It is midday and the sun is overhead in Biwoung, Upper Sanaga Division of the Center Region. The village square is gradually getting crowded as indigenes are retreating one after the other from their farms. The presence of reporters from Yaoundé sends a wave of smile on their faces but at the mention of the reason for our visit, countenances changed.
Bentina Cherif, who was formerly hiding the sweat running down his face with a big smile, suddenly frowned and sighed in despair before confessing to us that several years back he surprised a group of people staking out the forest while setting up his traps for animals. He couldn’t identify them but could easily make out the white men who were amongst them.
When we wondered who these supposed whites were, he threw at us that “they were Chinese, who wouldn’t be able to pick them out in a crowd.” It is the young man who informed the other villagers that part of the forest they use for farming and hunting had been demarcated. While he went on, Adem Joseph Platini, another youth of Biwoung carelessly dressed in a faded black shirt, a pair of trousers torn from all corners and a worn out pair of shoes, revealed in a serious tone that life has become a misery since they were deprived of their land.
“We use this land for various purposes. My brother sited there is a hunter while I am a farmer. Some of us here cultivate 10 ha 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?” he lamented.
In 2006, a Chinese agro industry settled down in Cameroon to cultivate rice, cassava and banana.
The Upper Sanaga division in the Center region is one of several divisions chosen by IKO Ltd for the project. Convinced of its agricultural potentials owing to its unique topography, the industry acquired pieces of forest land from the state of Cameroon. Work took off in a locality called Bifogo and the Chinese bragged on the media about how successful the rice cultivation project was. In 2009, the Chinese needed more land to expand their agricultural project, as such, the Minister of State Property, Surveys and Land Tenure signed an order granting them an additional 100 ha of land in Nkoteng, Nkoteng sub division Ndjore in Mbandjock, Akak, Bifogo, Ndokoti and Boundja in Nanga Eboko sub division. That same year, a Commission for Findings and Evaluation was created under the control of the Senior Divisional Officer of the Upper Sanaga and teams dispatched. However, what was to be given to the Chinese in principle was not respected in practice.
According to Non-Governmental Organizations that worked with victims of the Chinese agricultural project, (the Center for the Environment and Development CED and the Network for the Fight Against Hunger RELUFA) IKO Ltd benefited from 6,181 ha of land divided in 3 blocks in the villages of Biwoung, wala, Nkoambang, mengang and minkouma that were not concerned by the deal passed with the state. Who added these localities to the list of villages that the Chinese were supposed to benefit from? In these villages, the population says they were not aware of the fact that part of the forest that they exploit had been given out to an agro industry for rice cultivation.
When members of the Commission for Findings and Evaluation arrived, some of these villages, locals picked up machetes and chased them away, as was the case in Nkoambang. As the process went on, some other natives who attempted to protect their land paid with their liberty. This is the case with Fa`a Embolo, an indigene of Wala who spent close to two years in prison and was later slammed a one year suspended sentence for falling down trees to stop members of the commission of Findings and Evaluation from demarcating his family land.
While the sexagenarian was in prison, he says the Chinese and members of the Commission for Findings and Evaluation went on to stake out the land. In another village, called Mengang, 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. While the promise for compensation has never been fulfilled, inhabitants of Wala, Mengang, Nkoambang, Biwoung and Minkouma 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," Faa 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 Impact of the Chinese Rice Cultivation Project Environmentalists are afraid that Cameroon risk being hit by one of the worst ecological disasters in its history should just half of the 6,181 ha of forest given to the Chinese be cleared for agricultural purposes.
According to Ghislain Fomou, head of program at the Local Initiative Development Support Services (SAILD), forests help to regulate the level of carbon dioxide (C02) in the atmosphere by trapping what we exhale and pumping out oxygen. He explains that by falling down trees or destroying the forest, excess C02 will be released into the atmosphere and temperatures will flare. He added that “destroying the forest will also affect the water cycle, causing low rain fall and excess heat.”
The environmental expert also hinted that should the Chinese rice cultivation project see the light of the day, plants and animals 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,” Mr. Fomou explained.
On the social domain, Ghislain Fomou highlighted 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 IKO Ltd agricultural project
Sino-Cam IKO Ltd, otherwise known as IKO Ltd, is a subsidiary of the Chinese state-owned conglomerate “Shaanxi land Reclamation General Corporation,” also known as “Shaanxi State Farm.” Thanks to bilateral relations between Cameroon and China, the company arrived in Cameroon in 2006 and signed a US $120 million investment agreement with the state as well as a 99-year lease for 10,000 ha of land in Nanga Eboko (2,000 ha close to the Inhabitants of Wala, Mengang, Nkoambang, Biwoung and Minkouma, have never ceased to hope that, their farm sites will one day be given back to them.) 4,000 ha in nearby Ndjore and 4,000 ha in Santchou in the West region of the country.
In 2009 Minister of State Property, Surveys and Land tenure signed a decision granting IKO Ltd an additional 100 ha of land in Nkoteng, Nkoteng sub division Ndjore in Mbandjock, Akak, Bifogo, Ndokoti and Boundja in Nanga Eboko sub division.
But the agro industry finally ended up with 6,181 ha of land divided in 3 blocks in the villages of; Biwoung, wala, Nkoambang, mengang and minkouma. How did the Chinese end up with so much land? The Mayor Romain Roland Eto and the Divisional Officer of the Upper Sanaga, Nanga Dang Albert, declared unofficially that they know nothing about the Chinese project. At the Delegation for state Property, Surveys and Land Tenure, all efforts to get clarifications on the surplus land given to the Chinese fell on deaf ears. Meanwhile at the Divisional Delegation for Agriculture and Rural Development, the Delegate Zeh Efouda Jean Marie hinted that there is no land issue in the Upper Sanaga, but failed to justify the 6,181 ha of land that is source of trouble.
This article was produced with financial assistance from the Congo Basin Rainforest Journalism Fund/Pulitzer Center.