"Business as usual" at Socfin and Bolloré

Tribune originally published in Humanity.

On 26 and 27 May 2020, the general meetings of the Socfin and Bolloré groups take place. Socfin, which is 39.7%[1] owned by the Bolloré Group, controls 400,000 hectares of oil palm and rubber concessions in ten countries in Africa and Asia. While in Luxembourg and Paris, shareholders meet behind closed doors to share the dividends, thousands of people working in these plantations are directly affected by the crisis caused by the Covid-19. Local communities denounce layoffs, unpaid leave and the lack of adequate measures to deal with the virus. This impact of the crisis is in addition to the effects of land loss on agriculture and food security for local populations. The resolution of land disputes and the protection of workers and human rights do not seem to come before the pursuit of profit for the shareholders and leaders of these two groups.

 

Inadequate response to the pandemic

Last year, according to Profundo, an independent Dutch research group, 30 million euros were distributed to the main shareholders and directors of the Socfin group, out of a net profit of 47 million[2]. This year seems little different: 20 million will be distributed on a net profit of 30 million euros, despite the persistent tensions around plantations and the health and economic crisis caused by the Covid-19.[3]

According to an open letter sent to the leaders of the two groups at the end of April, in several countries, Socfin workers would be sent home, forced to take unpaid leave, incurring the risk of losing their rights. In Liberia, Socfin is reportedly laying off employees without notification – with no guarantee of re-hiring them full-time. According to the same letter, in several plantations in Cameroon, Ghana and Sierra Leone, workers in the oil palm and rubber agro-industry managed by Socfin do not consider themselves adequately protected and complain of inadequate protection measures. For example, they are forced to travel long distances crammed into trucks, have no water point to wash their hands, and no hydro-alcoholic gel either[4].

In this context of a global pandemic, the company would not put in place sufficient measures to protect and ensure a minimum income for all its workers and the families who depend on them.

Added to this management of the Covid crisis by Socfin and Bolloré are the continuing tensions over land rights, environmental impacts, sexual and other violence suffered by women, and legal proceedings.

Abuses still denounced: land conflicts, sexual violence, repression and gagging prosecutions

NGOs and local communities go all the way to the courts and complaint mechanisms to denounce the abuses observed and experienced:

– Just over a year ago, on 27 May 2019, ten NGOs and trade unions sued Bolloré to force the i[5]mplementation of the action plan agreed in the framework of mediation managed by the OECD.[6]

– On the same day, a complaint was filed against Socfin at the World Bank over a series of problems caused by the Salala Rubber Corporation in Liberia, supported by a $10 million loan from the International Finance Corporation.[7]

– In October 2019, a hearing was held at the Nanterre court with 9 Bunong indigenous representatives from Mondol Kiri in Cambodia to defend the case of the 80 complainants against the Bolloré group: they are demanding the return of their lands occupied by Socfin-KCD.[8]Cameroonian farmers joined in their efforts.[9]

– Also in October, a complaint was lodged by civil society groups with the OECD’s Dutch Contact Point against ING Bank for its lack of effective action against abuses on plantations managed by its client Socfin in Cameroon and Sierra Leone[10].

There are also growing voices about the injustices suffered by women around plantations. In Cameroon, on 8 March 2020, women published a note denouncing working conditions, sexual abuse, unpaid debts, the destruction of their environment and the theft of their crops, including on plantations of subsidiaries owned by Socfin (Socapalm, Sosucam).[11]

And land conflicts continue to create tensions. In Nigeria, the communities around the Okomu plantation are trying to reassert their sovereignty over their lands, which they say were acquired by Socfin without their consent.[12]In Sierra Leone in January 2019, mobilizations by indigenous communities demanding respect for their rights by the Socfin group in Pujehun district led to an intense repression by the army, resulting in the deaths of two villagers, the arrest of 15 people and the displacement of 2500 people, mainly women and children.[13]

Finally, Bolloré and Socfin have carried out numerous defamation attacks, described as “gag prosecutions” by the NGOs and journalists targeted: since 2009, more than twenty defamation proceedings have been launched by Bolloré or Socfin in France and abroad against articles, audiovisual reports, reports of non-governmental organizations, a book[14]. At the end of 2019, Socfin filed a defamation and invasion of privacy action against NGO representatives and NGOs themselves in Belgium and Luxembourg, a[15]nd a defamation case is still pending against Green Scenery in Sierra Leone[16].

There is an urgent need for these conflicts to be resolved and for the prosecutions to stop.  Foreign companies like Socfin derive huge profits from the land and labour of communities in Africa and Asia. The “world of tomorrow” must move away from business as usual, and the enrichment of executives and shareholders must no longer take over human and environmental rights.

Signatories:

AEFJN, Belgium

AFASPA, France

Friends of the Earth France

Alliance for Rural Democracy, Liberia

CADTM Australia

COLAT, Cameroon

Collective for the Defence of Malagasy Lands – TANY (France)

Peasant Confederation, France

COPACO, Democratic Republic of Congo

CNRT, France

CNOP, Congo

Help and Fraternity, (Belgium)

ERA – Friends of the Earth Nigeria

FIAN Belgium

FIAN Switzerland

GRAIN, international

Green Advocates USA

Green Advocates International

INSPIRIT Creatives, Germany

JUSTIC’ITIZ, Liberia

JVE, Ivory Coast

MALOA, Sierra Leone

Middefensie – Friends of the Earth Netherlands

Muyissi, Environment Gabon

Natural Resources Women’s Plateform, International

OGARSEAI, Gabon

OIP, Ivory Coast

Bread for the Next, Switzerland

RADD, Cameroon

ReAct, International

REFEB, Ivory Coast

Network Faith and Justice Africa Europe, Antenne de France

RIAO, Democratic Republic of Congo

SEFE, Cameroon

SOS Hunger, Luxembourg

Survival, France

SYNAPARCAM, Cameroon

The Oakland Institute, USA

Union of Deguerpis Villages, Ivory Coast

We For Her, Ivory Coast

World Rainforest Movement

YETIHO, Ivory Coast

Photo credit: Micha Patault

[1]Bolloré Group 2019 activity report https://www.bollore.com/bollo-content/uploads/2020/05/boll_2002126_rapport_activite_2019_fr_mel_06-05-20.pdf

[2]Profundo, “Deciphering the Socfin Group”, February 2020, https://profundo.nl/en/projects/unravelling-the-socfin-group

[3]The Bolloré Group, for its part, will distribute 182 million euros of its net profit of 1.4 billion to these directors and shareholders. (Source: 2019 annual reports from the Socfin and Bollloré groups.)

[4]ARD et al, “We demand justice and safety for workers on Socfin’s rubber/oil palm plantations during the Covid-19 pandemic,” open letter to Socfin, 29 April 2020, https://farmlandgrab.org/29602

[5]Business and Human Rights Research Centre, “Cameroon: Sherpa and other NGOs file a complaint against Bolloré to force him to respect his social commitments”, May 2019,

https://www.business-humanrights.org/fr/cameroun-sherpa-et-dautres-ong-portent-plainte-contre-bollor%C3%A9-pour-lobliger-%C3%A0-respecter-ses-engagements-sociaux

[6]DG Treasury, “SOCAPALM, BOLLORE Group and SOCFIN Group, Cameroon: French NCP Follow-up Release,” March 18, 2020, https://www.tresor.economie.gouv.fr/Articles/2020/03/18/socapalm-groupe-bollore-et-groupe-socfin-au-cameroun-communique-de-suivi-du-pcn-francais

[7]Office of the Compliance Ombudsman, “Liberia / Salala Rubber Corporation-01/Margibi and Bong,” last updated 31 March 2020, htttp://www.cao-ombudsman.org/cases/case_detail.aspx?id=3282

[8]Patricia Jolly, “Cambodian peasants accusing Bolloré of plundering invited to produce evidence,” Le Monde, 11 November 2019, https://www.lemonde.fr/planete/article/2019/11/11/les-paysans-cambodgiens-accusant-bollore-de-spoliation-invites-a-produire-des-preuves_6018784_3244.html

[9]Fyodor Rilov, “Bolloré against landless peasants”, Seuil, October 2019, https://farmlandgrab.org/29577

[10]Emmanuel Jules Ntap, “Palm Oil: NGOs Against Financing Agribusinesses,” VoA Africa, 10 October 2019, https://www.voaafrique.com/a/huile-de-palme-les-ongs-contre-le-financement-des-agro-industriels/5118420.html

[11]Landcam, “Position statement by women living in the vicinity of agro-industries on the respect of their land rights”, March 2020,

https://www.landcam.org/sites/landcam/files/resources/NOTE%20DE%20POSITION%20EN.pdf

and SYNAPARCAM, “We also have the right to life,” April 3, 2019, https://farmlandgrab.org/28888

[12]“Reply by the Traditional Council of Okomu Kingdom to the Okomu Oil Palm Company, of subsidiary of SOCFIN,” 17 May 2019, https://farmlandgrab.org/28996

[13]See the letter from the International Network for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights to President Julius Bo of March 4, 2019, https://www.escr-net.org/node/436299

[14]See list: “Faced with lawsuits gags: we will not be silent”, 24 January 2018 https://www.asso-sherpa.org/face-aux-poursuites-baillons-ne-tairons

[15]11.11.11 et al, “North-South solidarity and human rights NGOs denounce the new gag actions of the agro-industrial group SOCFIN”, 5 December 2019, http://www.fian.be/Des-ONG-de-solidarite-Nord-Sud-et-de-defense-des-droits-humains-denoncent-les-1373?lang=fr

[16]FIAN Belgium, “The finalisation of the investigation report on the Malen land dispute: a constructive step towards the resolution of the conflict”, 31 March 2020, https://www.fian.be/La-finalisation-du-rapport-d-investigation-sur-le-conflit-foncier-de-Malen-une?lang=fr

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