ith precise, hard strikes a man cuts the branches of the short palm trees. Amid all the other tropical plants growing wildly around and into each other, the branches are hard to see at first sight. Easier to spot is the boundary of the man's field, a wall of giant palm trees a few metres away. "This is all Socapalm", says Emmanuel Elong, aged 46, as he looks up and wipes the river of sweat off his face.
We are not far from Mbonjo II, one of the villages inside the Dibombari region, in west Cameroon that is also a concession area of the private oil palm company Socapalm. Currently the country's biggest producer, Socapalm is trying to further expand production and help Cameroon become a net exporter of palm oil.
However, the plans have struggled to overcome objections from the local population in Cameroon, including Elong, who are opposed to the development of land they consider to belong to them. Unless companies such as Socapalm can resolve these issues, expectations of a boom in palm oil production in the country are likely to be misplaced.
With new land becoming scarcer in Indonesia and Malaysia, investors are looking to Cameroon and other countries in central and west Africa for opportunities. As a result, national governments have identified the development of the palm oil sector as a key target for attracting foreign investment and boosting domestic economic growth.
The majority of palm oil in Cameroon is produced on small and medium-sized farms. "Go to any village in Cameroon and you will find a mill that produces oil. Everyone depends on it", says Godswill Ntsomboh from IRAD, the Institute for Agricultural Research in Douala. Although figures from the Food and Agriculture Organization show palm oil production increased from 130,000 tonnes to 225,000 tonnes between 2000 and 2013, the country is still a net importer of the commodity.
Privatising the palm oil sector was part of the Cameroon government's plans to boost the country's overall food production. "Africa must no longer import to eat", said president Paul Biya in 2011, stressing Cameroon's enormous potential to export rather than input. He said has said he wants to turn the country into the "breadbasket of central Africa", with the help of palm oil.
As part of that plan, the previously state-owned Socapalm was sold to a conglomerate of private companies, the majority interest held by the global agribusiness Socfin in 2000. Socapalm was created in the 1960s for the country's development, with an almost socialist concept: smallholders received fertilisers and technical assistance, and a credit system was put in place to bridge seasonal losses. In return, farmers sold their crops to the state-owned Socapalm at a price fixed in a contract. The model, however, turned out to be loss-making for the state, and by the 1990s, the government's fund was exhausted.
The relationship between Socapalm and local smallholders is less clear since the company was privatised and is one of the reasons why the company has had difficulties receiving accreditation from the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). Elong himself also claims that he is no longer able to sell his crops to the company.
However, the challenges go beyond the integration of smallholders. Villagers, labourers and NGOs have complained about poor living and working conditions in the Socapalm plantations, a lack of maintenance of local infrastructure and pollution. The Guardian has seen copies of letters and written complaints submitted to the company and the government between 2005 and 2015.
When asked about these concerns, the chairperson of Socapalm's board, Michel Noulowe, said: "Rome was not built in one day." Projects like the renovation of housing facilities, the construction of new schools and clinics, he promises, are underway.
The land is ours
However for Elong, who founded a movement representing Cameroonian farmers and villagers who feel marginalised by the Cameroonian subsidiary Socapalm, the main concern is the land Socapalm leases from the state. Before it was privatised, Socapalm only developed about one third of its total concession in the country, spread across six areas including Dibombari. That is now changing. Joseph Mengue, the company's head of human resources, says that "the contract the company signed obliges us to expand within the boundaries of the concession".
In 2011, the company put forward expansion plans that would have taken over the fields of some of villagers in Dibombari region. Elong called the population together and they blocked the construction workers. Another blockade took place in April this year. Negotiations have been ongoing with the villagers, but Socfin has admitted to being unhappy with the grassroots movement. In an interview with the Guardian, Luc Boedt, CEO of Socfin, said: "We deal with the real stakeholders. We speak with elected people and not some excited villagers."
Local NGOs say the company needs to engage with local communities, regardless of the difficulties this presents "Land is an issue, especially here in Africa", says Jaff Bamenjo, co-ordinator at Relufa, a Cameroonian NGO that works on food security. He says that local communities believe that Socapalm is expanding onto land that belongs to them, but that the conflict can be resolved with dialogue.
Role of government
Although the experiences of Socapalm may deter some private investors, David Hoyle deputy director of the non-profit ProForest, says land rights are a common issue across west Africa. "One of the challenges across the region is that there is no real land-use planning, there is no regulation of what is a protected area and what is for housing and farming.
"So when the companies are looking for land, they've got primary forest or very dense carbon-stock forest on the right, and on the left they've got villages with all their farms, and the marginal land in the middle is degraded and not suitable for oil palm cultivation," he adds.
Samuel Nguiffo, director of the Centre for Environment and Development and a well-known environmental campaigner in Cameroon, points the blame at government officials for the problems. 'The government gives out land without designating specific areas for palm oil. There are no conditions, no system," he concludes.
Both Hoyle, who spends part of the year working in Cameroon, and government officials have confirmed that a new national strategy for the palm oil sector is being planned to attempt to resolve the relationship between palm oil companies, smallholders and the local population.
While some historic land use disputes need to be dealt with on an individual basis, Hoyle says there needs to be an overarching plan from government. "If palm oil is to expand in Cameroon and is going to be sustainable then we need clarification on what land is for palm oil, for housing or forestry."
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