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The Herakles Farms Debate: Environment or Development? 

By Dr. Constantine Chienku, MD*

CameroonPostline.com — In opposing the establishment of the Herakles Farms oil palm plantation in the South West Region of Cameroon, the World Wildlife Fund for Nature, Greenpeace and other environment  protection NGO’s are blocking access to healthcare and education in one of the poorest countries in the world.

This is the price we pay to serve the environment for rich countries
It is an interesting phenomenon that every time a big development project is announced in Cameroon or anywhere in Africa, a large phalanx of environmental movements rears its collective head and starts protesting about the dangers such a project would pose to the environment. Their primary concerns are in the following descending order: the forests, the animals, and at the tail end, the local populations.

These organizations, headquartered in glass skyscrapers in countries where forests were decimated decades ago, where large bodies of water are declared unfit for human consumption and where the rest of the land is occupied by large industrial farms, seem determined to keep the rest of the developing world, particularly Africa, in such a state of primal nature that its inhabitants might as well live in trees and hunt for their food.
The World Wildlife Fund for nature, Greenpeace and other NGO’s are opposing a project by Herakles Farms, a New York-based company, in Cameroon and have filed a formal complaint against the project. They are opposing any cutting of trees in these areas.

The questions that come to mind are whether we can sacrifice human lives in order to preserve a few trees?

How have these trees made the lives of the indigenes better?
How is cutting of a few trees going to negatively affect the lives of the indigenes?
What forms of development or compensation are the NGO’s proposing to offset the loss emanating from the Herakles project?

What have these NGOs and their local affiliates done about the environmental pollution caused by the Western-owned factories in our cities?

Finally, of what good are trees if everyone is dead?
Herakles Farms/SGSOC is developing a 70,000 ha oil palm plantation and mill in Cameroon. The earmarked area for the plantation is located in a biodiversity hotspot and is covered by species-rich canopy forest. The area is also surrounded by nationally protected forest. Clearing of these areas can disrupt the ecological landscape and migration routes of protected species and subspecies. It can result in loss of water resources and subsistence farming lands of local communities.

But these NGO’s are not proposing any alternative form of development for this impoverished populations; they have not put forth any compensatory plan for the indigenes. They are not addressing the healthcare crisis, the falling GDP or rising morbidity and mortality rates for children and women.

There are no plans for building of roads, schools or providing water supply. They seem to have but one interest and one interest alone: preserving the trees at the expense of human suffering. The pain and suffering of the indigenes is such a major concern

Herakles Farms   is known for developing environmentally and socially responsible projects that result in economic development and shared value in some of the least-developed African countries. Herakles Farms is partnered with the nonprofit, All for Africa, which funds projects focused on agriculture, clean water, community health, education, energy, environmental impact, micro-financing and skills training/livelihood creation.
The Herakles Farms project is sited in the Cameroonian rain forest area of the Ndian Division. This project involves cutting of trees to create roads, vast plantations, homes and supporting structures. The development will employ over 10,000 people, build roads, create schools, provide potable water supply, provide training for local farmers, microfinance and healthcare centers and community health development for employees and reduce poverty levels in the population.

This plantation is built in one of the most remote areas on the globe, with roads being nonexistent, absence of potable water supply, electricity, telephones, computers, cars, schools, libraries, shopping centers and amusement parks. More than half of the population is without any formal class room education. Only 47% percent of the population has completed 7years of elementary School and less than 5% have any form of secondary education.
 There are no major hospitals in the area and the few healthcare facilities are without adequate equipment and resources. The ratio of doctors is 0.19/1000 people. Most deliveries are done by traditional birth attendants. There are no ambulances in these areas for emergency transport of patients to the hospital. Sometimes the closest hospital is more than a hundred miles away, which, given the absence of motorable roads, might as well be on the other side of the moon.
The health care system is still extremely primitive with no healthcare insurance, as is the case in most of the country, large areas with no medical doctors and low rates of immunization of the local population. There has been a recent outbreak of cholera in Cameroon of epidemic proportions Thirty years ago life expectancy was at 60years however today is between 48-54 years, with one of the highest rates of infant  and maternal mortality during child birth. HIV/AIDS has been a major contributor in morbidity and mortality of this population.
Despite the compelling data of catastrophic humanitarian proportions some environmental conservation organizations like Green Peace with headquarters in Amsterdam, The Netherlands and World Wide fund for Nature with headquarters in Gland, Switzerland are trying to prevent development, modernization and industrialization of these areas. They are preventing the populations of these areas from obtaining basic needs of daily living violating both their human rights and civil rights.
Amsterdam is surely a very beautiful city with highways, railroads, bridges and lots of tunnels. A good part of this city is below sea levels with all sorts of dams built across the waters and interrupting, modifying and destroying the ecological systems in unprecedented proportions. The city is littered with thousands of industrial plants polluting the atmosphere. Mankind has created a paradise for himself with all sorts of parks, stadiums, and skyscrapers, the very kind they are trying to ensure doesn’t happen in the Kurop forest of Cameroon.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not against protecting the environment and I believe that these big environmental organizations are necessary to check the excesses of multinational corporations that only seek to despoil the natural resources of developing countries and extract profits for their shareholders. What I strongly object to is their absolutist and often very hypocritical obstruction of development projects that gives priority to the well-being of the human occupants of the land they claim to defend.

Some have argued that the 10,000 jobs that will be generated by the project, and will sustain nearly 100,000 people, are not needed because the indigenes have lived successfully on their farmlands for decades. This is clearly an anti-development argument by those who see the natives as happy Africans content with living off the land, harvesting wild fruits and hunting small rodents for food. It is highly insulting, to the intelligence of the people and the ambitions of their children for a better life than that of their less educated parents.

Local environmental organizations are to be commended when and if they focus their efforts on very obvious environmental hazards posed to the uninformed citizens in a country like Cameroon. Many of them do and a hat tip to them. My problem is with those who react in a knee-jerk fashion to the dictates of their overlords in Amsterdam and Geneva, by not taking the time to study the trade-offs between environmental protection and the well-being of their fellow citizens.

There are dozens of western-owned industries in Cameroon that have been spewing toxic fumes into the air, befouling rivers and streams with industrial pollutants and destroying valuable land with toxic waste from their factories, yet have never been the object of attention from these our so-called environmental NGOs.

By aiding and abetting the actions of these corporations and joining with their developed country counterparts to stymie development efforts by companies like Herakles Farms that benefit thousands of citizens, they are no better than the corrupt government bureaucrats who receive bribes to turn a blind eye to the same practices.

For sure, Herakles Farms is not a charitable organization; it is a for profit corporation out to make money. But it also recognizes that it long term success depends on taking care of the environment as it has pledged to do and making sure that it gains the goodwill of the local population by bringing the development and its attendant social services that the government has been unable to provide.
*Dr. Constantine Chienku is a Senior Physician, Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics and President of the God Saves Corporation. He practices medicine in Northern Virginia.

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