FABE, Cameroon (Reuters) - It was a tough week for Cameroonian village chief Wangoe Philip Ekole.
People in Fabe, angry at his support for a palm-oil plantation in their rainforest home, had put a curse on its seedling nursery, prompting petrified workers to lay down their tools and flee.
Ekole, who believes the project will bring people jobs and wealth, had persuaded them to return. But the whiff of revolt remained. Many of his 200 or so subjects accused him of seeking to enrich himself through the project. Some even disowned him as their leader.
The village dispute is part of the global struggle to feed the world - and central to a New York investment fund's bid to capitalize on that effort in Africa.
Expanding markets from Nigeria to China are fuelling a voracious appetite for more food. A big part of that demand will have to be met by palm oil, a low-cost fat coveted by food manufacturers and a mainstay of cooking across the tropics. Since 2000, world demand for palm oil has doubled. Millions of hectares of forest in top producers Indonesia and Malaysia have been turned over to plantations.
That has prompted dismay among environmentalists and brought about tough new rules that are forcing planters to look elsewhere. One of those places is Cameroon, a central African state whose 20 million people live on an average of $3 a day. New York-based Herakles Farms proposes planting a palm-oil farm stretching over 60,000 hectares of land - 10 times the size of Manhattan.
Herakles says it will provide locals with steady work, roads and health care. But critics call the planned plantation, which would cover Fabe and at least 30 other forest villages, a land grab. They say it will threaten an ancient forest at the heart of the wider Congo Basin rainforest - the world's second-largest after the Amazon.
Right now, Africa is the target of many companies hungry for forest land. An April 2012 study by the World Wildlife Fund and France's Institute for Research and Development noted that new regulations and scrutiny elsewhere are "encouraging large Asian companies to heavily invest in Central Africa."
Herakles Farms, owned by New York venture-finance firm Herakles Capital, and other food giants such as Malaysia's Sime Darby and Singapore's Olam, see the next big growth area down the west coast of Africa, from Liberia to Gabon.
The Herakles plantation is a test case for an African industry-in-the-making. Get it right and the continent could benefit. Get it wrong and Africa could see its resources consumed and its people deprived of livelihoods.
Chief Ekole has no doubt about what to do. "Is it the right of a chief to refuse light where there is darkness?" asked Ekole, ensconced in the wood-carved throne of his royal hut. "Their grievance was that I had eaten all the money alone and they would have to leave their farms ... This is completely phony."
The oil palm, or Elaeis guineensis, is a food-producing machine with few parallels. Give it warmth, sun and rain and it will transform soil nutrients into fatty acids more efficiently - thus more lucratively - than any rival.
The average palm plantation can generate four metric tons (1 metric ton = 1.1023 tons) of oil per hectare a year, six times the typical yield for rapeseed and 10 times that of soybeans. Small wonder it is the world's most important vegetable oil, with annual production of 50 million metric tons worth $20 billion.
Palm oil is used in everything from margarine and soap to biofuel. It is a prized dressing on dishes across West and Central Africa, and as its popularity has surged, so has its price. Malaysian palm oil now sells at around 3,000 ringgit ($940) a metric ton, triple what it cost in 2000.
Take the road from the coastal town of Limbe around the volcanic slopes of Mount Cameroon and barely a minute goes by without a new oil palm plantation.
What looks like a monolithic sea of palm is in fact a patchwork of smallholdings and larger plantations held by both the state and agro-industrial companies. Some plots date back to pre-1960 colonial rule.
Cameroon's current output of 230,000 metric tons makes it the world's 13th-largest producer. That's enough for Peter Okpo wa Namolongo, deputy mayor of Mundemba, at the southwestern tip of the Herakles plot. The last thing he wants is more palm.
"We don't lack palm oil. Shall we not also have space for our family? We have children to feed," said Namolongo. The area around his town should be left to traditional small-scale farming, hunting and fishing, he said. "We are tired of palms, palms, palms."
State firms Pamol and Cameroon Development Corporation offer jobs and homes to their workers. But their plantations limit the land available for farming and hunting. Of the land that remains, much has been protected after Cameroon and ecology-minded donors developed a network of conservation areas in the 1980s.
That network includes the Korup National Park, home of the endangered, baboon-like drill, red colobus and other primates. Korup provided the breathtaking jungle backdrop to the 1984 movie "Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes." It is a Pleistocene, or Ice Age, forest that by some estimates contains more biodiversity than any other spot in Africa.
For the people of Mundemba, whose town is cursed with soil too poor to sustain farming, Korup means that the only land available to them lies towards Fabe and beyond - the spot now claimed by Herakles.
Local ecology activist Nasako Besingi said protests held in June in Fabe and other villages in the concession suggest many locals do not want the plantation. At least 10 police summons have been served against opponents since late May, he said.
"Charges are very rarely pressed in the end. It is an attempt at intimidation," he complained.
Local police declined to comment. Under local law, demonstrations must have prior consent from authorities, thus protesters can be served with summons for not having permits.
Herakles takes such allegations seriously. The company needs the blessing of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a Kuala Lumpur-based certification body set up in 2004 and designed to rid the industry of the forest-wrecking image it picked up in Asia.
Without the nod of the RSPO, Herakles would struggle to support its argument that it will be a model for producing palm oil in an environment-friendly way.
To get that imprint, Herakles must prove it has the locals' "free, prior and informed consent", a principle set out in the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and adopted by the RSPO.
Herakles officials say they have conducted painstaking public consultations to explain their plan and win support for it. They point to deals made with some villages to provide drinking wells, better schools and medical clinics, and pledges to re-draw project boundaries around traditional hunting areas or shrines.
They also point to local backers such as Atem Ebako, chief of Talangaye village, where another seedlings nursery is located. Ebako plans to turn his hamlet into a "rural city" with schools and hospitals.
"We are trying to commit ourselves to transparency and respect our commitments," said Herakles Community Relations Manager Daniel Agoons.
But some encounters have been difficult.
A survey of village attitudes to the project in late 2010 was conducted with armed guards because of security concerns, a fact Herakles later acknowledged "may have influenced some of the participants in their responses."
Subsequent meetings to allow locals to comment on Herakles' environmental assessment for the project - 299 pages plus annexes - were held at the height of the rainy season last year, when roads turn to sludge.
"It was improper to organize public hearings during that period when you know people will find it difficult to get to Mundemba," said Malle Adolf, a lawyer opposed to the project.
Herakles said the hearings were scheduled by Cameroonian authorities. It says it remains ready to listen to local complaints that have not been voiced.
Environmentalists also have worries.
Herakles commissioned a report on the conservation value of its plot, which found that the "vast majority of the concession is secondary and degraded forest, with few remnant patches of primary" - or virgin - "forest."
The HCV Resource Network, a global forest-protection body funded by the World Bank and packaging giant Tetra Pak, among others, rejected the assessment as "completely inadequate" and "severely lacking in nearly every section".
Those concerns were shared in March by senior conservation academics from institutes such as Stanford University in California and Switzerland's Federal Institute of Technology, who have urged Cameroon to suspend the project. Citing satellite images and aerial photos of the Talangaye nursery in particular, the 11 scientists argued in an open letter that nearly three-quarters of the concession was covered in forest similar to Korup park.
Ecologists argue the plantation could damage Korup itself because some of the rare primates living there would lose their migration routes through the forest.
"I do not dispute the desire and need for economic development in Cameroon's South West Region," said Joshua Linder, an anthropologist at James Madison University in Virginia and a visitor to the region for 10 years. "But this is a lose-lose situation. Local people might lose their land and way of life, while the region's great biological diversity will be put in serious jeopardy."
From his 40th-floor office on New York's Park Avenue, Bruce Wrobel, chief executive of Herakles Farms, says he is open to criticism and will act if it is justified. But he also feels the project has been widely misunderstood.
Since a 1999 visit to West Africa during the civil wars of Sierra Leone and Liberia, Wrobel's aim has been to mix business with philanthropy in order to assist the continent.
So far Wrobel has helped cut telephone costs for millions of East Africans, he says, via his fiber-optic cable joint venture Seacom. A hydro plant run by his Sithe Global Power company in Uganda has reduced power blackouts there.
Herakles says it acquired the Cameroon concession in 2009 when U.S. asset manager Blackstone Group sold its interest after deeming the land more suitable for food than biofuels. Wrobel saw it as a chance to do business and do good at the same time.
"Our big concern is that over a relatively short period of time there will be no way for the African consumer to compete with the Chinese and the Indian buyer," he explained.
"That could lead to some of the types of instability and food riots that we saw a few years back," he said of the unrest that hit at least 14 African countries in 2007 and 2008 - in Cameroon's case at the cost of dozens of lives. Most research tied the protests to a spike in prices for more fundamental staples such as rice, wheat and maize, rather than palm oil.
Herakles plans to supply the Cameroonian market, then sell to Nigerian and other West African consumers. He puts the project's total capital costs at $550 - $600 million. The company has capital in place for "the next couple of years" and at some point will consider going public, he adds.
Neither Herakles nor Cameroon have published full details of the contract they struck for the company's palm oil activities.
But a leaked 49-page document purports to be the 2009 "Establishment Convention" setting out the terms for Herakles' project.
The document sets the term of the deal at 99 years, with an annual surface rent of $0.50 per hectare for undeveloped land and $1.00 for developed land, rising by two percent a year.
That, said Samuel Nguiffo of Yaounde-based lobby group the Centre for Environment and Development, is rock-bottom of a local scale that has offered land at an average 2,500 CFA francs ($4.78) per year for logging contracts and anything up to $13 per hectare for crops such as sugar cane.
In Sierra Leone, the government's recommended rate for leasing land for palm oil is around $12.35 a hectare. Liberia is charging Sime Darby annual rent of $5 a hectare, according to a contract released by the government.
Nguiffo is also concerned about clauses in the alleged Herakles convention giving it a blanket tax exemption for the first 10 years of production and what he complains is a lack of clear commitments on wage levels.
"The project is unlikely to generate much revenue for the Cameroonian government or local people," he concluded.
The purported document bears two signature pages identical to those included in an annex to official Herakles documentation.
Herakles would not confirm the document was real and said it was bound by a confidentiality clause.
But it added that comparisons based purely on rent and tax painted a "distorted picture" by failing to take into account job creation and upgrades to local infrastructure, healthcare and schooling.
Backers of the project in the government of Paul Biya, Cameroon's 79-year-old president, say palm will help the country - even if it means wildlife may lose out.
"Should our people remain poor because the gorilla will fret and grow thin?" asked Caroline Mebande, technical adviser in the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development. "In Cameroon, we cannot put the stress of animals above the hunger of the people."
To win over environmentalists and secure RSPO certification, Herakles proposed in June to limit clearance to an initial 2,000-hectare parcel of land on which it is certain it can prove there are no conservation concerns.
The RSPO has requested that Herakles hold back from clearing more land until concerns have been settled. It has asked Herakles to work through the issues with the local country office of the World Wildlife Fund.
"We've asked the government, we've asked the company, if we can help them choose a better location. It's the heart of a biodiversity hotspot," said David Hoyle, conservation director for WWF-Cameroon. He argues that Cameroon could boost output by planting on degraded land or boosting poor local yields.
The outcome of the dispute is likely to have implications beyond the project itself: Cameroon says palm oil investors from the United States to Asia have filed requests for 1.2 million hectares of land - 20 times the Herakles plot.
($1 = 523.2790 CFA francs)
Additional reporting by Tansa Musa in Yaounde; Simon Akam in Freetown and Alphonso Toweh in Monrovia; Editing by Sophie Walker