Holding companies to account

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Paris, France. 1 June 2017. Several dozens of activists gathered outside the headquarters of Bolloré, where the annual Board of Directors meeting was held to protest against the irresponsible exploitation of industrial plantations in several African countries. LE PICTORIUM/Alamy Live News
Global Witness | April 2021

Holding companies to account

Release note
Briefing (PDF)

Excerpt on Socfin:

COST OF TAKING ON AN AGRIBUSINESS GIANT

In January 2019, a BBC reporter arrived at Sahn Malen in southern Sierra Leone to find it deserted. Thousands of people had fled after two men were allegedly shot and killed by state forces in a dispute about land grabbing for palm oil. The soldiers were reportedly deployed to protect European agricultural company Société Financière des Caoutchoucs (Socfin).121

The community explained how, shortly afterwards, the police and military carried out a series of raids people were beaten and their homes looted. Fifteen people were arrested, including the local MP, who was later charged with conspiracy and incitement and ordered to pay a fine of 60,000,000 Leones ( 13,000) or face six months in jail.122

A woman called Mama Kobau told the BBC, "Two soldiers came here and repeatedly hit my door They asked me to give them 300,000 Leones [roughly 65]. I told them I had no money. They took away my phone and asked my son to kneel down before they beat him mercilessly. 123

This community is one of many in the Global South that says Socfin or its subsidiaries were given their land without their consent, or that they were coerced into signing it away. Countless people have been evicted from their land to make way for Socfin plantations, some violently. As a result, protests have been ongoing for years in Sierra Leone, Cameroon, Liberia, Nigeria, Indonesia and Cambodia. Many have been met with violence or arrests. 124

The Socfin Group is a major global trader in agricultural products, headquartered in Luxembourg and listed on its stock exchange.125 Its companies preside over 400,000 hectares of land across Africa and Southeast Asia, much of it palm oil and rubber plantations.126 That s roughly equivalent in size to the Chinese capital Beijing.127

Socfin is controlled by two European families those of Belgian businessman Hubert Fabri and renowned French tycoon Vincent Bolloré, who is currently worth an estimated US$ 7.3 billion.128 Through a network of companies registered in Luxembourg, Belgium and Switzerland, Hubert Fabri and the Bolloré Group own 93% of Socfin's shares.129
 
Srong Prou is an indigenous farmer from Cambodia who says she lost her land after Socfin- KCD began developing rubber plantation in 2008. At the time, Socfin-KCD was a joint venture between Cambodian company Khaou Chuly Development Co (KCD) and Socfin's Asian arm Socfinasia. It is now solely owned by Socfinasia.130 More than 800 families were impacted by the plantation, with many evicted from their land.131 Srong Prou used to grow rice and was able to produce and sell 60-70 sacks a year. With the land she had left she could only make ten. 132
 
Angry at the crippling effect this has had on her family, Srong Prou decided to join local protests against Socfin. As a result, she says she was charged with destroying company property and provoking a fight, and was summoned to appear in court in 2009 - and again in 2017.133

ELUSIVE JUSTICE

Communities in Cambodia, Cameroon and Liberia have been trying for years to seek justice for the harms inflicted on them as a result of the activities of the Socfin Group.

Indigenous Cambodians have launched a civil case against the Bolloré Group in France, calling for compensation for land they say was taken from them by Socfinasia.134 The case was initially delayed because after a court summons from France, Cambodian plaintiffs were denied visas by the French embassy.135
 
Cameroonian groups and international NGOs have attempted litigation in France too. In 2019, they tried to sue Bolloré for reneging on a 2013 agreement to improve the working and living conditions around the palm oil plantations of Socfin s local subsidiary Socapalm.136 This followed a complaint made to the OECD in 2010 cataloguing harms inflicted by the company including contaminating local water sources, blocking communities access to their crops, and physical abuse by security guards working for the company.137

Socfin was found to have violated the OECD Guidelines and was presented with a number of recommendations for making good on the damage done. But the case ran aground in 2017, after the Socfin Group refused to independently audit its operations and failed to fully comply with the remediation plan that had been agreed to in 2013.138

Meanwhile, in 2019 indigenous Liberian communities filed a complaint with the International Finance Corporation, which had previously given Socfin a US $10 million loan. The 60-page complaint listed a myriad of abuses inflicted on those who lived near or worked on the plantations, including that female employees were habitually blackmailed and coerced into having sex. A conflict resolution process was proposed but Socfin rejected it. Socfin has denied that its security forces and staff committed gender-based violence. 139

In the face of these struggles for justice seemingly none of which have so far been successful the agricultural giant has fought back hard against attempts to smear its name. Since 2009 Bolloré and Socfin brought more than 20 defamation lawsuits against NGOs, journalists, media companies and authors who had denounced the company s practices - including France 2, Libération, Greenpeace and Sherpa.140 Socfin has rebutted criticisms made against it, claiming that its aim is to further development by ensuring that local communities and workers benefit from its operations.141 It is also accepted  that Socfin is able to acquire and cultivate land because of decisions made by local officials in countries where the rule of law is weak.


121 BBC, Report from Sahn Malen chiefdom, Sierra Leone, January 2019.
https://www.farmlandgrab.org/post/print/28699
International Federation for Human Rights, Open letter: Stop land grabbing by SOCFIN in Sierra Leone. Stop the criminalisation of land rights defenders, February 2019. https://www.fidh.org/en/issues/globalisation-human-rights/stop-land-grabbing-by-socfin-in-sierra-leone-stop-the-criminalisation#:~:text=On%20January%2021st%2C%20following%20a,vandalised%20and%20properties%20were%20looted
Human Rights Defenders in Sierra Leone, Report of the fact finding mission on the Human Rights situation in Malen Chiefdom after the violent incidents in January 2019, January 2019, page 3. https://www.banktrack.org/download/report_of_the_fact_finding_mission_on_the_human_rights_situation_in_malen_chiefdom_after_the_violent_incidents_in_january_2019.
Farm Land Grab, Land rights defenders condemn gross human rights abuses in Sahn Malen, January 2019. https://www.farmlandgrab.org/post/view/28709-land-rights-defenders-condemn-gross-human-rights-abuses-in-sahn-malen

122 International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Open letter: Stop land grabbing by SOCFIN in Sierra Leone. Stop the criminalisation of land rights defenders, February 2019. https://www.fidh.org/en/issues/globalisation-human-rights/stop-land-grabbing-by-socfin-in-sierra-leone-stop-the-criminalisation#:~:text=On%20January%2021st%2C%20following%20a,vandalised%20and%20properties%20were%20looted
Human Rights Defenders in Sierra Leone, Report of the fact finding mission on the Human Rights situation in Malen Chiefdom after the violent incidents in January 2019, January 2019, page 7. https://www.banktrack.org/download/report_of_the_fact_finding_mission_on_the_human_rights_situation_in_malen_chiefdom_after_the_violent_incidents_in_january_2019.
FIAN, Land Grabbing for Palm Oil in Sierra Leone. Analysis of the SOCFIN Case from a Human Rights Perspective, February 2019, page 28. https://www.fian.be/IMG/pdf/fian_b_report_landgrab_in_sl_malen_2019_full.pdf

123 BBC, Report from Sahn Malen chiefdom, Sierra Leone, January 2019. https://www.farmlandgrab.org/post/print/28699

124 Mongabay, Coordinated protests hit Socfin plantations in four countries, June 2015. https://news.mongabay.com/2015/06/coordinated-protests-hit-socfin-plantations-in-four-countries/
Food First Information and Action Network (FIAN), Land Grabbing for Palm Oil in Sierra Leone. Analysis of the SOCFIN Case from a Human Rights Perspective, February 2019, page 28. https://www.fian.be/IMG/pdf/fian_b_report_landgrab_in_sl_malen_2019_full.pdf
Mongabay, Cameroon village battles palm oil giant, June 2020. https://news.mongabay.com/2020/06/if-they-take-our-lands-well-be-dead-cameroon-village-battles-palm-oil-giant/
Rainforest Rescue, Cameroon: No to land grabbing for palm oil!, March 2018. https://www.rainforest-rescue.org/petitions/1002/cameroon-no-to-land-grabbing-for-palm-oil
Bread for All, Plantations in Liberia and the Responsibility of Swiss Companies, November 2019, page 9. https://breadforall.ch/content/uploads//2017/12/Bfa_Socfin_Summary_E_Update_Nov_19.pdf
Indigenous communities from Liberia, Salala Rubber environmentaacquisition and expansion in Liberia, April 2019, page 18. http://www.cao-ombudsman.org/cases/document-links/documents/CAOComplaint-Liberia-SRC01.pdf
World Rainforest Movement, Resistance against industrial oil palm plantations in West and Central Africa, March 2021. https://www.farmlandgrab.org/post/view/30166-resistance-against-industrial-oil-palm-plantations-in-west-and-central-africa
World Rainforest Movement, Africa: many places of violence and destruction, September 2017. https://wrm.org.uy/articles-from-the-wrm-bulletin/section1/socfins-plantations-in-africa-many-places-of-violence-and-destruction/
Bread for the World, Human Rights Violations in the Oil-Palm Plantations in Indonesia, September 2011, page 29. https://www.brot-fuer-die-welt.de/fileadmin/mediapool/2_Downloads/Fachinformationen/Aktuell/Aktuell_22_loss-of-reason.pdf
Center for International Forestry Research, The Hesitant -Sector in an Era of Economic Crisis and Political Change, November 1999, page 70. https://www.cifor.org/publications/pdf_files/casson.pdf
iPalm Oil, Warga Singkil Kembali Demo Pabrik Sawit PT. Socfin Indonesia, January 2020. https://ipalmoil.com/warga-singkil-kembali-demo-pabrik-sawit-pt-socfin-indonesia/
International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), The impact of rubber plantations by Socfin-KCD on indigenous communities in Bousra, Mondulkiri, October 2011, page 33. https://www.fidh.org/IMG/pdf/report_cambodia_socfin-kcd_low_def.pdf
Mongabay, Cambodian communities follow different routes to justice over Socfin rubber project, October 2015. https://news.mongabay.com/2015/10/cambodian-communities-follow-different-routes-to-justice-over-socfin-rubber-project/

125 https://www.socfin.com/en https://www.socfin.com/en/investors

126 Profundo, Unravelling the Socfin Group, February 2020, page 1. https://www.profundo.nl/projecten/unravelling-the-socfin-group

127 Worldometer, Largest cities in the world, 2015. https://www.worldometers.info/population/largest-cities-in-the-world/

128 Forbes website. Accessed in April 2021. At: https://www.forbes.com/profile/vincent-bollore/?sh=437bd74c6651https://www.socfin.com/en/investors/socfin

129 Profundo, Unravelling the Socfin Group, February 2020, page 1. https://www.profundo.nl/projecten/unravelling-the-socfin-group

130 Profundo, Unravelling the Socfin Group, February 2020, page 1. At: https://www.profundo.nl/projecten/unravelling-the-socfin-group
Action Aid, Rural communities in Cambodia bravely stand up for their rights against the impacts of forced evictions and corporate abuse, September 2020, pages 8 to 11. https://actionaid.nl/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/ActionAid_Magazine_Cambodia.pdf

131 Action Aid, Rural communities in Cambodia bravely stand up for their rights against the impacts of forced evictions and corporate abuse, September 2020, pages 8 to 11. https://actionaid.nl/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/ActionAid_Magazine_Cambodia.pdf
Phnom Penh Post, Bunong group attends French court hearing over land dispute, October 2019. https://www.phnompenhpost.com/national/bunong-group-attends-french-court-hearing-over-land-dispute
International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), The impact of rubber plantations by Socfin-KCD on indigenous communities in Bousra, Mondulkiri, October 2011, page 7. https://www.fidh.org/IMG/pdf/report_cambodia_socfin-kcd_low_def.pdf

133 Action Aid, Rural communities in Cambodia bravely stand up for their rights against the impacts of forced evictions and corporate abuse, September 2020, pages 8 to 11. https://actionaid.nl/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/ActionAid_Magazine_Cambodia.pdf

134 Phnom Penh Post, Bunong group attends French court hearing over land dispute, October 2019. https://www.phnompenhpost.com/national/bunong-group-attends-french-court-hearing-over-land-dispute
Le Monde, Cambodian farmers accusing Bolloré of spoliation are asked to show proof, November 2019. https://www.farmlandgrab.org/post/view/29298-cambodian-farmers-accusing-bollore-of-spoliation-are-asked-to-show-proof

135 Phnom Penh Post, denied French visas to attend court, February 2019. https://www.phnompenhpost.com/national/ethnic-group-disappointed-be-denied-french-visas-attend-court

136 Reuters, Activists sue Bollore over conditions at Cameroon palm oil plantation, May 2019. https://news.yahoo.com/activists-sue-bollore-over-conditions-cameroon-palm-oil-092027029--finance.html?guccounter=1&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29vZ2xlLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAAL2iH8U3F4nPbpJYF5WUy5iLwU9jFd8NZThP6kkUTgekkA2GV-O2rqPxfNX-7Ds_DCkyFk5HumesOK7YcZWlqIfLSg1kXbR3EXnAMvSacJyC0t3pi5cnRFT2LlKvXmzwQnH9YYbrJZwJjlkVOOGGbWiytZsEdSIU9jO7ix96GrXV
Sherpa, Bolloré/Socapalm : the judge rules in favor of the NGOs, March 2021. https://www.asso-sherpa.org/bollore-socapalm-the-judge-rules-in-favor-of-the-ngos ;
Committee for the Abolition of Illegitimate Debt, , May 2020. https://www.cadtm.org/Business-as-usual-at-Socfin-and-Bollore#nb1

137 OECD Watch, Environmental and labour violations at SOCAPALM in Cameroon, December 2010. https://www.oecdwatch.org/complaint/sherpa-et-al-vs-socapalm-socfin-socfinaf/
FERN, Speaking truth to power: The village women taking on the palm oil giant (2018), pages 4, 8, 10 and 13. https://www.fern.org/fileadmin/uploads/fern/Documents/Fern%20Socfin%20briefing%20Final.pdf

138 OECD, Socfin Group/Socapalm and Sherpa concerning operations in Cameroon. http://mneguidelines.oecd.org/database/instances/be0018.htm
OECD Watch, Environmental and labour violations at SOCAPALM in Cameroon, December 2010. https://www.oecdwatch.org/complaint/sherpa-et-al-vs-socapalm-socfin-socfinaf/

139 Compliance Advisor Ombudsman, Liberia / Salala Rubber Corporation-01 / Margibi and Bong, accessed in April 2021. http://www.cao-ombudsman.org/cases/case_detail.aspx?id=3282
Bread for All, The Liberian Socfin plantation SRC opts out of conflict resolution process, June 2020. https://breadforall.ch/the-liberian-socfin-plantation-src-opts-out-of-conflict-resolution-process/
Indigenous communities from Liberia, Letter Re: Salala land acquisition and expansion in Liberia, 15 April 2019, pages 15 and 16. http://www.cao-ombudsman.org/cases/document-links/documents/CAOComplaint-Liberia-SRC01.pdf

140 Sherpa, Op-ed suits!. https://www.asso-sherpa.org/op-ed-we-wont-be-silenced-by-bollore-gag-suits

141 Mongabay, How the legacy of colonialism built a palm oil empire, June 2020. https://news.mongabay.com/2020/06/how-the-legacy-of-colonialism-built-a-palm-oil-empire/
Original source: Global Witness
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