- A decade after transnational palm oil company Wilmar took control of a derelict oil palm plantation, local residents continue to fight for the farmlands, forests and rivers they use.
- The government leased land from several local communities in 1962, but abandoned it in the 1970s.
- In 2012, against the backdrop of a drive to expand Nigeria’s palm oil production, the land was transferred to Wilmar in a move bitterly resisted by local residents.
- Critics say expanding oil palm plantations are accelerating deforestation and local residents complain that Wilmar has encroached on their farms and wastewater from the plantation has contaminated watercourses.
One morning in 2013, Ojobe William watched as the blade of a bulldozer destroyed his farm in southeastern Nigeria. Soldiers armed with whips and rifles looked on, alert. Residents of Ehom say transnational palm oil producer Wilmar carried out a violent land grab when it took control of the derelict Ibiae plantation, depriving the communities of farmlands, forests and rivers they depend on. Ten years later, the wounds left in Ehom and neighboring communities remain open.
The Ibiae oil palm estate spreads across 5,600 hectares (13,800 acres), 45 kilometers (28 miles) from the Cross River state capital, Calabar, in the Biase Local Government Area (LGA). Rich green vegetation clothes low-lying hills and small rivers and streams flowing through the valleys provide water that local farmers use to irrigate their fields, provide for their livestock and drink from themselves.
Along the main road leading to Calabar, farmers have set up stalls to sell okra, periwinkles, cassava and other produce from stalls set up along the main road to traders from the state capital.
The land that the estate is on was leased from the communities of Ehom, Akpet Egbai, Igbofia, Betem and Idoma in 1962. Like many other large commercial estates, the Nigerian government set up at the time, Ibiae was abandoned by the government in the 1970s. For the best part of 40 years, farmers from the surrounding communities as well as former estate workers and their descendants grew a range of crops here.
Contested revival of industrial plantations
That changed after a subsidiary of Wilmar International, Biase Plantation Ltd., leased it from the state government in May 2012. The goal of the deal, worth around $1.5 million, was to revive production of palm oil from the estate.
Ojobe and his neighbors did not accept their fate quietly. Sporadic protests over the next seven years were violently suppressed.
In late 2012, the nonprofit Rainforest Resource & Development Centre (RRDC) approached the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil’s complaints panel on behalf of the affected communities to challenge Wilmar’s acquisition of the land.
In addition to questioning the state’s continued rights to the land — for decades, the government had failed to pay rent as set out in the 1962 lease — RRDC also accused Wilmar of redrawing the boundaries of the estate, encroaching on farmers’ land and community forests. The appeal was unsuccessful: The RSPO ruled the plantation was transferred in compliance with local law.
Mongabay has reviewed nearly a dozen protest letters, oral submissions, petitions, court case records and letters from individuals and civil society groups sent to state institutions between 2012 and 2020, accusing Wilmar of encroaching on lands and farms, damaging the environment beyond the estate’s boundaries and challenging the legality of the estate’s acquisition.
Some of these challenges have been successful. In 2017, a farmer, Arikpo Ojah, sued Wilmar in the Akpet Magistrate Court, alleging encroachment on his land and destruction of cassava, bush mangoes and stands of cacao trees. Ojah had been among those strongly opposed the sale of Ibiae to Wilmar.
In 2013, he was the first individual to petition the local environmental health officials to act against Wilmar’s pollution and blockage of Uhom stream, which runs through his farm. Upon inspection, local authorities determined Wilmar had indeed blocked the stream, dumping debris and logs in it.
Local residents have long complained about pollution from that the Ibiae plantation. They say wastewater laced with toxic chemicals generated by processing palm fruit flows into water courses that they rely on for drinking, bathing and irrigating their farms. The pollution is causing stands of oil palm and other plants to wither. When Mongabay visited the area in 2021, black foam collected on the surface of the water in many of the area’s rivers and streams. Dead and dying trees stood in water streaked with an oily slick.
Ojah’s 2017 lawsuit seemed to have been resolved when he reached an out-of-court settlement with Wilmar in 2018. An arbitration panel led by Samuel Agabai inspected Ojah’s farm and concluded that Wilmar’s bulldozers had in fact encroached on Ojah’s farm. The panel recommended compensation of 400,000 naira ($520) be paid to Ojah for the destruction of his crops.
But Ojah told Mongabay that Wilmar failed to fully comply with the panel’s rulings, and he returned to court. In 2019, the Cross River State High Court ruled in his favor, determining the company had wrongfully polluted his land and ordered Wilmar to pay 4 million naira ($5,200) in damages.
Wilmar has steadfastly rejected all accusations of wrongdoing. “We are aware of the many unsubstantiated allegations related to land grabbing, pollution and poor labor conditions. We have investigated each of these accusations, and also fully cooperated with investigations by government authorities and agencies,” Ravin Trapshah, a senior manager for communications, emailed in response to questions from Mongabay in October 2021.
Notwithstanding the 2019 ruling in favor of Ojah, Trapshah wrote, “To date, none of the allegations hurled against us have been found to be true or valid. We have also responded to them repeatedly, accompanied by relevant facts and evidence, together with our key stakeholders that include our host communities, workers union and relevant government agencies.”
Oil palm plantations threatening forests
Along the highway running to Calabar today, trucks toil, loaded with fresh bunches of palm fruit; still more of the dark orange bunches are heaped in mounds by the roadside.
Despite this show of industry, 80% of Nigeria’s palm oil is produced not by plantations like Ibiae, but by smallholder farmers. But these farmers’ output is limited by inadequate funding, poor management skills and access to land, says Samuel Ogallah, senior climate specialist for Africa at Solidaridad, a nonprofit organization that supports small-scale oil palm growers in Africa.
In 2019, Nigeria’s federal government announced it would invest $500 million to boost palm oil production, from around 600,000 tons to 5 million tons a year by 2027. Oil palm is native to West and Central Africa, but whereas farmers have tended palm trees as part of the larger forest, the Nigerian government’s plans — which place Wilmar and other industrial growers at the center — are prompting a wave of change.
The government lacks structures to support smallholders. Wilmar and other large plantation operators have become the channels for development of the palm oil sector, largely through outgrower schemes. These schemes include training and financial support and provide smallholders with higher yielding seedlings. Outgrowers are required to sell their bunches of ripe oil palm fruit to Wilmar’s processing mills and refineries.
Raphael Offiong, director of the Carbon Innovation Center at the University of Calabar, says it is prompting farmers to clear forests. “The people have seen this as a profitable venture, and it is driving a new rush. But it’s also very dangerous. If you visit the field and see the level of destruction taking place at the Cross River National Park, it will make you weep; it is a massive scale activity. These outgrowers create more havoc than the big greenfield companies. They target core forest areas.”
Offiong says a significant proportion of this forest clearing is taking place in reserves and other protected areas, including the Cross River National Park, home to the critically endangered Cross River gorilla (Gorilla gorilla diehli), with an estimated population of just 300 individuals. Civil society groups like Rainforest Resource & Development Centre (RRDC) and Friends of the Earth Nigeria / Environmental Rights Action separately reported that the expansion of plantations owned directly by Wilmar between 2012 and 2020 also poses a threat to areas of high conservation value in the state.
“We are on the brink of a disaster with the forest loss happening here,” Offiong tells Mongabay. “Wilmar has not done well. … The Cross River Rainforest, the last hope for gorillas, is under intense pressure.”
Paddy Njar, a former director of wildlife at the Cross River State Forestry Commission, says he does not expect Wilmar’s growing legion of outgrowers will be stopped from expanding. “The state government doesn’t have any political will in protecting the forest. The politicians don’t care about what happens to the forest, they care about what the forest puts in their pocket,” he tells Mongabay.
Who owns Nigeria’s abandoned plantations?
After the Nigerian civil war, from 1967-70, Ibiae and many similar estates were abandoned, though they remained listed as state property. In a letter to Wilmar in 2014, the Akpet community argued that under the terms of the 1962 lease, the communities in Biase are the estate’s landlords, and as the government had ignored repeated appeals to to pay annual rent and other benefits, it had lost its title to the estate and could not hand it over to Wilmar.
The government dismisses this argument by saying it can dispose of the Ibiae estate as it pleases under the terms of the 1978 Land Use Act. This controversial law vested all land in the state, with the only requirement being to administer the land for “overriding public interest.”
Ikechi Mgbeoji, a Nigerian-Canadian professor at Osgoode Hall Law School, at Toronto’s York University, says this law — introduced by the military government at the time — has facilitated corruption and abuse. “Governors have used the disguise of the law to grab lands and inflict various injustices on original land owners and communities.”
“They had counted every household and promised us jobs, scholarships, and infrastructural development. But we were deceived,” Ojobe William tells Mongabay.
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CORRECTION (3/11/2023): This article originally stated that Wilmar spokeperson Ravin Trapshah responded to questions in early 2023. In fact, his exchange with Mongabay was in October 2021.