By Emma Una and Ike Uchechukwu
CALABAR—THIRTY- SEVEN host communities straddling four local government areas of Cross River State, are on collision course with Wilmer PZ International, a multinational firm from Singapore, which acquired palm estates from the state government, over alleged takeover of their land and desecration of their surroundings.
Bullying villagers with soldiers, police
Representatives of the communities in Biase, Akamkpa, Odukpani and Akpabuyo local governments areas, at a joint press conference with a nongovernmental organization, Environmental Rights Action, ERA, disclosed that in the past seven years when the company began cultivation of palms in the former Ibiae, Calaro and Obasanjo Oil Palm plantations, it had commandeered vast expanse of lands that are not part of acquired estates to plant palm trees without paying compensation.
Deacon Williams Ogoje, Mrs Nkoyo Uwet, Dr Maurice Olory and Hon David Itam, who spoke on behalf of the communities, alleged the company in a neo-colonialist technique, was using soldiers and police to intimidate the people and grab their land for plantation activities.
Govt sold leased land to Wilmer
“Prior to the coming of Wilmer, we had leased our land to the state government under the aegis of Eastern Development Company for the establishment of the oil palm plantations based on overriding public interest through customary land rights laws, but when the government felt it could no longer manage the estates, it never consulted us, rather the estates were sold to Wilmer,” the communities asserted
The communities’ representatives explained that the company was expanding beyond the original land given to the government by the communities into lands belonging to families and individuals, effectively denying the people of farmlands and sources of drinking water.
No knowledge of MoU
“Wilmer has obviously not kept to the Memorandum of Understanding between the company and the state government, copies of which none of us have seen, especially in communities like Uwet, Ekong Anaku, Akwa Ikot, Effanga, Ibogo, Umai, Beten, Atan Odot and 30 other communities where their estates are located because they have extended their activities to pristine forests after taking over families and individuals lands,” the representatives asserted.
They said the company had not provided any infrastructure in any of the communities neither has it employed their youths to any serious position in the company, other than labourers to plant the palms and weed the grass in the estates.
“We have qualified persons to occupy senior positions in the company, but our people are not being engaged in such positions, they are employed as labourers to plant palms and weed grass in the estates which is another form of colonization,” the communities added.
Give us our land or renegotiate MoU
They appealed to the Cross River State government to restore the land to them or renegotiate the terms of Memorandum of Understanding with the company along with the communities so that they can get a fair share of the proceeds from their land.
The communities stated: “Wilmer’s activities have led to the loss of community and individual arable farmland, environmental degradation arising from deforestation, threat to biodiversity as both plants and animal species are being destroyed to extinction due to habitat fragmentation and loss of habitat and we want this to stop forthwith as the land and forests are our only sources of livelihood.”
Communities lost sources of income – ERA/FoEN
Executive Director, Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria, Dr Godwin Uyi Ojo, told reporters: “It has been discovered that Wilmer Company has not kept to the MoU as agreed between them and the communities. The community members are employed as labourers and provided with unskilled jobs, there is no employment for qualified skilled management position as earlier promised by Wilmer.”
“The local dwellers are complaining bitterly that there was no free, prior, informed consent (FPIC) carried out by either government or Wilmer before their lands were appropriated. When consultations were carried out, it was non inclusive as women, youths and others in the community were left out,” he bemoaned
According to Dr Ojo, “The communities have lost numerous sources of income from forests and non-timber forests products which the locals depended on for livelihood and sustainability. They continue to suffer neglect from both the government and Wilmar as there is still no provision of alternative means of livelihood, no electricity, access roads, clinics or health post in most of these communities.”
“Land grabbing subverts the sustainable development goals of reducing poverty and ending hunger as it has further exacerbated poverty among the rural land lord communities especially the youths and women,” he stated.
We didn’t hijack land- Wilmer
Contacted, the Sustainability Manager, Wilmer, Mr Asen Ako, told NDV that the company has not taken additional land or acquired any estate from chiefs or any individual to increase the size of their estate beyond what was handed by the state government to it.
He said it was therefore untrue for anyone to claim it has grabbed individual and family lands without paying compensation.
In the case of devastation of water sources and non provision of infrastructure, he said the company has a robust community relations package for communities within and around its area of operation, adding: “This package is geared towards education, capacity building, health, employment, and economic development.”
“We have committed N253, 785,027 (Onun Secondary school Mbarakom– 100 per cent completed); N116, 574,542 (Camp 2 Primary School – 50 per cent completed); N104, 627,161.70 (Ibiae Primary School – 90 per cent completed); N226, 160,500 (Aningeje Secondary School – 75 per cent completed),” he added.