On 14 July 2016, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee voted not to add Cameroon’s Dja Biosphere Reserve to the List of World Heritage in Danger.
The list is designed to raise the alarm and encourage corrective action from the international community and governments. The decision came as a surprise to many observers, and was made despite calls to add the reserve to the list.
The Dja reserve was created 1950, and was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. Since 1992, the reserve has been managed by ECOFAC, the European Union’s Central African Forestry Ecosystems programme.
Covering an area of more than 500,000 hectares, the reserve has important populations of chimpanzees, gorillas, elephants and buffalo. It is thought to contain some of the highest levels of biodiversity anywhere in Africa.
But the Dja reserve has also long been the source of conflict with local communities who are angered at their exclusion from the reserve and the imposition of strict anti-hunting bans.
In 2001, Samuel Nguiffo, director of the Centre for Environment and Development and winner of the Goldman Prize, wrote a report about the Dja Reserve published by the Forest Peoples Programme. Nguiffo found deep mutual mistrust between the indigenous Baka and the Dja reserve authorities. Several Baka villages inside the reserve had been evicted. People complained that they had not been consulted or even informed that their village was in the reserve. They didn’t know whether or not they were allowed to hunt.
Increasing threats to the Dja reserve
Over the past few years the reserve has been facing increasingly serious threats, documented by UNESCO and IUCN in a 2015 report.
- an increase in poaching;
- construction of the Mékin hydroelectric dam on the edge of the reserve;
- a proposed Nickel-Cobalt mining project by Geovic Mining Corp, a US-based company; and
- the development of a rubber and palm oil plantation by Sud-Cameroun Hevea (Sudcam), a Singapore-based company.
Despite these pressures, all delegations except Finland voted against UNESCO’s draft decision to add the Dja Reserve to the “in danger” list. After the decision, Greenpeace called on the Cameroonian government to
“suspend Sudcam’s lease agreements until clear preconditions and modalities are established, including adequate planning for participatory national land use planning and a due, transparent process to ensure free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) of the local communities. Sudcam should immediately halt the conversion of forests inside its concessions and conduct a new environmental impact assessment.”
Sudcam’s destruction of forest, not a threat?
UNESCO only considered the Mékin dam and illegal poaching as “ascertained dangers” to the Dja Reserve’s future, ignoring evidence about the impact of the Sudcam rubber and palm oil plantations.
Sudcam is a subsidiary of GMG Global Ltd, which is in the process of being bought by the Singapore-based rubber company, Halcyon Agri Corporation.
Sudcam has clearcut nearly 6,000 hectares of forest within up to 300 metres of the Dja’s reserve’s western border since 2011, according to analysis of satellite data undertaken by Greenpeace:
Greenpeace forest campaigner, Philippe Verbelen, told Mongabay, that
“Once such an industrial-scale plantation establishes itself, the intensity of poaching will definitely increase. All of a sudden there’s going to be hundreds – later on probably thousands – of people running around.”
The Sudcam project has also heavily impacted local communities. Participatory mapping conducted by Cameroonian NGOs with support from the Rainforest Foundation UK have shown widespread dispossession of community lands and resources, including those of indigenous Baka people.
The communities point out that the company’s consultation was either very poor or non-existent. The company cleared forests, settlements, graves, and farms. Compensation was wholly inadequate, as were provisions to protect their livelihoods. The communities have seen no benefits from the plantations.
The involvement of “an influential member” of the Cameroonian political elite
Paragraph 180 of the World Heritage Operational Guidelines defines an “Ascertained Danger” as when “the property is faced with specific and proven imminent danger”, such as:
iii) Human encroachment on boundaries or in upstream areas which threaten the integrity of the property.
Why did UNESCO decide that Sudcam’s destructive operations are not an ascertained danger?
In a 2015 Working Paper about rubber plantation expansion in Cameroon, the Centre for International Forestry Research wrote that,
The allocation of a temporary concession to SudCameroun Hevea SA without taking into account the criteria specified in land regulations seems to have been motivated by the personality behind the Cameroonian who holds 20% of the company’s share. According to a local representative of the Ministry of the Environment, the President of the Republic’s family owns the company. However, we have learned only that an influential member of the Cameroonian political elite, whose identity we do not know, apparently owns 20% of the company’s shares. Still, it is likely the Cameroonian shareholder influenced the allocation of the temporary concession near a World Heritage site without regard to existing land designations and relevant regulations.
In a July 2016 letter to the UNESCO World Heritage Division, Greenpeace Africa points out that,
the Sudcam plantation is location only kilometers from President Paul Biya’s Mvomeka’a mansion and security compound.
The letter continues:
This leads us to wonder whether political interference by “influential” political elites is allowing the Sudcam project to flourish despite its questionable legality, detrimental impact on the Dja Reserve and surrounding forests.