At a ‘certified’ palm oil plantation in Nigeria, soldiers and conflict over land

Residents of communities living inside and near Okomu’s concession protesting the company’s operations on January 28, 2021. Photo courtesy of Ajele Sunday.

Mongabay | 22 November 2021

At a ‘certified’ palm oil plantation in Nigeria, soldiers and conflict over land


• The Okomu Oil Palm Company is majority-owned by Socfin, a French-Belgian multinational that operates plantations across West and Central Africa.

Okomu’s concession lies inside a forest reserve that was gazetted by British colonial authorities in 1912 and that was once among the most pristine rainforests in Nigeria, home to forest elephants, leopards and chimpanzees.

For more than a decade, Okomu has been in conflict with some of the communities inside its concession over land ownership and usage rights in the reserve.

In early 2020, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certified Okomu’s main estate after an audit by the consultancy firm SCS; campaigners say the firm failed to perform adequate due diligence and that Okomu’s certification is an example of the RSPO’s shortcomings.

When the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was created by a coalition of industry giants, retailers, banks, and NGOs in 2004, it was supposed to be the catalyst for a new, ethical era in palm oil production. Consumers could finally open a jar of Nutella or unroll their lipstick confident that the palm oil it contained didn’t come from a plantation that was, say, located inside of a rainforest reserve or patrolled by soldiers accused of burning local villages to the ground. The Okomu Oil Palm Company in southwestern Nigeria might give them second thoughts.

Certified by the RSPO in early 2020, Okomu’s motto is “responsible tropical agriculture.” But over the past decade, the company has been embroiled in disputes over land ownership and its use of Nigerian soldiers as a de facto security force for its plantations, which border a national park that’s home to leopards, chimpanzees and forest elephants. Critics say the RSPO’s decision to certify Okomu illustrates everything that’s gone wrong with sustainability labeling for palm oil.

“A lot of community lands have been taken over. And these lands were being utilized by farmers and fisherfolk, women and men that depend on the resources of the forest for survival,” said Rita Uwaka, a researcher with Nigerian NGO Environmental Rights Action, who wrote a report based on her visits to the plantation in 2017.

Okomu’s concession covers 33,112 hectares (81,822 acres) in Edo state, part of the Niger Delta region known for its natural resources and riverine ecosystems where much of the crude oil that powers Nigeria’s economy is produced. Okomu is owned by Socfin, a Belgian-French conglomerate with roots in West and Central Africa that go back to the colonial era and which has for years been accused of land grabbing by advocacy groups. The bulk of the concession lies inside the Okomu Forest Reserve from which it derives its name, a patch of tropical rainforest that was gazetted by British colonial administrators in 1912 and which has been extensively logged and deforested since then.

While Indonesia and Malaysia are the kings of global palm oil production, the Niger Delta is the cradle in which the industry itself was incubated. British and other European merchants fought pitched battles against chiefdoms in the delta for control of the trade during the late 19th century, eventually establishing a pipeline of palm oil into Europe that became one of the backbones of industrialization.

In one of a series of efforts to reestablish itself in the global palm oil marketplace, the Nigerian federal government created Okomu in 1976, but sold the plantation off to investors during a wave of privatization in the 1990s. Looking to add to its portfolio of rubber and oil palm plantations in the region, Socfin purchased a majority interest.

With decades of deforestation pushing wildlife farther into the heart of the reserve — once the least-disturbed and largest patch of rainforest in Nigeria — federal authorities set a small portion of it aside in 1999 as Okomu National Park, a 20,000-hectare (49,400-acre) sliver of forest now sandwiched between Okomu Oil Palm’s main plantation estate and an adjacent block called “Extension One.”

If a village burns in the forest

A few months after the COVID-19 pandemic began last year, a report appeared on the website accusing security officials and Nigerian soldiers working with Okomu Oil Palm of torching a small village near its concession. Villagers described waking up to the sound of gunfire and fleeing as armed men set fire to their houses, saying they recognized one of the attackers as a senior officer with Okomu’s security force. One alleged victim speculated that the assault may have been retribution for the theft of palm fruit from Okomu’s nearby plantation.

In a public response to the post, Okomu’s managing director called it a “defamatory diatribe,” and questioned whether the village had ever existed.

But Nigerian television stations aired reports that included testimony from some of the town’s now-homeless residents. “When we woke up, we saw Okomu and its security team,” said one man.

The post was written by Ajele Sunday, a traditional chief and public advocate from the Okomu Kingdom, a network of communities that live in and around the palm oil concession. Ajele has been a fierce critic of Okomu Oil Palm for more than a decade, a man “whom we know very well,” as the company described him in its response to the allegations.

Ajele told Mongabay that the conflict between Okomu and his community, called Coconut Camp, began in earnest in 2010, when they received a notice requiring residents to dismantle any settlements and crops in a nearby patch of land to make way for a plantation expansion. Ajele and other residents of Coconut Camp were outraged over the demand to vacate what they considered their land.

“The communities existed before [Okomu’s] certificate of occupancy was issued,” Ajele said. “How could that company become a landlord to the already existing communities? That was the question mark. Before they come, there must be free, prior and informed consent, but the communities were not consulted.”

As Ajele and others contested the plan to clear areas where they’d planted cocoa trees and subsistence crops, tensions erupted between Coconut Camp and Okomu, along with the company’s allies in the local government and security agencies. On New Year’s Day in 2011, Ajele was arrested and accused of planting a bomb at Okomu’s headquarters.

He said the charges were meant to send a message to those opposing Okomu’s operations. “It wasn’t true. It was just a way of intimidation so that we can drop the fight.”

The case was soon dropped, but at Okomu’s instruction, in the following weeks Nigerian soldiers guarding the plantation implemented a heavy handed sundown-to-sunrise closure of the main road leading in and out. The road was the only passable one connecting villages on the other side of the plantation to commercial areas elsewhere in Edo state, and the new rule blocked people living in those towns from leaving or returning home after nightfall. According to Ajele, during the day they were forced to pass through the checkpoint at the plantation’s entrance with their arms raised as soldiers pointed automatic weapons at them.

In an internal memo dated Jan. 26, 2011, and shared with Mongabay, the managing director of Okomu, Graham Hefer, denied that he wanted to evict residents of Coconut Camp. But he implied the new policy was leverage for Okomu to acquire a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the community and the company acknowledging its right to clear the contested land.

“I then decided to close the road until they signed the MOU,” he wrote. “I have repeatedly stated that they are welcome to come and discuss their differences with me, but to date they have refused. And so the road shall unfortunately not be opened again until further dialogue has taken place & the MOU signed.”

Not long afterward, Okomu obtained its MOU. Ajele told Mongabay the agreement was only signed by a handful of people, and that some of them didn’t fully understand what they were agreeing to.

“They didn’t represent the entire community,” he said.

Victorious, Okomu agreed to reverse its policy and reopen the road. But in 2015, simmering conflict over contested land erupted into violence as five company staff members were killed by aggrieved residents of the area. Once again, the road was closed off to travelers during the night.

“The way the company is structured, we have to pass through them to access our communities. So they lock the only access through the Nigerian army. And the Nigerian army are very deadly people,” Ajele said.

NGOs cry foul over mistreatment and abuse

In 2017, Rita Uwaka visited communities living inside and around the Okomu plantation to assess the company’s human rights record. She told Mongabay that during her investigation she gathered testimonies of mistreatment by security forces on the plantation, and that villagers said food had become scarcer since they lost access to farmland.

“We’ve had cases where some of the community people have been brutalized. A woman complained about how her son was beaten on his way back from work, just a lot of harassment, violence, and intimidation. People were scared to speak for fear of being arrested or manhandled,” she said.

In the report Uwaka wrote after her visit, residents of a town called Orhua described the impact of losing their land.

“We did not have any agreement with them, they forced themselves on our community,” one said. “We do not have any other work here apart from farming, which we depend on … They have soldiers guarding them all around.”

According to Uwaka, women she spoke to in some of the communities said that Okomu security forces prevented them from fishing in nearby rivers.

“They suspected [the women] were coming to steal the palm fruits of the company, so their fishing nets were seized. But this is what brings income for the community women,” Uwaka said.

In interviews, Okomu spokespeople have denied and downplayed the disputes. But Uwaka said they aren’t telling the whole story.

“It’s not as if the communities are fabricating these issues,” she said.

An audit or a rubber stamp?

Both Ajele and Uwaka are quick to admit that not everyone in the area is opposed to Okomu’s operations. With 2,000 workers and several hundred contractors, the company is the largest private-sector employer in Edo state. It has also financed community development projects. In some news reports, local people complain bitterly about its presence. In others, they celebrate it.

“They have increased divide-and-rule in the communities,” Uwaka said. “And we suspect that there is an instigation of them against each other.”

Whatever the disagreements among communities in the area, a cursory glance at conflicts at the plantation makes clear that they have not “unanimously stated that they are very impressed and happy with the company.”

But that’s how Okomu’s relationship with those communities was described by the consultancy firm SCS Global Services in its 2019 compliance assessment for Okomu’s RSPO certification.

Under RSPO rules, for a palm oil producer to be certified as compliant with its Principles & Criteria — and thereby advertise itself as responsible and green — it has to hire an independent contractor to look under the hood of its operations. Called “certification bodies,” those contractors are accredited by Assurance Services International (ASI), which is supposed to ensure the assessments they carry out are impartial and objective.

In practice, advocacy groups say, it hasn’t worked out that neatly. Certification bodies like SCS are hired directly by the companies they are supposed to independently audit — meaning that if they produce a report the company doesn’t like, they might not get a second contract.

In a report from earlier this year, Greenpeace called this setup an “intrinsic conflict of interest,” and research produced by the Environmental Investigation Agency suggests some certifiers have a track record of looking the other way on RSPO violations or, in a few cases, actively colluding with companies to cover them up.

“There’s money going between the company and the certification body that has to independently verify its compliance,” said Danielle van Oijen of Friends of the Earth Netherlands. “Now if you’re too critical, you’re pretty sure you won’t get the next assignment. So the whole business model of these audits is corrupted.”

Last year, Friends of the Earth Netherlands reviewed SCS’s RSPO audit processes for Socfin-owned plantations in West and Central Africa, finding that in many cases the consultancy firm didn’t investigate allegations of abuse or intimidation against local people, neglected to interview civil society groups, and relied more on company data about land negotiations than in-person visits to affected communities.

“What we found for Okomu was that actually, on many fronts, the certification failed to fulfill even the RSPO requirements,” van Oijen said.

In the report SCS gathered and submitted to the RSPO, the firm assessed Okomu’s compliance with RSPO Principle 2.2.3, which covers the right to free, prior and informed consent. Summarizing its findings, it said “there has not been any dispute or land case over land” — a claim that’s impossible to square with the extensive, publicly available media reports describing years-long conflicts between Okomu and some communities in its plantation, or with a public letter sent to federal and local officials about those conflicts last year that was signed by 20 local leaders.

“The main communities that are impacted by the company’s operation were not part of the consultation and audit process done by SCS,” Uwaka said.

Reached for comment on the puzzling oversights in its audit reports, SCS told Mongabay that it was “unable to provide further information.”

But in a public response to Friends of the Earth Netherland’s research, the firm said it was “incorrect that native communities were excluded from the Okomu audit,” and listed eight towns whose representatives it said it had spoken with.

“If there are specific communities that we did not consult with, or who felt that their perspectives were not heard, we would welcome that information so we can reach out to those communities and individuals for consultation during the next surveillance audit,” it said.

After completing its 2019 audit, SCS recommended RSPO certification for Okomu. In January 2020 the company obtained it. Affixed with the RSPO label, palm oil shipped from Okomu is now marketed to the world as sustainable, conflict-free, and produced in harmony with local communities.

Van Oijen said the process that led to the certification is symbolic of the RSPO’s systemic weaknesses.

“It’s just a checkbox exercise,” she said. “They’re just talking to the company, looking at the documents provided to them by that company, and ticking off the boxes.”

Friends of the Earth Netherlands has opened a formal complaint against SCS with ASI over the certification of Okomu and other Socfin-owned plantations in West and Central Africa. ASI’s investigation is ongoing.

In an email to Mongabay, an RSPO spokesperson said the secretariat had “no knowledge of a military presence” at the plantation but that it was “aware of the serious allegations made against Okomu Oil Palm, and finds the issues reported deeply concerning.”

The secretariat emphasized that its standards were “voluntary,” though, and said that disputes have to first be raised through a formal process in order for an investigation to take place.

“At this point in time, the RSPO has not received any complaints in regards to Okomu Oil Palm,” it said.

Okomu denies violating customary land rights

In an email response to questions sent by Mongabay, Okomu denied that it had improperly absorbed community land and suggested that the British gazetting of the forest reserve had rendered most of its occupants squatters anyway.

“The Federal Government Land Use Act also states therein that no person is permitted to reside in any forest reserves in Nigeria. Thus, no camps or communities were present in the area demarcated as Okomu when it was de-reserved by the Federal Government in 1976, or anytime thereafter,” the company wrote. “Therefore, Okomu denies taking any customary land owned by forest-dwelling communities in Edo State at any time, as alleged, since the land was never customary land to begin with.”

But according to Ajele, Okomu’s assertion that there weren’t any communities living inside its concession area prior to 1976 doesn’t match the historical record.

“The communities were there before the company came,” he said. “They were not consulted in all of these things, it was just government power. They acquired the [plantation] without de-reserving the forest, and then they just come take it from us and impose an alien body as our landlord? That is immoral.”

Ajele himself has become a recurring thorn in Okomu’s side, with his name appearing on numerous occasions in the company’s public relations materials. In a position statement emailed to Mongabay by Socfin, Okomu called Ajele a “self-proclaimed spokesman for an unregistered Traditional Council.”

Ajele told Mongabay that Okomu focuses on him because his advocacy contradicts the company’s narrative about its relationship with local communities, but that his public role has come at a heavy personal cost. He no longer considers it safe to stay for long periods in his home community, and after being the subject of death threats he’s become more cautious about what he says and where.

“There’s been a lot of clamping down on activists who are speaking truth to power in that area,” Uwaka said. “He’s one of them, and he’s suffered a lot of violations as a result of the company’s intimidation strategies.”

Okomu told Mongabay that the closure of the gates at night is “due to the insecurity in the area” and that soldiers at the checkpoint were deployed “on instruction from the Governor” to combat illegal logging and the sabotage of nearby oil pipelines.

When asked whether policies were in place to ensure that the active-duty soldiers don’t commit human rights violations, Okomu said, “The Nigerian Army is under the control of the Government. However, the Army has been sensitized and informed that the Company has a grievance system with an internal and an external grievance procedure in place.”

The confiscation of fishing nets from local women in the river was carried out by the company’s “eco-guards,” it stated, in accordance with RSPO requirements meant to protect high conservation value areas — putting an industrial palm oil firm whose concession lies inside a forest reserve in the unlikely position of enforcing conservation laws against poor, rural villagers.

In response to the allegation that a village was burned down by its security forces last year, Okomu said, “No incident, grievance or charge have ever been reported, or laid against Okomu by any community, with the authorities in respect of this alleged incident.”

Ajele told Mongabay that he just wants to make sure his community’s “human rights are respected.”

“I am not saying that the company should leave the area,” he said. “We cannot drive them away, [the] government is making money every year due to the taxes they are paying. But it should not be to the detriment of the community. They should be able to carry the community along so we have a sense of belonging. That is my dream.”

“We have a saying in Nigeria,” he added. “If I talk, I go die, if I no talk, I go die. So why must I keep my mouth shut? I will continue to speak.”

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