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Story Publication logo November 9, 2021

Upper Sanaga: Farmers fight to get back land leased to Chinese

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Largest tea plantation of Cameroon, with paths leading through on overcast day. Image by Fabian Plock/Shutterstock. Cameroon, date unknown.
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Peasant farmers in some villages in the Upper Sanaga division of the Centre region have continued jostling, hoping to regain their farming land government leased to an Asian investor for the development of an agricultural project years back.

Chinese firm Shaanxi Agriculture Group, through local subsidiary China-Cameroon Yingkao Agricultural Development Co. Ltd. (also known locally as Sino-Cam IKO), acquired land through a 99-year lease in the villages along the banks of the Sanaga river for the cultivation of rice and other crops.

According to the deal, Sino-IKO agreed to begin by rehabilitating around 100 hectares of rice fields at Nanga-Eboko, an abandoned Taiwanese aid project, and the government promised to arrange for another 2,000 hectares of land close to Nanga-Eboko to grow rice. The government had also promised 4,000 hectares in the nearby Ndjoré for cassava. Another 4,000 hectares would be in Santchou, in the Western region of the country.

Works started in 2006 in the locality of Bifogo in Nanga-Eboko, and by 2009, at the behest of the company, the government created a committee to go and demarcate land in the other localities, but the team of surveyors and representatives from the company met with stiff resistance from the locals.

Villagers who were accustomed to customary land ownership say they did not understand how foreigners came demarcating their land for a project they are not aware of.

“The forest is our only source of livelihood. We are mainly farmers and hunters here in Biwoung. So, when our land is given out for such a project, what does the government expect us to do,” questioned Adem Joseph Platini, a youth of Biwoung, one of the villages within the concession.

Platini says he is a farmer while his brother is a hunter. Both of them live in Biwoung with their families and depend on the forest, which is now within the Sino IKO concession and will be cleared for the implementation of the project.

“We use this land for various purposes. ... Some of us here cultivate 10 hectares of land per year while others plan to do more. Where are we going to work when they have seized a large portion of the forest?” Platini questioned further.

Locals protest project

Protests rocked the localities of Mbandjock, Akak, Bifogo, Ndokoti and Boundja in Nanga-Eboko sub division over the ceding of their land to the agro-industrial company at the threshold of the implantation of the project. Within the forest, Platini says, are patches of land for subsistence farming.

Some of those who opposed the project paid a heavy price. One of them is Fa’a Embolo Joseph, a native of Wala who claimed customary rights to over 1,000 hectares of land in Nanga-Eboko. He had fell down trees to block the road for the team of surveyors that was going to the demarcation. He said the project partly overlapped his lands in block 5 of his village, Akak. He would later be arrested, detained for two years, then handed a one-year suspended sentence for his action in protests against the government’s decision to allocate what he says is part of their land to the Chinese investor. 

In Mengang, another village within the concession, the chief launched a procedure to know from local administrative authorities if they were aware of what was happening and why people had demarcated their farm lands without their consent. 

“The former Divisional Officer for Upper Sanaga told us that he was aware of the exercise that was being carried out in our villages and assured us that what the Chinese were doing was legal. He told us not to worry that the Chinese had passed through the main door. In other words, the Chinese were acting on instructions of the government”, disclosed Bessala Jean Ngono Charles, son of the chief of Mengang. 

He added that the Divisional Officer also assured them that they would be compensated at the right time.

Rights groups have faulted the demarcation process, which, according to their findings, was plagued with irregularities.

According to reports by Yaounde-based Center for the Environment and Development (CED) and Network for the Fight against Hunger in Cameroon (RELUFA), that worked with victims of what is now known locally as Chinese land grab in Nanga-Eboko, the Chinese company unjustifiably benefitted from land in the localities of Biwoung, Wala, Nkoambang, Mengang and Minkouma that were not concerned by the deal passed with the state.

“We can not tell what transpired in the field for the Chinese to end up with over 6,000 hectares of land. The only available document in that concession (a ministerial decree) grants them only 100 hectares of land”, explained Samuel Nguiffo, Secretary General at CED. His peer of RELUFA Guy Lebrun Ambomo (Programs Assistant), observed that the procedure of expropriation as defined by the 1974 land ordinance in Cameroon was not respected in this particular case creating grounds for revendications from the population.

With an unfulfilled promise to compensate them for their land lost, inhabitants of the localities have never ceased to hope that their farm sites will one day be given back to them. 

“Our problem now is for the government to give us back our land. That is why as family head I plan to sue the state before the Nanga-Eboko administrative court for our land to be given back to us,” Fa’a Embolo stated. 

The Cameroonian land ordinance of 1974 in its article 12 states that “for the achievement of objectives of general interest, the state may resort to the procedure of expropriation.” It further states in its article 13 that “organizations benefiting from the expropriation are required to compensate the victims on their budget”.

Environmental disaster looms

Environmentalists are afraid that Cameroon risk being hit by one of the worst ecological disasters in its history should just half of the Sino-IKO’s concession be cleared for agricultural purposes.

The forest is critical in contributing to global climate change mitigation and biodiversity preservation, according to Ghislain Fomou, head of program at the Local Initiative Development Support Services (SAILD). He says the forest helps to regulate the level of carbon dioxide (C02) in the atmosphere by trapping what humans exhale and pumping out oxygen. 

The environmentalist explains that by falling down trees or destroying the forest in the guise of setting up an agricultural project, excess C02 will be released into the atmosphere and temperatures will flare.

“Destroying the forest will also affect the water cycle, causing low rain fall and excess heat”, Fomou said. 

Besides, the environmental expert also adds that should the Chinese rice cultivation project continue as planned, certain plants and animal species may be extinguished. “The forest is a natural habitat for different species of animals and plants; destroying it for agricultural purposes means wiping out the fauna and flora”, Fomou explained.

On the social domain, Fomou highlights that the forest is a source of livelihood for the population who pick herbs for health purposes, cultivate food for feeding, and perform their cultural rites.
 
“Cutting down over 6,000 ha of forest will have a negative impact on the way of life of the population. The mortality rate may increase for lack of medicinal plants, and land disputes will erupt amongst villagers for lack of land”, lamented the environmentalist.

Background of the project

The Upper Sanaga division is known for its fertile soil. Because of the fertility of its soil, suitable for agriculture, the area, part of an agro-industrial zone that stretches to the East region of the country, has attracted several agro-industrial projects.

It is the fertility of the land that in 2006 attracted Yang Haomin, chairman of Chinese firm Shaanxi State Farm Agribusiness Corporation, to the country.

By Decree N°00475 of March 24, 2009, of the Ministry of State Property and Land Affairs (MINDCAF), works of an agricultural project, rice farming, were declared of public utility on an area of about one hundred (100) hectares, covering the localities of Nkoteng, Ndjoré, Akak, Bifogo, Ndokoti and Boundja.

However, the agro industry finally ended up with 6,181 hectares of land divided in 3 blocks in the villages of Biwoung, Wala, Nkoambang, Mengang and Minkouma, according to activists and locals who have not ceased questioning the lease process. 

At the Delegation for state Property, Surveys and Land Tenure, all efforts to get clarifications on the surplus land given to the Chinese yielded no fruits.

Meanwhile, at the Divisional Delegation for Agriculture and Rural Development, the Delegate Zeh Efouda Jean Marie rather rejected allegations of a problem, but failed to justify the 6,181 ha of land that is the source of trouble. 
 
This article was produced with financial assistance from the Pulitzer Center's Congo Basin Rainforest Journalism Fund.

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