"Business as usual" at Socfin and Bolloré...
On 26 and 27 May 2020, the Socfin and Bolloré groups hold their annual general meetings. Socfin, which is 39,7% owned by Bolloré, controls 400,000 ha of oil palm and rubber tree concessions in ten African and Asian countries.1 While in Luxembourg and Paris, shareholders are meeting behind closed doors to share dividends, thousands of people in Africa and Asia working in these plantations are directly exposed to crisis provoked by the Covid-19 epidemic. Local communities denounce dismissals, unpaid leave and lack of adequate measures to face the virus. These impacts created by the crisis are adding to the effects of the loss of land on local communities’ agriculture and food security. The resolution of these conflicts and the protection of workers’ and human rights seem to come second to the search for profit for the shareholders and managers of these two groups.
Insufficient measures against the pandemic…
Last year, according to Profundo, an independant Dutch research group, 30 million Euros were distributed to Socfin's main shareholders and directors, out of a net profit of 47 million.2 This year does not seem very different: 20 million will be distributed from a net profit of 30 million Euros, despite the continuing tensions around the plantations and the health and economic crisis provoked 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 may be sent home and forced to take unpaid leave, running the risk of losing their benefits. In Liberia, Socfin is reportedly laying off some employees without notice - and without guarantee to re-employ them later full-time. According to the same letter, in several plantations in Cameroon, Ghana and Sierra Leone, workers in the palm oil and rubber agro-industries controlled by Socfin don’t consider themselves properly protected and complain about unsatisfactory health measures. They are forced to travel long distances packed closely together in trucks, have no water sources to wash their hands and no hand sanitiser either.4
In this context of a global pandemic, the company might therefore not be implementing sufficient measures to protect and assure a minimum income to its workers and the families who depend on them.
The management of the Covid crisis by the Socfin and the Bolloré groups comes on top of persistent tensions around the plantations regarding land rights, environmental impacts, sexual and other forms of violence against women and lawsuits.
Ongoing abuses being denounced: land conflicts, sexual violence, repression and lawsuits
NGOs and local communities are going to courts and complaint mechanisms to denounce the abuses they’ve observed and experienced :
- a year ago, on 27 May 2019, ten NGOs and unions brought a lawsuit against the Bolloré group in the French courts5 to force implementation of an action plan the company had agreed to under a mediation process handled by the OECD.6
- on the same day, a complaint was filed against Socfin at the World Bank, concerning a series of problems caused by the Salala Rubber Corporation in Liberia: the International Finance Corporation of the World Bank is involved through a loan of US$10 million.7
- in October 2019, a hearing was organised in a court in Nanterre with 9 indigenous Bunong representatives from Mondol Kiri, Cambodia to claim the rights of the 80 plaintiffs against the Bolloré group: they demand the restitution of their land, occupied by Socfin-KCD8. Farmers from Cameroon have joined their case.9
- in October 2019 as well, a complaint was filed by civil society with the Dutch National Contact Point for the OECD against the ING bank for its lack of effective action against abuses on plantations of its client Socfin in Cameroon and Sierra Leone10.
Women are also increasingly speaking out about the injustices they suffer around the plantations. In Cameroon, women issued a statement on 8 March 2020 that denounces the working conditions they face, sexual abuse, unpaid debts, destruction of their environment and the theft of their crops, inclunding on plantations companies owned by Socfin (Socapalm, Sosucam).11
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 of communities asking the Socfin group to respect their rights in Pujehun district led to intense repression by the military forces, resulting in the death of two villagers, the arrest of 15 people and the displacement of 2,500 people, mainly women and children.13
Finally, the Bolloré and Socfin groups have filed many lawsuits alleging defamation, considered “gag lawsuits” by targeted NGOs and journalists. Since 2009, more than twenty libel lawsuits have been launched by Bolloré or Socfin in France and other countries against articles, documentaries, reports by non-governmental organisations and even a book.14 At the end of 2019, Socfin brought an action for defamation and invasion of privacy against NGOs representatives and the NGOs themselves, in Belgium and Luxembourg15, and a defamation suit against Green Scenery in Sierra Leone is still ongoing16.
It is urgent that these conflicts are resolved and that the lawsuits stop. Foreign companies like Socfin extract immense profits from the lands and labour of communities in Africa and Asia. The time for "business as usual" is over, and the enrichment of directors and shareholders can no longer come before human and environmental rights.
Amis de la Terre France
Alliance for Rural Democracy, Liberia
Bread for All, Switzerland
Collectif pour la défense des terres malgaches – TANY (France)
Confédération Paysanne, France
COPACO, Democratic Republic of Congo
Entraide et Fraternité, Belgique
ERA - Friends of the Earth Nigeria
Green Advocates USA
Green Advocates International
INSPIRIT Creatives, Germany
JVE, Côte d'Ivoire
MALOA, Sierra Leone
Milieudefensie - Friends of the Earth Netherlands
Muyissi, Environnement Gabon
Natural Resources Women’s Plateform, International
OIP, Côte d'Ivoire
REFEB, Côte d’Ivoire
Réseau Foi et Justice Afrique Europe, Antenne de France
RIAO, Democratic Republic of Congo
SOS Faim, Luxembourg
The Oakland Institute, USA
Union des Villages Déguerpis, Côte d’Ivoire
We For Her, Côte d’Ivoire
World Rainforest Movement
YETIHO, Côte d’Ivoire
1 See Bollore group annual report 2019, https://www.bollore.com/bollo-content/uploads/2020/03/2020-03-12-bollore-communique-resultats-2019-.pdf
2 Profundo, “Unravelling the Socfin Group”, February 2020, https://profundo.nl/en/projects/unravelling-the-socfin-group
3 Bolloré group will distribute 182 million Euros from its 1.4 billion EUros profit (Sources: Socfin etBolloré annual reports)
4 ARD, Green Advocates, JUSTICITIZ, MALOA, NMJD, RADD, Synaparcam et YVE, “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, “Cameroun: Sherpa et d'autres ONG portent plainte contre Bolloré pour l'obliger à respecter ses engagements sociaux”, mai 2019,
6 French OECD National Contact Point, “SOCAPALM — BOLLORE Group and SOCFIN Group in Cameroon: Followup statement from the French National Contact Point on 10 March 2020”, 18 March 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, http://www.cao-ombudsman.org/cases/case_detail.aspx?id=3282
8 Patricia Jolly, "Les paysans cambodgiens accusant Bolloré de spoliation invités à produire des preuves", Le Monde, 11 novembre 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 Fiodor Rilov, "Bolloré facing the landless peasants", Seuil, octobre 2019, http://farmlandgrab.org/29583
10 See “Friends of the Earth groups and supporters file OECD complaint against ING for financing palm oil abuses”, 5 july 2019,https://en.milieudefensie.nl/news/friends-of-the-earth-groups-and-supporters-file-oecd-complaint-against-ing-for-financing-palm-oil-abuses and the case documents at https://complaints.oecdwatch.org/cases/Case_543.
11 Landcam, “Position statement by women living in the vicinity of agro-industries in 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", 3 April 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 letter from the International Network for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights to President Julius Bo, 4 March 2019, https://www.escr-net.org/news/2019/sierra-leone-protect-land-rights-defenders
14 See the list: "Faced with gag lawsuits: We will not be silent", 24 January 2018 https://www.asso-sherpa.org/face-aux-poursuites-baillons-ne-tairons
15 “NGOsBrought Before Luxembourg Judge in Socfin Defamation Case”, Chronicle, 5 December 2019,https://chronicle.lu/category/charity-volunteering/31246-ngos-brought-before-luxembourg-judge-in-socfin-defamation-case
16 FIAN Belgium, "The finalisation of the investigation report on the Malen land conflict: 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.