SPECIAL REPORT FROM THE ORGANIZERS’ FORUM INTERNATIONAL DIALOGUE IN CAMEROON: Local Communities from Five Countries Allied Against Land-Grabbing By A Transnational Corporation
Written by ELOISE MAULET
These problems have come at the hands of palm oil and rubber tree plantations owned by Socfin, a transnational corporation based in Luxemburg. The Bolloré group (France) owns 38.75% of Socfin. (see Socfin’s organization chart). Bolloré is among the 500 biggest companies in the world, with a 10,824 million euros turnover in 2015. Its main activities are transport and logistics, communication and energy storage, globally, but especially in Africa.
One of Socfin’s main activities is the management of common shares from over 181,000 hectares of tropical palm oil and rubber plantations that are located in Africa and Southeast Asia. Throughout the years, the surface area of these plantations have significantly increased. Between 2010 and 2014, the total surface area of the plantations went from 104,424 to 181,369 hectares, representing a 29% increase in 4 years. These land expansions, experienced as land-grabs by local communities provoke significant conflicts with the communities, as their living conditions worsen. The increasing number of unfulfilled promises by management is also fueling tensions with local communities and farmers. These people have been protesting against setting-up conditions of these plantations.
Membership organizations have been created in Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Cambodia to defend their interests as local communities confront this company. They gathered, with the support of ReAct, in an international alliance and partnership with ACORN to coordinate the struggle and share information and experiences. The objective is to unite with sufficient power to pressure this huge multinational corporation.
• From 2010 to 2012, ReAct organizers made several trips to the plantations to share collective organizing methods with local communities. The goal was to overcome division, the corruption of certain traditional leaders and local administrative authorities, and the general sense of powerlessness that ensued. By identifying local leaders and supporting the creation and reinforcement of strong democratic local organizations, the plantation residents were able to organize themselves and seek out power collectively and consequently take the position of legitimate and representative actors.
• 2013: After exchanges between the residents’ organizations from all five different countries, the Alliance of Socfin-Bolloré Plantation Residents was officially created bringing together organizations from Cameroon, the Ivory Coast, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Cambodia. They decided to write the Alliance’s first letter of demands. In order to deliver the demands to Vincent Bolloré, the company CEO, they decided to organize a global day of action the day of the Group’s General Assembly held in Paris. On the 5th of June, 2014, organized communities represented in the Alliance all took action at the same time, throughout all of their countries. In Sierra Leone, several hundred villagers occupied the land of the SAC plantation. In the Ivory Coast, a peaceful march of residents was blocked by police forces as they approached the main factory and the administrative offices to deliver their message to the management of the SoGB plantation. In Douala, Cameroon, 200 farm workers and traditional leaders walked to the Socapalm plantation’s headquarters in their traditional mourning clothing, to symbolize the loss they were suffering. In Paris, people from Cameroon, the Ivory Coast, and other affected countries occupied the Bolloré Group’s headquarters. They carried watering cans, hand shovels and rakes, and started tending the land outside. “We don’t have any more land in our country, so we have to plant manioc in your yard!” exclaimed a man from a village in Cameroon who was directly affected by the plantations’ activities.
The demands are the same from Cameroon to Sierra Leone:
• Land must be given back to guarantee the provision of a sufficient critical space for agriculture workers in their village.
• Fair compensations must be given for the removal of land and forests, in the form of infrastructure, social services, support to village plantation, etc.
The timeline follows:
• 2014: In response to ongoing pressure from the Alliance members, Bolloré agreed to meet with representatives from the residents’ organizations. The first transnational negotiation took place in Paris on October 24th. The Bolloré Group agreed to an independent property and land assessment that will shed light on the land conflicts and a meeting the following year in order to track progress achieved. It was also specifically agreed that representatives from Socfin will attend the follow-up meeting, as they ignored the Alliance’s demand that they appear at the first meeting.
•2015: Several transnational solidarity actions are organized to protest the arrest of organizations’ leaders in Liberia and Sierra Leone.
The negotiation timeline was not respected. Bolloré did not involve Socfin in the dialogue, and Socfin continued to refuse to enter into dialogue. This sparked a new series of actions between April and June: peaceful protests in the plantations of Djbombari and Mbongo in Cameroon, a march to the LAC plantation management offices in Liberia, a sit-in in Cambodia, a workers’ assembly in the Ivory Coast. These actions led to renewed local negotiations in Cameroon, Liberia, and Cambodia. Tripartite platforms were set up for negotiations to take place in Cameroon and Cambodia between the company, local authorities and communities. Bolloré reiterated its promise to “do everything in its power to have Hubert Fabri [the General Manager of the Socfin] participate in an international negotiation.”
• 2016 : Ongoing dialogue in Cambodia, Liberia, and Cameroon, but difficult negotiations and very few results on the ground. In Sierra Leone, the repression, with several leaders in Court, is replacing the dialog. Management is slowing down negotiations in Cambodia and Liberia, and refuses to include the local community organization (Synaparcam) in the dialogue, so the results do not comply with peoples’ demands. In spite of this unsatisfactory response to the conflicts, Bolloré draws back behind Socfin, saying that “considerable sums of money are spent every year”, and congratulating the “intensification of dialogue”. Both Bolloré and Socfin are asserting that the negotiations must remain at the local level to solve the problems.
Local communities have thus been struggling hard to get concrete results in each country. They had to go through new non-violent direct actions again in Liberia and Cameroon (occupations, student actions, sit-ins) to barely win weak promises.
Reactions from local management show that they are not actually ready for real negotiations with directly affected people and their legitimate representatives. By the end of the year, the different organizations of the International Alliance of Local
Communities will be able to have a strong assessment of the dialogue and concrete results, and will bring to light the local management’s ill will. Socfin and Bolloré will be called out again to take responsibilities. Pressure will be renewed on the Group again at the international level if they refuse an International Negotiation that would allow significant results for people. An international coalition has been able to put pressure on Socfin and Bolloré during 2016 General Assemblies in June, and this coalition will be strengthened, in Europe and everywhere possible.
Eloise Maulet works with the transnational campaigning organization, ReAct based in Grenoble, France, and coordinates work in Africa and with the Bollore campaign.
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