The Cross River state government in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria has handed over vast hectares of land to Wilmar international in its bid to revive the oil palm industry in the state and to restore its past glory. The State government has so far handed over the Calaro Oil palm estate and the Ibiae oil palm estates. It has also transferred its interests in large tracts of land in Biase Local government area to Wilmar international. The Cross River State government says that it will ensure that Wilmar has access to a minimum of 50,000 ha of land on which to cultivate palm plantation within a five year period.
Wilmar international has further to this formed a joint venture partnership with PZ Cussons Nigeria PLC to process the palm oil that would be produced from the estates into products. Wilmar has so far acquired 30,000 ha of land and has established nurseries at 3 locations- Calaro, Ibiae and Biase palm estates. The Biase estate measuring about 8,660 ha is forested land while Calaro and Ibiae oil palm estates were acquired from the state government following a privatization process.
Communities informed us that land for the estates were acquired in 1959 by the then Eastern Nigeria government via the Eastern Nigeria Development Corporation which acquired the lands for oil palm plantation purposes. On the 22nd of December, 1963 a formal agreement was entered into between the communities and the Eastern Nigeria Development Corporation. The four landlord communities who signed the formal agreement were 1. Betem community 2. Akpet community 3. Idoma community and 4. Igbofia-Ehom community.
However it would appear that the Eastern Nigeria Development Corporation did not utilise all of the lands it acquired from the four communities. At the creation of Cross River State in 1967, the new state administration took over the estates. However over the years the estates became moribund as a result of administrative lapses and neglect. It is important to point out that even in this state of neglect local people were allowed to farm on the land on the condition that they pay a yearly rent to the state government.
The communities complained that they were not adequately consulted on the transfer of the land to Wilmar and that they only got to know about the transfer after the state government had concluded all negotiations with Wilmar. They in fact wrote a petition to the state government via their lawyers dated April 5, 2012 where they specifically said that the government had by virtue of the breach of fundamental provisions of the 1963 lease agreement ceased to have any legal rights over the lands that form part of the estates. The communities alleged that the failure of government to pay rents and royalties as agreed over a 24 year period determined the lease contract and that government therefore had no rights in law or any interest to transfer to Wilmar.
They furthermore argue that if the government no longer required the lands acquired under the principle of overriding public interest, then lands so acquired should revert back to the communities as provided for under the Land Use Act of 1978 The communities with the assistance of civil society groups further raised the issue of the failure of Wilmar to conduct a mandatory Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report as required by S.12(1) & (2) of the E.I.A Law and to also abide by other laws like the National Park Act, the Forest Laws and regulations. Communities argue that it is wrong for Wilmar to commence massive forest clearing and the planting of nurseries without an approved Environmental Impact Assessment Report.
Update: Wilmar Nigeria Limited was billed to appear in court on February 11, 2014, to answer charges of unlawful trespass by its host communities namely, Calaro, Ibiae and Biase. The company is being accused of unlawful acquisition of communal land and non-compliance with applicable laws and regulations.
In the suit filed by an environmental expert and Executive Director of Rainforest Reserve and Development Center (RRDC), Mr. Odey Oyama, on behalf of the host communities, the RRDC is seeking to know whether Wilmar Nigeria Limited complied with human and environmental rights as well as local and national laws of the land.
RRDC is citing multiple infractions of Nigerian state and Federal laws governing land ownership and Land Use Act. They are also insisting that any deal between Wilmar and the host communities remains null and void until all outstanding issues are resolved.
The court could not sit in February (because of strike and then vacation by the judiciary). The case is rescheduled to come up on September 23, 2014.