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Playing Banana Monopoly: Agribusiness in Cameroon Threatens Independent Farmers

August 5, 2011 ·

The Big Banana details the injustice that is inflicted when profit of multinational companies is put before the interest of the people.

The next time I’m at the grocery store and I see bunch of Dole bananas, I’ll think twice before picking them up and plunking down my 69 cents per pound.

As discussed in the film, “The Big Banana,” multinational corporations can wreak havoc on local communities, especially when governments collude with companies against the interest of their own people. In the Littoral region of Cameroon, on the west coast of Africa, a food company has been participating in government-supported land grabs since the early 1990s.

Traditionally, indigenous groups in Cameroon shared their land and lived from it in community land-sharing arrangements. From the late 1800s, Cameroon was a colony of Western European countries — first colonized by Germany, then after World War II, divided between France and England. During this time, land was the property of the crown or privatized. In 1959, the laws were revised to include provisions for “customary” land holders. Indigenous groups were allowed to register their land if they had lived there consecutively for five years or more.

When Cameroon became independent in 1960 and unified as one country in 1972, the government faced intense pressure from the West to encourage foreign investment and development. According to the Forest Peoples Programme's report, the state added more requirements for registering land that included Western-style buildings and “improvements.” Since then, the semi-nomadic peoples of the country have been largely excluded from the rights to land they have inhabited for centuries, and now they must either adapt to Western settlements or farm on rented land to survive.

The REseau de LUtte contre la FAim (RELUFA) explains that “Land is the main ‘employer’ in Cameroon. It allows the farmers to take care of their family and lead a decent life. But ever since its installation, the banana export company Plantations du Haut Penja has obtained as much land as possible, at times to the detriment of the rights of the local population, and with complicity of local authorities.”

In 1993, the government granted a land lease to Plantations du Haut Penja, a local banana mega-plantation, when the local land cooperative went bankrupt. The plantation is a supplier for Compagnie Fruitiere, a French subsidiary of Dole Food Company. Since then, the plantation has been forcing the farmers and families off their land using corrupt practices. Company officials claim to offer fair compensation for the crops, but in reality they modify contracts and refuse to fulfill their agreements. Farmers often remain indebted in spite of their hard work and often lose their land in dishonest deals.

The only alternative for small farmers is to work directly for the plantation company for a wage that is not suitable for feeding a family. RELUFA visited and interviewed farmers from the area starting in 2005 and produced a report on the financial situation of the farmers and their relationships with the plantation.

The report describes an untenable situation:

“They then were invited by [the plantation] to come to the sub-prefect, where they were met by the police commander and special commissioner, and received at most a third of what they expected to get in compensations for the crops in their fields. Afterwards, the sub-prefect proclaimed to have handed out an amount up to $100,000 for each of the farmers and $30,000 for the community of Bonandam. But based on the numbers he himself produced, less than $80,000 had actually been distributed.”

“Aware that their compensations were insufficient and baseless, the farmers went to the judge in chambers of Mbanga, for a judiciary expert on oath to be assigned to them to make an inventory of the crops and assess their value according to the law. As soon as [the plantation] was summoned and the courts had agreed to go to the site for the requested inventory, [the plantation] went with tractors and caterpillars to the terrain and destroyed the crops. With this act, the company made the court's decision useless and destroyed any proofs.”

Cameroonian filmmaker Franck Bieleu led the production of a documentary about Plantations du Haut Penja titled “The Big Banana.” The documentary was banned in Cameroon in April 2011. But the Institute for Policy Studies is hosting a screening of the film in Washington DC this Thursday, August 11, 2011. (See event listing.) The screening will be followed by a Q&A session with the filmmaker. In addition, the program “Africa Now” on Pacifica Radio’s WPFW (89.3 FM) will air a segment of the film and feature an interview with Bieleu 11 AM on Wednesday, the day before the screening.

The Big Banana illustrates in painful, personal detail the injustice that is inflicted across communities and nations when profit of multinational companies is put before the interest of people. Plantations du Haut Penja and their parent company Dole are only interested in Cameroonians as a resource to exploit for the growth of capital. Powerful international companies have no problem with plowing over the health of local families and villages to expand their agricultural empire. We have to remember that the 69 cents per pound we pay at the grocery store is nowhere near the whole cost of our food. We must work together to build societies that aren’t sustained by the suffering of others.

Christopher H. Bartlo is a communications intern at the Institute for Policy Studies and a student at George Mason University.