19 April 2013 Cacao Farmer in Cameroon

A local farmer working in his cacao plantation. Cacao is the main source of income for people in this area. They run cacao farm besides their cassava/food farms, and sell it abroad. In cacao plantations also grow valuable trees such as the Iroko and fruits for local consumption like pineapple, oranges, mangos and avocados. © Jan-Joseph Stok / Greenpeace

As an African working for Greenpeace, I am often challenged when I speak out against the industrial exploitation of our continent’s natural resources, disguised as “development”. All too often, this simply creates huge profits for international corporations, to the detriment of local communities and the environment. “But what’s the alternative?” people ask me.

This is an alternative. I am sitting in a crowded and noisy room in Kumba, in the Southwest region of Cameroon, where community representatives are discussing how to increase the productivity of local agriculture, to ensure their livelihoods while protecting the forests on which they depend. This workshop is being led by ACDIC (Association Citoyenne pour la Defense des Interêts Collectifs), a Cameroonian NGO, which aims to  improve current agricultural methods through training, better organization and market access, resulting in better yields and higher incomes.   

People have travelled for miles to take part in this workshop. One, Chief Mbara Rils, is the chief of the city of Toko. “The workshop was very successful,” he said. “Thanks to the discussions we had, we answered our questions ourselves. The outcomes will be very useful for the future. The workshop has enlightened me, and now I have an idea of what I should put in place when I get back to my city.”

80% of the population of this region live in rural communities. People make their livings from farming cacao, palm oil and other crops, hunting, and collecting non-timber forest products such as nuts and bush mangos. But the amount of available land is becoming less and less, as large corporations move in to this fertile region and take control of vast tracts of land for logging, mining and agro-industrial plantations.  

This trend is worrying. “If we just grow cash crops for export, what will be left for us to eat?” asked the representative of a local women’s NGO in the south-west region. Since the most vulnerable of the subsistence farmers are women, who depend on the land to provide food for their families, they will bear the brunt of this change.

One such industrial plantation is proposed by US-based corporation Herakles Farms, which plans to destroy 73,000 hectares of rainforest, home to more than 14,000 people. This has been met with opposition by local communities, who are fearful of losing their lands and livelihoods.

Despite claiming that its palm oil plantation is being created in the name of “development”, Herakles’ project would have a devastating impact on the forest and the lives of the people who depend on it. In contrast, the development model proposed by ACDIC demonstrates how cacao or palm oil can be cultivated in agroforestry systems that have the advantage of also being able to supply many non-timber forest products and food. Cacao is grown in the shade of trees which supply the farmers with fruit and vegetables, while maintaining the forest canopy. This ensures food security, while protecting the natural environment.

Industry players and investors coming to Africa must commit to clear policies that respect of the rights and livelihood of local communities, ensure the protection of natural forest, in a way that is open and transparent. Taking part in this workshop gives me hope that as a continent, we can establish our own development path, which puts our people and environment first.