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Chinese in Cameroon: an agricultural misunderstanding 3

Dec30

In 2006 Cameroon sold 10,000 hectares of lands to a Chinese company. Now, three years later, local population and civil society – who were not consulted on the sale – continue denouncing the presence of the Chinese and the lack of understanding deepens.

Three years have passed since the Cameroon State has sold part of its land to Sino Cam Iko, a big Chinese company specialised in the production, the transformation and the trade of agricultural products. Its presence is confirmed in three sites: two in the Centre, with 2,000 hectares in Nanga-Eboko and 4,000 hectares in Ndjoré, and another one in the West, with 4,000 hectares in Santchou.

After having signed an agreement on the possibility of using these lands for 99 years, Chinese investors launched experimental cultivations of rice, corn, fruit and vegetables in Nagna-Eboko,170 kilometers to the north east of Yaoundé, and of manioca in Ndjoré, 100 kilometres away from the capital. Zhao, the ad interim company director, is pleased of the first goals reached. “These two areas can count on a mild climate, on water resources and on a fertile ground”.

A mentality shock

Whether is it real or not, the agricultural success isn’t enough to correct the climate of misunderstanding that has emerged between Sino Cam and regional inhabitants, that also blame the company for exploiting its workers.

The company employs ten Chinese workers, whose jobs are mostly in the fields, weeding, peeling and harvesting. Sometimes a small group of Cameroonians join them, but they are employed irregularly and are paid on a daily basis. “Working for these people means running eight or ten hours non stop under the sun and the rain for 1,000 Fcfa [1,5 euros],” says a citizen of Nanga-Eboko.

But this remuneration does not correspond to the minimum guaranteed wage in Cameroon, which is 28,216 Fcfa per month [around 43 euros].

“Touching an abandoned papaya is forbidden,” says a taxi driver who has worked for the Chinese firm for a short period. “If they catch you with some rice in your pocket, you are directly sent to the police, accused of theft”.

Sino Cam rejects the charges of exploitation. “We are still in the experimental phase and we are asking our workers to do more so that they may earn more, but they prefer to cheat us. They say they are here to make money – but they need to work to make the company grow,” Zhao says.

However, it is difficult to manage to convince people with this economic logic. Indeed, most of them have been living in a subsistence system for years which means they lack any kind of knowledge of business culture.

Some residents show their opposition by boycotting Sino Cam products. “Even though they sell rice at lower prices, I don’t buy it. It is a way of denouncing their presence,” says a restaurateur. Other people denounce the scarce quality of the rice, which, according to protesters, does not cook well.

In spite of criticisms, all Sino Cam products have buyers though.

Lack of transparency

The Chinese presence is still a thorny theme in Naga-Eboko. Its mayor, Romain Roland Eto, admits he is “much embarrassed” when pressed to say something about this event. “Firstly, because the municipality and our administration had not been consulted in the lands’ selling”. And this is the root of the problem. In Cameroon, the State selling of is done in secret. This lack of transparency and information among the populations is poisoning relationships between citizens and buyers.

The urban association that defends community interests (ACDIC) says that these sales are dangerous and representative of a threat for food sovereignty in Cameroon.

“When lands are sold to local buyers, we have more guarantee that they will not import foreign labour and export their products. Production will be automatically sold on the local market. With foreign buyers from the West, China or India we do not have any guarantee,” says Bernard Njonga, ACDIC President.

Between July and August 2009 this association organised a series of debates on the problem in Douala and Yaoundé, launching an appeal against the selling of lands to foreign people.

Despite this strong opposition, an official of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development – that asks to remain anonymous – does not agree.

“Before any decision, the State takes into account local populations. The arrival of the Chinese is a great opportunity, and I think that people that now are against this decision will understand its importance”.

According to the official, thanks to their presence, rice production in Cameroon should contribute to make imports decrease: 400,000 tons per year compared to a local production of 50,000 tons.

But a doubt remains. Will rice produced on these 10,000 hectares remain in Cameroon’s hands or will it be massively exported to China? This is the local people’s biggest fear.

“When the right moment comes, we will expand to the whole nation and across the whole of Africa. We will be able to offer the best of our production and help local populations satisfy their food needs and make their income grow,” says the Sino Cam director, Zhao, who swears that the whole production will be transformed and sold locally, as specified in the memorandum of understanding.

Will this promise be enough to calm Cameroonians’ mistrust?

By Charles Ngorgang Syfia

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There are 3 comments for this post

  1. Which i insisting my father that not all headlines posted on the internet are original but this post is an exceptional to my rule.

  2. Lebogo Anne says:

    how can I do to have your improved maize seedlings

  3. […] Cameroon: An Agricultural Misunderstanding,” Vita Società Editoriale S.P.A., December 30, 2009, http://www.afronline.org/?p=2908; Mireille Fouda Effa, “Cameroon –  Joseph Fa’a Embolo: Emprisonné pour avoir défendu ses […]

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