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Poor Peasants Fight a Multinational Giant

May 24, 2012
Deccan Herald

Frederic Mousseau

Transparency, documentation, and proper consultation are essential for local people.

The Bunong tribe of Cambodia, the Bagyeli people of Cameroon, and the villagers of Malen Chiefdom in Sierra Leone share a common struggle. They are all challenging industrial plantations of oil palms and rubber by the subsidiaries of Socfin (Societe Financiere des Caoutchoucs), a company whose main shareholder is the Bollore Group, owned by the French businessman Vincent Bollore.

Since 2008, resistance has been growing in each of these communities to the loss of 
farmland, the questionable conditions under which the land concessions are awarded, and the environmental impact of the activities carried out by the various subsidiaries of the group.

This is a struggle of David vs Goliath: poor disfranchised communities vs the giant Bolloré Group, which is present in 92 countries (including 43 in Africa) and controls not only plantations but also key strategic sectors including petroleum, transportation, logistics, and 13 African ports.

Growing opposition

An April 2012 report from the Oakland Institute provided a worrisome overview of the growing opposition to Socfin plantations in several countries. The report also shared the details of opposition to the deal the company signed in March 2011 - Socfin Sierra Leone (Socfin SL) - which will establish oil palm plantations on 6,500 hectares in southern Sierra Leone, with a planned extension of an additional 5,000 hectares.

The project enjoys high-level government support but on the ground faces tough resistance from the local population. In October 2011, 40 demonstrators were arrested following an attempted blockade of the plantation. They were protesting the lack of transparency, inadequate consultation with local people, and the lack of information on resettlement plans. They also complained of appalling work conditions and low pay in the plantation, corruption of local elites, and pressure on landowners and village leaders to sign agreements.

In a response published online on April 11, 2012, Socfin refuted the Oakland Institute's research and findings, insisting that the project ensures sustainable development. 

Interestingly, Socfin’s response fails to mention the blockade of the plantation and the arrests of dozens of opponents in October 2011. While accusing the Oakland Institute of ‘Western intellectual paternalism,’ the company does not say that the report echoes the list of grievances that were formally presented to the local authorities by the villagers impacted by the land deal in October 2011.

While making claims of being committed to sustainable development, Socfin clearly violates the principle of free, prior, and informed consent, an internationally-recognised guiding principle for such investments. Its monocultures of oil palm and rubber tree plantations in Asia and Africa are destroying biodiversity and resulting in increased use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides ­ this in the face of well-recognised studies, which show unambiguously that the path to sustainable development must go through agricultural diversification and the use of ecological and biological methods of fertilisation and production.

To justify its low wages for plantation workers (250,000 leones or 50 dollars per month, 6 days a week, 8 hours a day), which the villagers complain about, Socfin offers a convenient rationale: it does not want “to create an imbalance on the macro-scale of the country.” Basically the company will not increase salaries because salaries are low in the country, which is obviously one of the main elements that make investments in Sierra Leone attractive and highly profitable for such investors.

In its response Socfin also emphasised the 75,000-dollar social development fund it has offered to the local people. This amount might seem significant given the dire level of poverty in the country. However, with its 158,800 hectares of plantations in Asia and Africa, the Bolloré Group recorded a 250-million-dollar profit in 2011, an increase of 163 million dollars (187 per cent) since 2009.

These figures represent an average annual profit of 1,500 dollars per hectare of plantation, or 10 million per year for a plantation of 6,500 hectares. In comparison, 75,000 dollars is a pittance. While Socfin’s response attempts to divert attention from issues at hand, its land deal in Sierra Leone must be urgently reviewed and the trial against the people from Sanh village in Pujehun dropped. 

Transparency, adequate documentation, and proper consultation are essential for local people to have a say in the future of the land and natural resources on which their livelihoods depend. People need certain basic information, whether to negotiate the conditions and terms of an agreement or to be able to reject it. This is what free, prior, and informed consent looks like.