Communities in Nigeria Take Wilmar to Court for Landgrabbing
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Nigeria, in West Africa, is fertile territory for palm oil cultivation. Undertaken at a reasonable scale, and with proper attention to social, environmental and labor standards, palm oil could provide an important livelihood for significant numbers of people and support local food sovereignty. Unfortunately, as foreign corporations grab land in Nigeria to develop large-scale palm oil plantations, the opposite is happening: the palm oil rush is leading to the destruction of pristine forest, ongoing human rights violations and cultural destruction, and threatening the survival of indigenous peoples.
One of the organizations we work with in our campaign on Landgrabs, Forests and Finance is the Rainforest Resource and Development Centre, based in Cross-River State, Nigeria. The director of RRDC, Odey Oyama, has recently come under strong persecution related to his opposition to palm oil concessions in Nigeria. The following report comes to us from Rainforest Resource and Development Centre, by way of our friends at World Rainforest Movement.
Wilmar, RRDC, and the Calaro/Ibiae Oil Palm Estates
– by Missang Oyongha
Over the past nine months, a high-stakes confrontation has taken place in Cross River State, home to Nigeria’s last remaining primal tropical rainforests. The controversy has revolved around the activities of Wilmar International, a Singaporean multinational which describes itself as “the world’s largest processor and merchandiser of palm and lauric oils’’. The company has been taken to task by a Calabar-based NGO, the Rainforest Resource and Development Centre, for blatant violations of human and environmental rights as well as local and national laws.
Wilmar operates about 50,000 acres of oil palm estates in Cross River State and is planning to acquire 150,000 additional acres of community lands for the expansion of its plantations in the State in the next few years. The plantations were launched to much fanfare in November, 2012. Speaking as President Jonathan’s representative at the opening ceremony, Agriculture Minister Akinwunmi Adesina declared that the Calaro-Ibiae and Biase Oil Palm Plantations represented “an important milestone in our national investment drive that will stimulate economic diversification….’’
This lofty hope is oblivious of the real and ongoing human and ecological cost of the venture. Wilmar’s claim to the Ibiae lands is contestable, given that the area comprises lands owned by local farmers. Equally crucial is the fact that at the Wilmar concessions in the Kwa Falls axis, the oil palm estate also lies within the bounds of established forest reserves namely, the Oban Hill Division of the Cross River National Park, and the Ekinta Forest Reserve.
In November 2012, RRDC filed a grievance to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil accusing Wilmar of starting operations without the legally required Environmental Impact Assessment on lands acquired illegally. RRDC also accused the company of not having reached an agreement with landlord communities and non-compliance with applicable municipal laws and regulations.
In view of these issues, RRDC suggested to the RSPO that Wilmar be urged to suspend its activities and assuage the concerns of aggrieved parties. Responding to the allegations, Wilmar submitted a four-page denial, declaring that it had tried to resolve all outstanding issues pertaining to the estates in Cross River. For RRDC, any private company that takes on community lands without compliance of legal provisions is actually engaging in land-grabbing. Wilmar has continuously made reference to agreements with indigenous communities, but no copy of such agreements has ever been tendered. RRDC believes that in a constitutional democracy such as the one presently operating in Nigeria, no government agency has the power to bypass the due process of law, nor to grant guarantees which amount to exempting private enterprises from compliance with the due processes of the law.
According to Wilmar’s environmental advisers Ibara Environs Consultants, the company carried out environmental impact assessments on both its plantations, as required. In a letter dated November 2012, the palm oil giant insisted that it “recognizes the value and importance of managing its mills and plantations such that the present multiple needs of the society are met without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs and enjoy the same resources we have today”. In spite of the fulsome rhetoric by Wilmar, the company does not possess an authentic EIA certificate, it has not made compensation to local communities, and it has no records of legal land acquisition.
In January 2013, a stakeholders meeting was convened at the Ministry of Justice of Cross River State of Nigeria and attended by a delegation of the Cross River State Government, representatives of Wilmar, representatives of the indigenous communities, and RRDC. Strangely, the discussions were diverted from substantive issues, while the Executive Director of RRDC was condemned as a wicked man who does not want Wilmar to conduct business in Nigeria.
Following the inability of the parties to reach a resolution, RRDC was compelled to place the matter before a court for appropriate interpretation. In the weeks following, Mr. Odey Oyama, director of RRDC, suffered sustained harassment from the police in Calabar, who invaded his home uninvited and without a warrant. By reason of such police harassment, Mr. Oyama had to go into hiding for his own safety, and his case was taken up by international environmental protection organizations like Friends of the Earth International.
In a letter dated March 13, 2013, Wilmar finally submitted 20 hard copies of the draft EIA report dated June 2013, for Biase/Ibiae Oil Palm Plantation to the Federal Ministry of Environment. It is thus evident that the claims previously made by Wilmar were not genuine. Preliminary studies by RRDC reveal that the EIA report is deficient in many respects – for instance, the page that is supposed to contain the map of the concession area of study is blank. One wonders how an EIA report that does not contain the map of the concession area could be considered authentic.
Friends of the Earth will continue to follow this case and advocate for the rights of rainforest communities in Nigeria, as part of our Landgrabs, Forests & Finance campaign.
To contact the author, Missang Oyongha of Rainforest Resource & Development Centre, write to: [email protected]