What’s a Tree Worth?

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Godefroy Edzoa is the traditional chief of Ekabita.  The pipeline crosses straight through the fields of Ekabita where people grow cocoa, avocados, mangoes, safou, papayas, and a variety of crops including bananas, corn, cassava, squash and peanuts.

Edzoa tells me that when the pipeline people came to Ekabita, they told residents there would be compensation for damaged crops.  They also said that once the pipeline construction was completed, residents could farm their lands again.  However, no fruit trees could be planted on the 30-meter wide easement, as tree roots could damage the pipeline.  Farmers were told that the easement would be cleared several times a year, probably after harvests, but were given no firm details. Even today farmers can not tell me exactly when the easement will be cleared, as the calendar seems to change each year.

The first problem for the farmers of Ekabita was related to the compensation levels.  The consortium announced a price for crops destroyed by the pipeline production: each farmer would get a fixed sum per tree cut down, for each half hectare of corn destroyed, etc.  The amounts initially proposed were considered insufficient by farmers and local NGOs.  After much debate, compensation levels were raised, but according to widespread testimony, the amounts paid to villagers were often less than what had been promised.  It also appears that compensation levels were not consistent from village to village, with farmers paid between $50 and $200 per mango tree destroyed.

Even more troubling was the one-time nature of the payments.  A large mango tree, for example, can produce about 100,000 FCFA (approximately $250) annually. The villager who lost his fruit tree first needed to have the land to plant a new mango tree, as the pipeline easement is off limits. It’s important to note here that in Cameroon most villagers farm family lands that belong to them according to traditional law (“droit coutumier”), but for which they hold no official deeds.  When lands were expropriated for the pipeline, only those holding land titles (“titres fonciers”) were paid for lost lands.  As a result, most villagers were only paid for lost crops and could not afford to buy or rent new plots of land.

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If a villager had the land to plant a new mango tree, he had to wait at least five years for the tree to produce any fruit.  And a mango tree won’t produce significant quantities of fruit for 10-15 years.  Many of the mango trees around Ekabita were planted by past generations of farmers. These are trees that can live and produce fruit for a hundred years.  The reality of mango cultivation, similar to the cultivation of avocados and other fruits, was not taken into consideration when compensation levels were determined. No one offered to pay the villagers for lost revenues over time; they were simply given the one-time, per tree fee.

Ultimately the compensation has not made up for lost revenues and many villagers are actually worse off today than they were before the pipeline came through.

Complicating matters further, for many of the villagers who live on a dollar or two a day, the cash payments themselves were problematic. In the areas crossed by the pipeline, there’s no culture of savings to speak of.  People are basically surviving.  Fifty or a hundred dollars, then, represents a lot of money.  Even if you do the math and that amount doesn’t come close to representing lost income, it’s a wad of cash in the hands of people who rarely, if ever, see that kind of money.  Unfortunately, in every village you’ll hear the same story:  villagers received cash and within a few months it was gone.  They traveled to Yaounde or Douala; they bought beer and whisky. They blew the cash without investing anything.

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The consortium’s position on cash problems is simple:  payments were made and how the money was spent is not the oil companies’ responsibility.  It’s certainly true that villagers need to learn to manage money.  A culture of savings, investment and initiative needs to develop in areas where people tend to be fatalistic.  Many Cameroonians cite this as a problem for the country’s economic development.   But was it right to simply give cash to people without some sort of educational effort or follow-up?  The consortium knew that cash payments would be problematic.  In early project reports, this is cited as one of the reasons that villages — as opposed to individuals — would be given in-kind, rather than cash, compensation.

An information and education campaign could have accompanied the cash payments.  This would have represented an additional cost for the consortium, but could have increased the chances that compensation money would actually help raise the standard of living in villages impacted by the pipeline.  After all, both the consortium and the World Bank claimed repeatedly that this project would improve the lives of Cameroonians and Chadians. 

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