In the early hours of a fateful morning in 2013, Ojobe William bore witness to the devastation of his cherished farm in southeastern Nigeria.
According to news.mongabay.com, the monstrous blade of a bulldozer razed his land to the ground while armed soldiers, armed with whips and rifles, stood guard. This violent scene unfolded in Ehom, a small community that had fallen victim to a transnational palm oil producer, Wilmar, in what would become known as a relentless land grab. Ten years on, the scars of that ruthless takeover continue to fester in Ehom and the neighboring communities.
The backdrop of this tragic tale is the Ibiae oil palm estate, sprawling across 5,600 hectares in the Biase Local Government Area, 45 kilometers from Calabar, the capital of Cross River State. This lush expanse of greenery boasted low-lying hills and meandering rivers that provided the lifeblood for local farmers, nourishing their fields, sustaining their livestock, and quenching their thirst.
Along the main road leading to Calabar, farmers had once set up vibrant stalls, offering a bounty of okra, periwinkles, cassava, and other bountiful produce to traders from the state capital.
The land beneath the estate had been leased from the communities of Ehom, Akpet Egbai, Igbofia, Betem, and Idoma in 1962. Over the years, these communities, along with former estate workers and their descendants, had lovingly cultivated a variety of crops here. However, the Nigerian government, as with many other large commercial estates, abandoned Ibiae in the 1970s.
The turning point came when a subsidiary of Wilmar International, Biase Plantation Ltd., secured a lease from the state government in May 2012 for approximately $1.5 million. Their aim was to rejuvenate palm oil production on the estate. Ojobe and his fellow villagers refused to accept their fate passively. Over the next seven years, sporadic protests erupted but were brutally suppressed.
In late 2012, the Rainforest Resource & Development Centre (RRDC), a nonprofit organization, intervened, representing the affected communities as they challenged Wilmar’s acquisition of the land before the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil’s complaints panel.
Their grievances extended beyond Wilmar’s land rights; they also accused the company of altering the estate’s boundaries, encroaching on farmers’ land, and infringing upon community forests. Yet, their appeal fell on deaf ears as the RSPO ruled in favor of Wilmar, deeming the plantation’s transfer compliant with local laws.
Over the years, numerous protests, letters, petitions, court cases, and complaints were lodged against Wilmar, accusing the company of encroachment, environmental damage beyond the estate’s borders, and questioning the legality of the estate’s acquisition. While some of these challenges yielded results, such as Arikpo Ojah’s successful lawsuit against Wilmar in 2017, the company remained steadfast in rejecting all accusations of wrongdoing.
Ojah’s victory, while significant, was only a partial resolution. Despite the arbitration panel’s recommendation for compensation, Wilmar’s compliance remained lacking, leading Ojah to return to court. In 2019, the Cross River State High Court ruled in his favor, acknowledging the company’s wrongful pollution of his land and ordering them to pay 4 million naira ($5,200) in damages.
Throughout this tumultuous journey, Wilmar consistently maintained its innocence, stating, “We are aware of the many unsubstantiated allegations related to land grabbing, pollution, and poor labor conditions.”
Nevertheless, the scars of Ehom and neighboring communities serve as a stark reminder of the relentless struggle against powerful corporate interests. As trucks laden with palm fruit continue to ply the highway to Calabar, the battle between industrial plantations and local farmers rages on.
Despite the impressive veneer of the palm oil industry, a staggering 80% of Nigeria’s palm oil is still produced by smallholder farmers. These farmers, however, grapple with limited funding, inadequate management skills, and access to land. Samuel Ogallah, a senior climate specialist for Africa at Solidaridad, a nonprofit organization supporting small-scale oil palm growers, highlights the challenges they face.
In 2019, Nigeria’s federal government unveiled a plan to invest $500 million to boost palm oil production, with industrial growers like Wilmar at the forefront. This initiative, aimed at increasing production from 600,000 tons to 5 million tons annually by 2027, has spurred significant changes.
Large plantation operators like Wilmar have become pivotal players in the government’s vision, primarily through outgrower schemes. These schemes offer training, financial support, and high-yielding seedlings to smallholders, who, in turn, are required to sell their palm fruit bunches to Wilmar’s processing mills and refineries.
Raphael Offiong, director of the Carbon Innovation Center at the University of Calabar, warns of the consequences. “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.”
This rampant forest clearing encroaches on reserves and protected areas, including the Cross River National Park, home to the critically endangered Cross River gorilla, with an estimated population of just 300 individuals. Civil society groups have raised concerns about the expansion of Wilmar’s plantations, citing threats to areas of high conservation value in the state.
As the sun sets over the palm oil plantations and the Cross River state, the battle between local farmers and powerful corporate interests continues. The wounds inflicted a decade ago remain open, a testament to the resilience and determination of communities unwilling to yield their land without a fight.
“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.