When Wilmar finishes, we have no future left: New report on Nigerian palm oil land grabs

When Wilmar finishes, we have no future left: New report on Nigerian palm oil land grabs

When Wilmar finishes, we have no future left: New report on Nigerian palm oil land grabs

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The oil palm tree is native to West Africa and palm oil, in its rawest form, is a staple of the West African diet. So, while it is new to Western consumers as an ingredient in roughly half of our packaged foods and cosmetics, palm oil is nothing new to Nigerians. But what is new, and having drastic impacts in the Nigerian rain forest province of Cross River State, is the industrial-scale expansion of palm oil plantations by the world’s largest palm oil trading company, Wilmar International.

Since 2010, Wilmar has acquired 30,000 hectares of land (roughly 75,000 acres) for palm oil plantations in southeastern Nigeria, and the company plans to expand its Nigerian land bank to hundreds of thousands of hectares. Like similar land acquisitions across the globe, Wilmar’s plantations have yet to produce the promised economic benefits for local people; and like similar land acquisitions across the globe, the process has generated concern, conflict, and resistance. All told, the company’s operations in Nigeria have come to be regarded by local people as a land grab, as detailed in Friends of the Earth’s new report, Exploitation and Empty Promises: Wilmar’s Nigerian landgrab.

There are decades of history at play here. Three of the concessions Wilmar is developing, the Biase, Ibiae and Calaro (below) plantations (totalling 19,173 hectares or almost 48,000 acres), have been slated for oil palm development since as far back as 1963. At that time, villagers there signed a 99 year lease to develop some of the land into palm oil plantations, with an agreement to grow subsistence crops on the rest. But those plans were largely abandoned and the lands have been actively settled by local farmers since the 1970s. By the time Wilmar purchased the land in 2011, thousands of people had been farming there for over a generation.


Yet, in 2012, as it prepared to begin clearing the land to plant oil palm seedlings, Wilmar reported to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil — the industry-led group that often acts as an arbiter in palm oil disputes — that there was “basically no local people’s land within the boundaries of the [palm oil] Estate, although local people have in the past been using parts of the abandoned Estate for farming.”

The company, along with the local government’s “privatization council” came up with a rate of compensation to pay local farmers, called it a deal, and began bulldozing the land.

Three years later, many of the farmers think they’ve been given a raw deal — if they’ve been given a deal at all.

“Wilmar has made no agreement, no MOU with us,” said one traditional authority in Mbarakom Village, located on the border of the Calaro concession, who elected to remain anonymous. “We were not consulted or compensated. There is no other community but Mbarakon who owns this estate. There was no consultation with our elders or anyone.”

Others acknowledge that there were meetings in 2010 between Wilmar and the state’s Privatization Council, with the participation of numerous local chiefs – the traditional authorities recognized by the state; but this did little to win over the communities as a whole.

“Government is not supposed to give the land before consulting with the community. We want the land back,” Ivan Iborot Sunday Ivong told Friends of the Earth in May 2015.

Communities in this region have long held non-formal, customary rights over their lands, but the national and state governments do little to protect and ensure these rights, making the communities vulnerable to exploitation by foreign corporations. Indeed, this vulnerability is the very factor that attracts foreign investment: Nigeria is one of ten African countries that have signed on to the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, the G8 countries’ strategy to mobilize large scale foreign investment in Africa’s agricultural sector. As a New Alliance partner, Wilmar may be “guaranteed land acquisition,” may benefit from “low average wages,” and may be given tax holidays in a process designed to “make it easier to do business in Nigeria.”

Such ease of doing business for a foreign corporation amounts to marginalization and landlessness for local subsistence farmers.

To gain the support of the local chiefs, the company appears to have made many promises.

“Wilmar said there were many things they would do for us: Community assistance program, accessible roads, build primary and secondary schools, health center, potable water, electricity, employment,” said Chief Steven Omari of Idoma Village, one of many communities bordering the new palm oil plantations.

“But as a consequence of the project, our forest has been seriously degraded … people who were farming lost their land and have yet to be compensated … We do not have electricity, and the road still needs to be constructed.”

Elder Aning Oja, from Ibogo Village, also bordering Wilmar’s concessions, said, “Wilmar destroyed all our farmland. The community is over 7000 people, and the land was over 300 hectares, and 200 of this has been taken now. We lost our forest too. Now we need to buy meat, or iced fish, and this is very expensive.”

Once a company like Wilmar has come to establish plantations in an impoverished rural area like this corner of Cross River State, it is no small task to resolve the issues that arise. Village water sources and farmlands have been destroyed, at the same as hopes have been created for employment and basic infrastructure like roads, schools and health centers. The Nigerian government appears to be in favour of the development, and millions of dollars have been committed to Nigeria through the G8 new Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition. But for local farmers, who survive one season at a time by the grace of the land they work, the promise of development and the millions of dollars pledged to their government do little to ease their hunger.


“When Wilmar finishes, we have no future left,” said William Ogobe (above) from Ibogo Village. “They should leave our land so we can go back to farm.”

Learn more in friends of the Earth’s new report, Exploitation and Empty Promises: Wilmar’s Nigerian land grab, or read the abbreviated summary

Photo: Above, farmers protesting Wilmar’s destruction of their lands near Ibogo Village, cross River State, May 2015. Middle, the Calaro plantation. Lower, William Ogobe stands where community farmland once existed.

Photo credit: Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria.

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