“We are slaves on our own land”

In Nigeria, palm oil has become a human rights issue as conflicts with indigenous communities intensify.
Photo by Mike Norton/ CC BY 2.0/ Source: Flickr

Every oil palm plantation stretches over a ‘forest graveyard’. Of those ‘gravediggers’; Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand have the lead in palm oil production, as well as world’s highest deforestation rates.

Oil palm is a tropical tree, so the optimal level of moisture, soil type, and climate for it to flourish overlap with those of lush forests. Coupled with insufficient agroforestry practice in the tropical zone and mounting global demand for palm oil, land grabbing and production respectively boomed from 1990s onwards causing widespread forest losses and environmental damages as a consequence.

The situation in West Africa , particularly in Nigeria, is no less dire. The conflict here stems from the fact that more than 30 indigenous communities live off the forest. Their livelihood is increasingly threatened with each additional hectare of forest cleared and converted into industrial oil palm plantation. The dispute over the conversion of indigenous lands in Okomu district of Edo State, Nigeria and the reactional public resistance is a well-rounded, yet a shelved example of such conflicts.

Massive investment agenda in Edo State

For decades, the palm oil industry, supported by the Nigerian Federal Government, has been struggling to expand its capacity. In the 1960s, the government started to promote large-scale plantations and mass production. Smallholders were geographically dispersed but kept supplying nearly 90% of the yield.

The government’s attempts were constantly denounced by civil society organisations for weak governance and high corruption, mostly resulting in failures both for the industry and the country’s rich biodiversity. These attempts include the 1960’s Cross River State project and 1990’s EU-funded Oil Palm Belt project. In the end, both projects had to come to a halt due to strong local opposition despite considerable support from the EU- and the World Bank.

Earlier this year, Godwin Obaseki, governor of Edo State since November 2016, disclosed an additional massive investment plan in the palm oil sector.

The governor proposed the establishment of oil palm estates to be managed by the state government in partnership with local communities, adding that initial efforts to acquire land for that purpose were underway. A section of his statement reads as follows: “Oil palm is our new crude oil; it will be the key driver of our economic development”  adding their intention to leverage on high-yielding varieties and long tradition of oil palm production to acquire about 100,000 hectares of land for the development of new estates.

Oil Company against the community

One of the companies inheriting the state endeavour to revitalise the palm oil sector is the Okomu Oil Palm Company (Okomu Plc). It was established in 1976 by the federal government as a pilot project with estates covering a large area and it was privatised in 1990, becoming a member of Belgian investment group Socfin.

Besides 53.32% of Okomu Plc’s shares, Socfin owns oil palm and rubber plantations in Cote D’Ivoire, Cameroon, Kenya, Liberia, Guinea and Indonesia. The company has since grown to become one of Nigeria’s leading oil palm companies, lifting its profit to new record highs for the last five consecutive years. But its operations in the field carried a high price for the environment and for the rights of local communities.

Okomu district is home to about 20 villages and more than 30 indigenous communities in three local government areas of Edo State, while it also plays host to Okomu National Park, as well as to the operation fields of the rubber giant Michelin and Okomu Plc.

Indigenous rights is a rampant issue in Okomu ever since the government authorised land-grabbing by agribusiness companies. Soon after, the forest land that communities used to cultivate, became surrounded by spiked fences and guarded by armed soldiers. Many communities lost not only their ancestral land but access to water, markets and hence they lost access to food as well.

In the early 2010s, local residents described how life for communities has been changing through the expansion of oil palm plantations by Okomu Plc. In an interview with World Rainforest Movement, they said: “Our experience started in 1998 when Okomu Plc destroyed three villages: Oweike, Agbede, & Ljawcamp; without villagers receiving compensation.”  They then explain how the struggle came to a deadlock,  “The Police stated that as long as the company had the certificate of occupancy the village could not win [the fight] …. The federal government set up a committee to investigate but they never visited the villages. The committee report claimed that the villagers were illegal occupants…”

After tense negotiations, corporate encroachment resulted in an arrangement between the company and the host communities; or in other words, the most that locals could get from the company was a donation of some acres and empty promises in exchange for a gradual abandonment of villages.

The interview continues: “They also have the right to come and search every house at will. There is the constant accusation that we are stealing palm fruit.” He continues saying that more than 20 villagers were arrested. The agreement gives the company the right to demolish their village at any time. He declares that in those three areas, plantations are guarded by soldiers who are paid by the company, “So we are slaves on our own land.“

New order to land grabbing

This year in June, Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria (ERA/FoEN) and representatives of the Owan and Okomu communities delivered a letter to the Godwin Obaseki administration, urging it to uphold a revocation Order on 13,750 hectares of land expropriated by Okomu Plc in the rich Owan and Okomu forest reserves. The latter meant the revival of a long-standing reaction to the persistence of corporate impunity and of institutional inaction against the mounting violation of indigenous peoples’ land rights.

The action followed a protest march called “People’s March Against Land-grabbing and Deforestation in Edo State”, which was to expose Okomu Plc’s defiance of the revocation order.

Under former Governor Adams Oshiomhole, the sale of the land in contention covering an estimated 13,750 hectares spread through Okomu and Owan forest reserve was reversed. However, Okomu Plc has been deliberately disregarding the government order for two years.

“In the process, over 60,000 rural farmers in the farming communities have been displaced” the ERA/FoEN disclosed in a statement on June 21.

The letter also contains proposals on law enforcement, better compensation of local communities and the fight against deforestation, which can be supported through the petition initiated by ERA/FoEN on 28 July.

The response from the local government came rapidly, where the Deputy Governor, Philip Shaibu’s supported the proposals in relation to the controversy and asserted that the federal government should not stand behind and watch multinational companies undermine the rights of citizens, in the name of investing in the state.

The Edo State Chapter of the Stakeholder Coalition for the Protection of the Environment, which is a network of academics and civil society organisations involved in environmental justice struggles, has also supported both the civil march and Philip Shaibu’s promise to bring justice and resolution to the dispute between the communities and Okomu Plc, as well as the inconsistency between the local and federal government on the implementation of laws.

The recent developments towards a more participatory approach in solving the Edo State crisis clearly create a momentum towards increased coverage in the media. It also means an opportune time to revive past claims of human rights violations and thereby it would pave the way to build a platform, which can motivate, or even enforce, businesses to consider better rights-based practices in their operations.

“We are slaves on our own land”
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EnvironmentHuman Rights
Burag Gürden

Burag Gurden is a masters student at Lund University's International Development Programme. Before moving to Sweden, he obtained a BA degree in economics and got experience by working for a multinational bank in Turkey. He is a WWF volunteer and has a great interest in environmental conservation and preservation. His other enthusiasms are for consumer behavior and consumption patterns.
    3 Comments on this post.
  • Fabia Ogunmekan
    FAbia mekan
    21 September 2017 at 8:33 pm
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    An informative article. I’m Nigerian but I had no awareness of these issues which you so clearly articulated. My interest is heightened. My organization Pronatura works with host communities and host companies to find a middle ground in these sorts of issues. I’m familiar with the organizations you mention who are intervening and I will definitely pay more attention. Good job.

    • WiB Team
      WiB Team
      22 September 2017 at 10:28 am
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      Thank you so much for your comment Fabia. This is exactly what we hope our articles do, generate action to solve the issues we speak about. We are very happy to hear this.

  • Burag Gürden
    Burag
    22 September 2017 at 10:19 am
    Leave a Reply

    Thank you Fabia, I’m flattered.

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