Controversy has arisen in the village of Fabe, Cameroon, where Chief Wangoe Philip Ekole’s seedling nursery was cursed by some of his 200 subjects after his support for a proposed palm oil plantation on their territory was made known. The plantation, which at over 60,000 acres would cover thirty other villages in the region (roughly ten times the size of Manhattan) and which its developer, New York-based Herakles Farms, says will bring infrastructure, schools and jobs to the local population, has been approved by the government of Cameroon–a West Central African state whose average citizen lives on three dollars a day. Critics, however, say the plan poses a grave environmental threat to a region remarkable for its biodiversity, and amounts to little more than a colonial-style land grab. Certainly the U.S. firm’s initial reported rent of $0.50 per hectare of undeveloped land and $1.00 for developed land is a rock-bottom price for land that is normally offered for anywhere between $4 and $13 per hectare (according to Cameroon’s Center for Environment and Development). But for its part, Herakles Farms insists that it is taking great care to ensure the integrity of local ecosystems, and that its palm-oil project is not only a business venture, but a humanitarian one.
The oil palm (Elaeis guineensis) is a food-producing plant of rare capability, and one which is playing an increasingly important role in attempts to combat world hunger. The average palm plantation can generate four metric tons of oil per hectare a year–six times the typical yield for rapeseed and 10 times that of soybeans–and in Africa and Asia the oil finds use in everything from soap to food to biofuels. But expanding markets and stricter environmental regulation have caused prices to triple since the year 2000 and have led palm oil planters to look for new planting grounds for the low-cost, high-nutrient food source. Central Africa has become the focus of that search. The conflict between Herakles Farms and local dissenters is not an easy one to solve in a world in which indigenous peoples are justifiably wary of foreign conglomerates, but in which, at the same time, 1 in 7 people are undernourished, according to U.N. figures. Whatever the outcome of this dispute, it is likely to have larger implications for Cameroon, and for Africa in general: Cameroon says requests have already been filed by U.S. and Asian investors in palm oil for 1.2 million hectares of land–20 times the size of the Herakles plantation. // Patrick Barrett