Nigerian NGO Rainforest Resource Development Centre is challenging the legality of a plantation takeover by Wilmar International in the Nigerian state of Cross River.
Wilmar which has bought over the operations of Obasanjor Farms of Nigeria was supposed to take over plantation lands of some 12,000 hectares. These were to include the Ibad Plantation measuring 7,805 hectares, the Oban Plantation measuring 2,986.385 hectares and the Kwa Falls Plantation measuring 2,014.429 hectares. RRDC in its charges claims that Wilmar was mislead into making the transactions over Obasanjor Farms properties as much of the properties have outstanding claims against them which are in open violations of the RSPO’s Principles and Criteria for its members.
Citing multiple infractions of Nigerian state and federal laws governing land ownership and land use, the RRDC is calling the deal with Wilmar null and void until all outstanding issues are resolved. Some of the issues include land grabs that were initiated by Obasanjo Farms when it was established 11 years ago and the establishment of its plantations inside forest reserves including biodiversity hotspot Cross River National Park. Wilmar is yet to make any comment in respect of the irregularities raised by RRDC concerning the Obasanjor farms.
The most contentious issue revolves around ownership and title of the land. Wilmar in its defense in respect of the Biase New Planting Plantations stated that “The land title belongs to the government of Cross River State whose acquisition dates back to the mid seventies. Therefore, what we enjoy today is a sub-lease from the government who has paid all the ground rents to the landlords”
RRDC Director Odey Oyama in citing the Land Use Act No. 6 of 1978 (Laws of the Federal Republic of Nigeria) stipulates that “the Governor is the Trustee, and nothing more. He holds land on behalf of the owners and acts according to the trust bestowed on him, in good faith and for the benefit of the owners, as prescribed by the Act. In LAW this means that he is the manager of another’s property: i.e. somebody who is given the legal authority to manage land on behalf of somebody else.”
The complaint to the RSPO further stated that Wilmar has received only the approval of two of the five affected communities for the plantation and insists on an open forum that will include the participation of all affected communities. Director Odey Oyama further stated that “ the RRDC has absolutely no objections to the good intentions of Wilmar towards the livelihoods and general economic wellbeing of the landlord communities. Our position however is that Wilmar must observe our National Laws and Regulations as they pertain to Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), the Land Use Act, the National Park Act, the Forest Laws and regulations, and the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. They should also continuously ensure that the rights, privileges and entitlements of indigenous communities are not usurped by any external agencies and /or influential internal minority interest groups.
Global demand for palm oil is expected to skyrocket in the coming years and South East Asian palm oil companies are increasingly looking towards Africa to create new plantations. Sime Darby Berhad of Malaysia was similarly challenged in its plantation in Liberia and agreed to pay reparations and proper compensations for affected communities there. The most contentious palm oil plantation in Africa however belongs to Herakles Farms USA where ongoing disputes between the company and land owners are yet to be resolved.
In addition to the indigenous land rights issues, the plantation areas encroach deep into Cross River National Park, home to several endemic primate species including the endangered Preuss Red Colobus and the Drill. “This plantation cannot be allowed to proceed the way it has been mapped out,” declared Lars Gorschlueter, Director of the Save Wildlife Conservation Fund. “We are already fighting Herakles Farms proposed plantation on the Cameroon side that will impact Korup National Park which is contiguous with Cross River National Park. If this industrial plantation is allowed into the Oban Forest Reserve, it will effectively box in wildlife and our research has shown that wildlife cannot survive in an environment like this.”
In the case of Wilmar’s plantations and operations in Nigeria, the RRDC remains hopeful that the company will abide by the Principles and Criteria of the RSPO.