The Cross River state government in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria has handed over vast concessions of land (including forest land) to Wilmar International in its bid to revive the oil palm industry in the state and to restore its past glory. Wilmar International acquired four concessions in Cross River State: the northern and western triad of concessions of Calaro, Ibiae and Biase, in 2011, and a southern and eastern area namedObasanjo, in 2012 .
Environmental Rights Action (hereafter ERA), namely Friends of the Earth Nigeria, considers that at least 20.000 people are directed affected by Wilmar’s concessions in Cross River State, among which potentially 10.000 are at risk of displacement. The locals’ daily life and their farming activities are heavily impacted by Wilmar’s use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers as well as they see the biodiversity of their surroundings put under jeopardy .
Communities informed ERA that the Calaro, Ibiae and Biase estates were acquired in 1959 by the then Eastern Nigeria government via the Eastern Nigeria Development Corporation. These lands were meant for palm oil plantation. On the 22nd of December 1963, a formal agreement was reached between the communities and the Eastern Nigeria Development Corporation. The four landlord communities who signed the formal agreement were the Betem, Akpet, Idoma and Igbofia-Ehom communities. However Eastern Nigeria Development Corporation did not cultivate the entire areas acquired from the four communities.
At the creation of the 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 when neglected, the locals were allowed to farm on the land on the condition that they pay a yearly rent to the state government. An independent research led by George Christoffel Schoneveld, considered that at least a third of the lands in the concessions of Calaro, Ibiae and Biase were being farmed by small-holders prior the arrival of Wilmar. These farmers considered to have the right to farm in perpetuity .
ERA reports that the results of Schoneveld’s study were ignored by Wilmar. The communities from Calaro, Ibiae and Biase estates 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. The latter defends that it led consultations with the state’s Privatization Council, with the state’s Privatization Council and it looked for the local chiefs’ approval. Still, that does not imply adequate communities’ consultation, all the less does that express communities’ consent, recalls ERA. What is more, anonymous testimonies collected by ERA have alleged that the Nigerian government and Wilmar have instrumentalised the local chiefs’ authority to pretend gaining the populations’ consents in spite of obvious local discontent .
The impacted villagers from the Calaro, Ibiae and Biase estates 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 the government therefore had no rights in law or any interest to transfer to Wilmar.
The acquisition of Obasanjo’s concession is different and yet it is also a case of land-grab perpetuated with the complicity of the governmental authorities. In 1992, communities of Ekong Anaku, Mbobui, Mfamosing, Abiati and Anigheje(in the Southeast of the Cross River State) agreed to hand over their lands as a forests reserve. In exchange, the government promised to undertake programs for agroforestry and rural development and credit for small farms and businesses. Those promises were never fulfilled.
Ten years later, in 2002, the Cross River State government handed these lands to the company Obasanjor Farms Ltd, owned by the president of Nigeria of that time: Olusegun Obasanjo . It is in 2011, that the former president Obasanjo sold the concession to the giant palm oil producer Wilmar. The amount paid by Wilmar to Obasanjor Farms Ltd is unknown . The communities were never consulted nor compensated, and today they claim the lands were illegally sold. The villagers impacted by the concessions of Calaro, Ibiae and Biase argue that if the government no longer required the lands acquired under the principle of overriding public interest, then the lands should be reverted 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 EIA 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. ERA argues that the way that Wilmar has obtained these concessions represent major violation of the rights of consultation such as guaranteed by the United Nations Declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples and the Principles and criteria of the Roundtable on sustainable Palm Oil (hereafter RSPO). Most of the local farmers seem to be resigned. Still in 2015, ERA reported that some villagers prepared or presented court cases to address their grievances.
On February 11, 2014, Wilmar Nigeria Limited was billed to appear in court to answer charges of unlawful trespass by its host communities from Calaro, Ibiae and Biase estates. The company was being accused of unlawful acquisition of communal land and non-compliance with applicable laws and regulations. Mr. Odey Oyama, an environmental expert and Executive Director of Nigerian-based NGO Rainforest Reserve and Development Center (hereafter RRDC), filed a suit. RRDC, on behalf of the host communities, was 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 was rescheduled to come up on September 23, 2014. The federal lawsuit was rescheduled once again for June 2015 .
According to the latest news by August 2018, the communities failed to obtain justice after a series of appeals . With the support of ERA, there is some organization at the local level to monitor the impacts of Wilmar’s palm oil plantations. Such as reported by ERA: “Local communities have established a Community Forest Watchin which community members analyze the socioeconomic impacts of Wilmar’s plantations, conduct resource mapping and land and forest surveys in order to fend off trespassers, and develop proposals for reparations and environmental remediation” . Yet ERA considers the people affected by Wilmar’s operations would have access to justice only through binding rules for corporations, established at the United Nations’ level. Wilmar’s exactions in Nigeria represents one of the many cases that motivated NGOs to lead a global campaign for a biding treaty for multinationals to respect human rights .
RRDC has filled several complains to the RSPO, to which Wilmar is a member. In what concerns the Obasanjo plantation, RRDC again considers the deal between Wilmar and the government was illegal because according to theLand Use Act No. 6 of 1978, the national government is not considered to be the owner of the land but can act as a trustee, on behalf of someone else. And here again the local populations were not consulted for the deal. RRDC filed a complaint to RSPO, considering that the deal should be considered null until all these issues were resolved and RRDC also suggested the creation of an open forum including all the impacted communities . In December 2013, Wilmar declared to not lead new developments in its Obasanjo concession until consultations were carried on . RRDC has also alerted the European Union on the effects of its biofuels’ policy on Southern countries like Nigeria. The recent and high European demand for biofuels also feeds multinationals like Wilmar greed for new land investments disregarding locals’ land and human rights . RRDC calls upon the European Union’s responsibility to also review its biofuel policy, as it is considered by RRDC to be one of the reasons directly causing an increasing food insecurity in Sub-Saharan Africa. By June 2013 the multinational Wilmar published a 'No peat, no deforestation, no exploitation' promise. It gave itself and its providers two years to reach its goals. Yet once that deadline approaching, ERA and Friends of the Earth Europe denounced a marketing strategy to green its own image, while in Nigeria nothing changed for the local communities, still witnessing the destruction of their forests and farmlands .