It was a tough week for Cameroonian village chief Wangoe Philip Ekole. People in Fabe, angry at his support for a palm-oil plantation in their rainforest home, had put a curse on its seedling nursery, prompting petrified workers to lay down their tools and flee.
Ekole, who believes the project will bring people jobs and wealth, had persuaded them to return. But the whiff of revolt remained. Many of his 200 or so subjects accused him of seeking to enrich himself through the project. Some even disowned him as their leader.
The village dispute is part of the global struggle to feed the world – and central to a New York investment fund’s bid to capitalize on that effort in Africa.
Expanding markets from Nigeria to China are fuelling a voracious appetite for more food. A big part of that demand will have to be met by palm oil, a low-cost fat coveted by food manufacturers and a mainstay of cooking across the tropics. Since 2000, world demand for palm oil has doubled. Millions of hectares of forest in top producers Indonesia and Malaysia have been turned over to plantations.
That has prompted dismay among environmentalists and brought about tough new rules that are forcing planters to look elsewhere. One of those places is Cameroon, a central African state whose 20 million people live on an average of $3 a day. New York-based Herakles Farms proposes planting a palm-oil farm stretching over 60,000 hectares of land – 10 times the size of Manhattan.
Herakles says it will provide locals with steady work, roads and health care. But critics call the planned plantation, which would cover Fabe and at least 30 other forest villages, a land grab. They say it will threaten an ancient forest at the heart of the wider Congo Basin rainforest – the world’s second-largest after the Amazon.