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  • on 05.05.2012
  • at 02:29 PM
  • by Randa Ghazy

Popular resistance and corporate landgrabbing in Sierra Leone 0

A new report from the Oakland Institute examines a controversial land investment deal in Sierra Leone. Pambazuka News caught up with Oakland Institute Policy Director Frederic Mousseau to find out why the report has attracted so much attention.

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: Early April, Oakland Institute released a new land deal brief. Tell us about it.

FREDERIC MOUSSEAU: The Oakland Institute’s latest land deal brief exposes yet another case of a problematic land investment, Socfin Agricultural Company Sierra Leone Ltd. (Socfin SL) investment project in the south of Sierra Leone. The project involves a lease of 6,500 hectares (ha) of land for rubber and oil palm plantations in Pujehun district, with an option to acquire an additional 5,000 ha.

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: The investor in this case accused the Institute of being biased and that the brief is politically motivated. Your response.

FREDERIC MOUSSEAU: Contrary to Socfin’s recent allegations, our report is not politically motivated. Our goal was not to incriminate Vincent Bolloré, the main shareholder of the company because he is viewed as a friend of President Nicolas Sarkozy – currently running for relection in France. We were compelled to start documenting the Socfin case following the arrest of 40 people in October 2011, in Pujehun, where the plantation is located. These arrests were the result of a blockade of the Socfin plantation by over a hundred local landowners, adversely impacted by the investment.

The protest followed a formal list of grievances, which were presented by the community to the district officials. But no action was taken. These grievances include the lack of transparency, proper consultation, and information regarding displacement and resettlement caused by the land deal, inadequate compensation, corruption, pressure on landowners and town chiefs to sign agreements as well as appalling work conditions for the plantation workers. Repression of dissent can be added to this long list given the arrest of those who dared to complain about the project – 15 of them spent eight days in jail and still face trial. A legal analysis of the deal, obtained by our researchers, makes it obvious that Socfin’s land deal in Sierra Leone has gone ahead without free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC) of land owners. Yet FPIC is an internationally recognized principle for such investments, and is also stipulated in Sierra Leonean legal framework and procedures.

SOCFIN Group also claims that it is committed to the principles and criteria of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). These include transparency, compliance with applicable laws and regulations, responsible consideration of employees, individuals and communities, environmental responsibility, and conservation of natural resources and biodiversity. Yet the reality on the ground, in Sierra Leone as is in other countries where this company operates, contradicts this commitment.

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: Are communities in Sierra Leone against foreign investment?

FREDERIC MOUSSEAU: What we found during the course of field work and in communication with the villagers, was that the local farmers and landowners are not against investment. However their concerns are about the way the lease was negotiated, the resulting loss of livelihoods and natural resources, and about the low wages and bad working conditions on the plantation. We also realized the dramatic power imbalance prevailing in this conflict: a few hundred farmers and land owners on one side and the government of Sierra Leone and its police backing a firm which is a subsidiary of a giant multinational group. Socfin SL is a subsidiary of Socfin (Société Financière des Caoutchoucs), an investment holding company, whose main shareholder is Vincent Bolloré, a prominent French businessman, who manages myriad of companies worldwide through his Bolloré Group.

During our research we also realized that the grievances of Sierra Leonean farmers over Socfin’s palm oil plantations are virtually identical to those of the farming communities from around the world who are challenging investments made by other Socfin’s subsidiaries. These subsidiaries operate within a complex web of over 30 different companies, registred in Asia, Africa as well as Belgium and several tax havens such as Luxembourg, Liechtenstein and Guernsey. Operating under different names – SOCAPALM in Cameroon, LAC in Liberia, Socfin KCD in Cambodia – several Socfin subsidiaries have faced very similar accusations of land grabbing and investment malpractices in recent years. For instance, peasant farmers from the Bunong minority in Cambodia have been protesting since 2008, claiming that the land leased for the rubber plantation by the government belonged to them and should be returned to them.

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: Despite resistance in several countries Socfin has managed to operate and business is as usual. How do you explain that?

FREDERIC MOUSSEAU: The Oakland Institute report shows how Socfin’s plantations have faced resistance by local populations and indigenous groups, and how Socfin’s subsidiaries systematically use the threat of legal action against their critics. In 2010, the group sued a French journalist and a photographer for their respective reporting over the activities of SOCAPALM in Cameroon. The photographer, Isabelle Alexandra Ricq, was sued after she had described the problems on and around the firm’s oil palm plantations in Cameroon, the dismal living conditions of the Bagyeli people, the problems of deforestation, the lack of access to land, and the deplorable conditions faced by plantation workers who call themselves SOCAPALM’s slaves.

While farmers opposing the plantations were put in jail and now await trial in Sierra Leone, experience from around the world confirms how risky it is to criticize the firms controlled by Bolloré and his associates.

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: How do you respond to a business like Socfin who would say that they are following the norm in Sierra Leone, and are not breaking any law?

FREDERIC MOUSSEAU: I think that Bolloré and his associates in Socfin can do far better to meet the demands of farmers and workers in Sierra Leone and elsewhere.

If one takes for instance the low level of wages, set at 250,000 Leones per month ($50) for six days a week, eight hours per day, in its response to our report, Socfin provides a convenient argument. It claims that it is applying the local labour law and does not want to ‘create an imbalance on the macro-scale of the country’. It also states that it is committed to providing a $75,000 social development fund in addition to the compensation and the rent it is paying for the 6,500 ha plantation in Sierra Leone.

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