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Socfin exploitation of rubber & palm oil linked to deforestation & human rights abuses in Ghana & Nigeria

Iyabo BATU at the Benin Teaching Hospital during her surgery in 2022. Credit: Elfredah Kevin-Alerechi, 2023

iWatch Africa | 7 November 2023

Socfin exploitation of rubber & palm oil linked to deforestation & human rights abuses in Ghana & Nigeria

by Gideon Sarpong

A six-month investigation by Gideon Sarpong, Elfredah Kevin-Alerechi and Audrey Travère has uncovered the extent to which the relentless exploitation of rubber and palm oil resources by Socfin is fueling deforestation and displacement of indigenous populations in Nigeria and Ghana.

This investigation also puts the spotlight on the plantation giant’s disconcerting role as a rubber supplier to European tire manufacturers, including French-based Michelin raising critical concerns about its existing associations with deforestation and human rights violations in West Africa.

Okumu, Nigeria – Okumu Oil Palm Company, a subsidiary under the umbrella of the Socfin Group, possesses an extensive 7,335-hectare rubber plantation and a sprawling 19,062-hectare palm plantation, all nestled within the Ovia South-West local government area of Edo State.

The company’s presence in the Okumu community has become a contentious issue, notably for the indigenous people, including children who have endured displacement due to the company’s activities.

In 2021, the Socfin Group reported a remarkable profit of 80.4 million euros, its highest figure since at least 2014 due to increasing prices for palm oil and rubber. Yet, paradoxically, the Okumu community and other host communities throughout West Africa remain a stark contrast to the image of prosperity associated with Socfin’s substantial export earnings.

Human Rights Abuses

In a deeply distressing account of events, residents of Okumu have leveled accusations against the company for forcibly dismantling three villages within the district, namely—Lemon, Agbeda, and Oweike.

This action resulted in the displacement of hundreds of indigenous inhabitants and the grim aftermath of community farmland destruction, loss of life, and the disruption of children’s education.

For many of these people, their roots run deep within these villages, with no kin beyond the boundaries of their home. The repercussions of the company’s actions continue to haunt the affected communities, even decades after the devastation was wrought.

Today, Lemon, once a thriving community, has been reduced to a mere memory, while the residents of Oweike and Agbeda have been compelled to relocate to nearby communities, seeking refuge and new beginnings.

Upon closer examination, our investigation unveiled a disconcerting narrative: following the eviction of these three communities, the company proceeded to expand its palm and rubber plantations, acquiring a staggering 1,969 hectares of oil palm and 1,811 hectares of rubber in the process.

According to the company’s own website, these expansions represent only a fraction of their broader growth trajectory, with an astounding total of 33,112 hectares now under their purview.

The story of Austin Lemon, a mere 15 years old at the time Socfin’s presence descended upon his community, serves as a heart-wrenching testament to the trauma endured by these communities. As he watched the Luxembourger company, accompanied by security personnel, lay waste to his ancestral home, he also witnessed the pleas of his parents and fellow Lemon village residents in Okomu.

They implored the company to allow them to remain, as they had no alternative haven. Regrettably, their appeals fell on deaf ears, as Socfin’s relentless pursuit of rubber and palm resources took precedence.

His father, the founder of Lemon Village in 1969 and the namesake of the community, followed the age-old Nigerian customary law, which dictates that the first person to settle on a virgin land gains rightful ownership.

Lemon, who is now 33, recalls the profound “shock” that gripped his father, the respected leader of Lemon village within the Okumu community, upon learning that Socfin had acquired their ancestral home. In a desperate bid to secure some semblance of justice for his fellow villagers in the face of impending displacement, Lemon’s father implored the company to provide compensation for their relocation but that did not happen.

He ruefully reflects, “The Company planted their plantation without heeding to their pleas.” The consequences were catastrophic – every single house in Lemon village met its demise, and the once-thriving areas reserved for the cultivation of plantain, cassava, cocoa, and cocoyam were reduced to ruins.

Lemon’s personal account of these events is a poignant reminder of the human cost inflicted by the company’s actions. He reveals, “For a whole year, I couldn’t attend school because we were displaced and struggling to make ends meet.”

“It was the company’s actions that ultimately led to the death of my father, who had high blood pressure. He perished because the farms he once relied upon to feed his 32 children were also obliterated,” he revealed.

In a surprising turn of events, the company denied the findings presented to them.

According to Socfin’s communications team, they acquired their plantation following the de-reservation of a portion of Okomu Forest Reserve by Nigeria’s federal government, in compliance with the Edo Forestry Commission Law (1968) and its subsequent amendments, among other relevant legislation.

Nevertheless, Ajele Sunday, a spokesperson for the Okumu community, contradicts the company’s account. He asserts that the community “never received any compensation” when Socfin claimed to have procured the land from the government.

Multiple sources within the Okomu village have raised concerns, contending that the company conducted negotiations with the government without seeking or taking into consideration the community’s perspective.

This apparent lack of consultation with the community “directly contradicts the principles outlined in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, particularly the concept of Free Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC),” Ajele argued.

This breach raises critical concerns about the treatment of indigenous communities and their rights in the context of corporate activities, shedding light on the urgency of adhering to these vital principles.

According to FPIC, Indigenous Peoples possess the right to grant or withhold consent for projects that stand to impact them or their territories.

A Tragic Fight for Freedom in Okomu Village

In 2022, Socfin (Okumu Oil Palm Company) took a contentious step by excavating a large trench around its plantation, effectively barricading the community, leaving residents stranded with no access to the outside world. During the rainy season, the runoff from this trench, laden with fertilizers, contaminated the Okomu River, the sole source of drinking water, and proved fatal to fish in the water. Frustrated by this environmental degradation, the residents organized a peaceful protest at the company’s entrance, demanding the closure of the trench.

The protests had spanned two days, with the first day devoted to demonstrations within the community. On the second day, the residents decided to take their grievances to the company’s gate. En route, they were intercepted by security officers determined to quell the protest.

Among the protesters, Iyabo Batu, aged 56, found herself at the forefront. On May 3, 2022, while demonstrating against the company’s closure of the sole road leading to her village, Marhiaoba, she was struck by a bullet in the knee, believed to have been fired by a Socfin security personnel.

“It was very difficult for my grandchildren to go to school because the white man blocked the road,” Iyabo Batu explained, referring to the Socfin manager. She went on to describe how the road closure, a consequence of the trench excavated by the company, led to children in the village discontinuing their schooling. This was the sole route in and out of the community, now obstructed by the company’s actions.

The peaceful protest turned tragic when security personnel attached to the company targeted Iyabo Batu, shooting her in the knee. She was swiftly transported to a clinic before being transferred to the general hospital of Igbuobazua headquarters. Her hospitalization extended beyond a month following the surgery for her gunshot wound, but she expressed her deep sadness at the fact that the company had neither covered her medical expenses nor offered their sympathy.

The company denied any involvement in the incident, insisting that no employee had shot Mrs. Batu. However, community spokesperson Sunday, among others, claimed that the company was attempting to distance itself from the actions.

Iyabo Batu’s X-ray results unveiled multiple patella fractures, and she credited Environmental Rights Actions (ERA) for her survival. Rita Ukwa of ERA disclosed that they supported Batu, including arranging a city apartment for her for a year after her hospital discharge, as evidenced by her hospital discharge receipt, indicating a payment of 226,940 naira[$296] to the Benin Teaching Hospital.

The company, in responding to findings of this investigation, asserted that they were unable to comment on the allegations as no “formal complaint had been filed by the alleged complainant, either to the company or the Nigerian Police Force.” They also clarified that their security personnel “were not permitted to carry weapons, as per government regulations.”

However, multiple witnesses, both within and outside the company, contended that a company security officer was indeed responsible for the shooting of 59-year-old Iyabo Batu. A non-Okomu resident working for the company identified the officer in question as a government anti-terrorism officer. The source chose to remain anonymous out of fear, considering the potential repercussions from either the company or the police officers who delayed recording the community’s statement when Mrs. Batu was rushed to the police station.

Our investigations showed that the security apparatus for Okumu Oil Palm Company comprises police, private security, and military officers, even though they are compensated by the federal government. These officers are also subject to the directives of the company, raising questions about the dynamics of power and accountability in this complex relationship.

A spokesperson for Edo State Chris Osa Nehikhare said, “the government will also monitor what is happening in Okomu to ensure no one is exploited and to make life better for the community,”

Plantation Socfinaf Ghana and Deforestation

Meanwhile in Ghana, the operations of Plantation Socfinaf Ghana (PSG), a subsidiary of the Socfin Group which operates rubber and oil palm plantations in Manso and Daboase in the Western Region has led to the destruction of vital rainforests.

In 2017 and 2018, PSG contracted Proforest and HS+E respectively to conduct environmental assessments at its Subri site in Daboase ahead of the construction of a palm processing mill in 2019.

Findings from this assessment showed that any large-scale operations at the Subri site would result in the “loss of biodiversity, land degradation, increase in ambient noise levels, aerial emissions and the destruction of unique endangered ecosystems and species within the catchment areas.”

Notably, the Proforest assessment emphasized the substantial environmental value of the PSG Subri site. It was found to host a substantial “carbon stock of 981,080.74 metric tons” and served as a crucial “habitat for a vulnerable population of species” in need of conservation measures. Despite these findings, PSG proceeded with the construction of the palm processing mill in in 2020 costing US$20 million.

PSG also admitted that between 2012 and 2016, over 1 089 ha of natural forests were cleared to make way for its plantations failing to heed to concerns by environmental groups.

Despite mounting concerns and inquiries into PSG’s actions, the company has remained conspicuously silent, failing to respond to our requests for information regarding their mitigation plans and the repercussions of their operations on the communities around Daboase and the environment at large.

Data from Global Forest Watch paints a distressing picture of the situation. Between 2001 and 2022, Ghana’s Western Region witnessed the loss of a staggering 536,000 hectares of tree cover. This represents a 23% decline in tree cover since the turn of the millennium, accompanied by a grim emission of 297 million metric tons of CO₂ equivalent. It’s worth noting that this region, the wettest in Ghana, plays host to PSG’s extensive plantations.

The ramifications of this ecological decline extend beyond the boundaries of forests and into the lives of the local communities. Farmers like Godwin Ofori, a 35-year-old resident of Daboase in close proximity to PSG’s plantation, have borne the brunt of these changes.

Mr. Ofori expressed his frustration with the evolving rainfall patterns, stating, “One of the biggest challenges over the last decade has been unpredictable rainfall patterns. We cannot predict the rainfall pattern nowadays, and I believe that this is partly a destruction of our forests.”

Recent study by researchers at University of Leeds has shown that African tropical forests remain critical to the fight against the climate emergency, absorbing three times more carbon each year than the UK emitted in 2019.

The direct link between the decline in critical rainforests and these erratic weather patterns underlines the adverse impact on the livelihoods and food security of those living in the vicinity.

Startling findings from Global Witness showcase the unsettling consequence of industrial rubber plantations across the expanse of West and Central Africa, witnessing the loss of nearly 52,000 hectares of ecologically rainforest since the turn of the century—equivalent to an expanse 16 times the size of Brussels.

EU, Deforestation and Rubber companies

In June 2023, the EU introduced regulations on deforested products to address the challenge of rubber and oil plantation-driven deforestation. The EU remains the biggest export destination for palm oil and rubber cultivation from West Africa. Data from the Observatory of Economic Complexity shows that the EU imported over $500 million worth of natural rubber from West Africa in 2020 alone making natural rubber the EU’s most significant import from West Africa in terms of rainforest destruction.

The effect has been the loss of critical rainforests, with a damning impact on local communities, biodiversity, and the environment. This new law has the potential to put a check on Socfin’s operations across West Africa.

Colin Robertson, a Senior Forests Investigator at Global Witness lauded EU efforts describing it as a “very promising step towards reducing European consumers’ impact on the world’s forests.”

He however cautioned that “the inclusion of rubber should mean that European tire manufacturers will have to check that the rubber plantations they buy from are sticking firmly to zero deforestation pledges.”

Based on detailed export data examined, our investigation unearthed a direct link between Société des Matières Premières Tropicales PTE and the procurement of natural rubber from Okomu Oil Palm Company over the last two years.

Société des Matières Premières Tropicales PTE functions as the sole consolidated purchaser of natural rubber for tire manufacturing giant, the Michelin Group. This revelation gives rise to profound ethical concerns, casting a shadow on the European tire manufacturing industry’s dedication to fostering sustainability.

In response to our investigation, the Michelin Group acknowledged our findings and affirmed their awareness of “historical grievances expressed by local communities” against Okomu Oil Palm Company, insisting that they have closely monitored the situation since 2015.

“In collaboration with a civil society organization, we urged Socfin to enhance its sustainable development performance, which eventually led to Socfin’s adoption of “zero deforestation” and “non-exploitation” commitments,” Michelin wrote in their response.

However, our findings expose a crucial discrepancy: Socfin’s interpretation of “zero deforestation” does not align with the industry-recognized standard known as the High Carbon Stock Approach (HCSA). Neither Socfin nor its subsidiaries across West Africa are members of the HCSA. This incongruity highlights the urgent need for greater clarity and alignment within the industry.

Greenpeace has sounded a resounding alarm, cautioning that Socfin’s steadfast resistance to adopting the industry’s zero-deforestation standard poses a significant and looming threat to the forests of West Africa, where the company’s operations are concentrated.

The future of these critical ecosystems remains at a crossroads, demanding enhanced vigilance and rigorous commitment to sustainable practices.

Reporting by Gideon Sarpong, Elfredah Kevin-Alerechi and Audrey Travère. Writing and Editing by Gideon Sarpong.

This report is supported by JournalismFund Europe.

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