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Meyomessala is a small forest community in Cameroon’s South Region among several settlements on the edge of a biodiversity-rich UNESCO World Heritage Conservation site, known as the Dja Faunal Reserve.
It is home to endangered species such as western lowland gorillas, chimpanzees, leopards, forest elephants, giant pangolins, bongo antelopes and buffalos.
Nkoulou Bedjeme, an elderly woman, is one of 9,500 Bulu people and indigenous Baka pigmies whose ancestors have lived with the wildlife species for more than 100 years.
Two years ago, her husband and brother died, leaving her to take care of 25 children.
“We had tried the best we could to protect our land,” she tells Al Jazeera. “Our only source of livelihood that was being threatened by this Chinese rubber project.”
Her livelihood depends on farming, hunting, fishing and gathering forest products.
Like several others, she says, her problems began when the government allocated vast concessions within and around their villages to a Chinese state-owned chemicals company, Sinochem International, about 10 years ago.
“In the beginning, they made lofty promises and we didn’t think we would find ourselves in the mess we are in today. Who would have thought our farmlands would be taken away? Worse still, some people were given insignificant compensation, others like me, nothing,” she claims.
On Sinochem’s website, the company says: “Halcyon Agri (a Sinochem-backed group) is the only rubber producer with 33 processing factories located in most of the major rubber producing countries in the world – Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Cameroon, Ivory Coast and China. Halcyon Agri’s premium brand of natural rubber HEVEAPRO represents our commitment to producing a high-quality product that is sourced ethically and produced in a socially and environmentally responsible way.”
Photo: Aljazeera / Signpost at Dja Faunal Reserve
But according to Bedjeme, the company’s rubber plantations are encroaching. They were planned to replace forest land six kilometres away from the villagers’ farmlands but the area was extended up to their backyard.
“Two kilometres away from here, you would find the rubber plantation,” she says.
She removes from her handbag a copy of a complaint she had written to the government in 2012.
“They had to give us 11 million CFA francs ($19,000). Until now, we have received nothing. Our farms and crops were taken.”
Civil society organisations, such as the WWF, Green Peace and the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), have raised concerns over the social and environmental impacts of rubber projects implemented by Sud-Cameroun Hevea SA (SudCam), a local subsidiary of the Singaporean Halcyon Agri Corporation, of which China’s Sinochem International Corporation holds majority shares.