!!!

We will fight back with the last drop of our blood to stop this from hapenning. God be our helper!!

Posted by Prince Cletus on 12 Dec 2011

economic benefits of Palm Oil are worth their destruction. Also, it does not seem likely the local population will gain much economically, usually these projects are developed by outsiders. Does a project of this scale seem like a local venture? Any infrastructure development that results is just as likely to bring in all manner of itinerants and chancers to cause trouble.

Posted by Nick B on 29 Dec 2011

Environmentalists should leave our countries alone and allow us to develop, provide jobs for our teaming youths and ensure food security. How is America producing wheat? How is Thailand producing rice? How is Brazil producing sugar cane? Why are the monkeys the environmentalists seek to protect not preserved in their countries? It is obvious that tthese NGOs are sponsored to forestal the potentials of palm oil in the world oils and fats market. While we seek to protect the environment we should remember that food on the table is the foremost priority. Palm tree conserve the environment than soybean.

Posted by samba on 08 Jan 2012

My dear Mr. Samba, while I agree with you that we must have putting food on the table as a priority, we cannot do so at the expense of man's very existence. I come from the land being expropriated for these large agro palm plantation and haven worked before for another large oil palm company operating in the same forest area, I think I am in a better position to educate you on why we do not need another oil palm plantation in the area.
I have seen and survived the disaster caused by over heating and changing climate. I am sure you heard of the hurricane Katrina that hit New Orleans in the States. What I am trying to say here is that because the developed world cut down its own forest in error for the purpose of development, we cannot afford to and should not make the same mistake.

After all, how much money is paid in wages to the laborers in these plantations. The wages barely suffice to put good food on the table and allow for parents to offer their kids a good education. The natives gain very little in exchange for the very significant loss of their ancestral lands and in the processs their cultures and ways of life.

I am no environmentalist but love nature and haven grown in that forest watching the birds chirp away, the fishes swim away, the animals run away and even the breath taking freshness of the forest and the very benefits derived from the NTFP's that helped educate some of us, we would rather have our forest and environment stay as is now.
What we want now are good roads, schools and hospitals and we will manage the forest and better our lives without destroying it for the profits of some foreign conglomerates. We must and have it as duty to hand down to our kids a clean, safe and sustainable forest and environment as our fore-fathers did for us. We are a native minority and we must be protected from any exploitation from what ever quaters, be it the government of Cameroon or the Rich Investor that want to exploit the land with promises of bringing development.

Posted by Epingo Raphael on 05 Feb 2012

Further to all the other violations, Herakles Farms or whatever name they care to operate under is undermining Cameroonian law and security by establishing their plantation in Mussongisselli, Idiba Nyanga and Isangele which are all border areas.

This is contrary to section 10 of the 1974 land law as modified by the 1980 Land Ordinance which categorically excludes foreign corporate bodies from acquiring or owning land within border areas.

The Cameroon government and all other interested parties should review the contract and put pressure on Herakles Farms to stop operations within this area.

One outstanding fact is that the Memorandum of Understanding is never negotiated with the communities concerned but merely dictated and the people are bullied to sign with vague promises. Their souls are never part of the M.O.U.

Whatever the case, God is in control.

Posted by Roberts on 31 Mar 2012

I wonder what is sustainable agriculture?

Posted by Christopher Tseu on 12 Aug 2012

I stand firmly against foreign occupation of indigenous land no matter the reason provided. The so-called poverty level in Cameroon (people living on less than 1 dollar a day) is just a myth. The people have their homes, subsistence and upbringing of their kids and grand children, based on the proceeds from their land. These proceeds, when calculated in real terms, certainly the real value per day is 1000 times more than a dollar a day. These plantations will not bring any sustainable development to the people nor will it provide any solid financial guarantee for future generations.

On the issue of environmental protection, i don't see palm trees protecting the environment better than the trees already existing on the lands for centuries now.We should be focusing on aforestation than deforestation. We all know the devastating effect of logging in Cameroon over the past 50 years. I don't see killing already existing forests for the sake of oil plantation as making any sense at all.

The future of kids growing in these areas, is totally bleak. I do not see these kids having any more power to fight this conglomerate to recover their land after 99 years, when this lease comes to an end. The tactics the company has been using so far have been really dishonest. I don't see them relinquishing that land after 99 years to anyone. the project should stop immediately!

I hope the populations involved and all other cameroonians as well as civil society groups in the world should stand up as one against this project,which does not as i firmly believe, serve the interests of the local population.

Posted by Zeph Asanji on 29 Dec 2012

I agree with Rapheal

Posted by Phyrne on 17 Jan 2013

Comments have been closed on this feature.
rhett butler and jeremy hanceABOUT THE AUTHORS
Rhett Butler, left, is the founder and editor of Mongabay.com, one of the leading sites on the Web covering tropical forests and biodiversity. In previous articles for Yale Environment 360, he has written about how activists are targeting corporations in the fight to save tropical forests and how sustainable palm oil cultivation could actually help preserve the Amazon. Jeremy Hance is a senior writer for Mongabay.com.



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