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Interview with Oakland Institute on Socfin investments in Sierra Leone

A new

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.

This looks certainly significant for most Sierra Leoneans given the deep level of poverty in a country where the average income doesn’t exceed $1 a day. However, it is out of proportion with the profits recorded by the company. With 158,800 ha of plantations in Asia and Africa, Bolloré Group recorded $250 million net profit in 2011, an increase of $163 million (187 per cent) since 2009. Such figures correspond to an average gain of $1,500 per hectare of plantation per year, i.e. over $10 million per year on a 6,500 ha of plantation. Even if a new plantation takes a few years to become productive and beneficial to the investor, Socfin disposes of plantations at different stages of growth in various countries, which do provide the firm with financial resources that could be spent in favor of local populations in new investments as well. But obviously, this will have a marginal impact on the returns provided to its shareholders.

The Bolloré group is currently one of the world’s top 500 companies, with an annual turnover of more than seven billion Euros. Its global expansion has been largely concentrated in Africa, where it now operates in 43 countries and has become a key player in the economic structure and political life of many countries. Vincent Bolloré - the 18th wealthiest man in France in 2009 – has built an empire with far more extensive outreach than the former French colonies. He has gained control of not only plantations throughout Africa, but also manages a large portion of the shipping and transport industry, as well as oil companies. Bolloré group controls over 13 African ports, including a 20-year concession of the port of Freetown, secured in December 2010.

By expanding its presence in both production and transport, the Bolloré Group is developing a model of integration, which covers a range of activities geared toward the extraction of natural resources from developing countries, particularly Africa. The Group is increasingly reaching a situation of monopoly or quasi-monopoly over critical economic sectors, including transport in many countries. Such a hold on power carries major risks for local populations and governments who are progressively losing control not only over their production but also trade flows in and out of the country. Disempowering people and governments, such an expansion strategy clearly contradicts the Group’s stated commitment to sustainable development.

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: Any recommendations regarding the Socfin investment?

FREDERIC MOUSSEAU: We believe it is critical that Socfin’s deal is urgently reviewed and the trial case against the villagers from Sanh village in Pujehun be dropped. Transparency, adequate documentation, and proper consultation are required to give people a say in the future of land and natural resources that are essential for their livelihoods. The publication of a comprehensive Environmental, Social and Health Impact Assessment and a land survey is necessary to give communities the basic information required to negotiate the conditions and terms of any agreement, and the ability to reject it.

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: Has the research work involved Sierra Leoneon organisations, and how are they involved in taking up the findings of the report?

The Oakland Institute partnered with a Sierra Leonean organization, Green Scenery, during the research as well as in the follow-up of the publication of our report. The partnership goes beyond research, for instance, around the dissemination of our findings in local languages on local radios, participation in local media events, etc. The Oakland Institute is also proud to have sponsored the first ever assembly of communities impacted by large-scale land investments in Sierra Leone. The event was organized by Green Scenery, together with the Sierra Leone Network on the Right to Food. In April 2012, nearly 100 farmers and small land owners assembled in Freetown to have their voices heard and strategize a way forward.

The final communiqué issued from this assembly, calls on the government to review all the land agreements and to ensure no deals are made without full free and informed consent of all community members. It also states that local communities require independent legal counsel, that environmental protection must be enforced to protect land, water, vegetation and wildlife resources on which people depend. Further, it decries any land deal that increases hunger and food insecurity. The conference also saw the launch of a new watchdog group, Action for Large-Scale Land Acquisition Transparency, or ALLAT. The ALLAT network of civil society organizations and landowner and user associations will monitor land investments throughout the country and sensitize communities.

We are obviously very glad that our research has not just provided independent information to all stakeholders but has also played a critical role in the emergence of a national debate and questionning of government policies around agricultural land investment. Not long ago, all foreign agricultural investors were welcome by many, and first of all by government officials, as bringing much needed development to the country. Today, the question is being seriously asked about how the country and the people will benefit.

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: What are the avenues - local, continental and international - for seeking reparations and justice from companies such as Socfin as well as the Sierra Leoneon government?

FREDERIC MOUSSEAU: Our research shows that the government has the primary responsibility of what is happening around land investments in the country. In Sierra Leone, like in other African countries, it is the government who invites investors and offers them mouthwatering conditions in terms of land lease rates, fiscal incentives and tax holidays. It is also the government who is implementing an unfair policy that gives more opportunities to large-scale foreign investors than to local smallholders. It is again the government of Sierra Leone who sent the police force to farmers who opposed Socfin in Pujehun, and decided to keep protesters in jail for several days. The first avenue therefore relates to true democracy in a country where many citizens are misled by their elites over the prospects of foreign investments. Objective information and unbiased analysis have proven to be essential for democracy to operate, as seen with the recent moves of farmers and NGOs getting organized and strengthening their capacity to engage with the government.

At the international level, one shocking discovery in the course of our research was the incredibly impenetrable institutional set-up of Socfin and the Bolloré Group. Some of the subsidiaries, with names like Société Bordelaise Africaine or Forestière Equatoriale sound like coming directly from the colonial times. What some call an ‘empire’ operates through a web of dozens of different companies, registred in many countries, including several tax havens. Mediapart, a french online news source, studied the Bolloré Group in 2009 and concluded that ‘controlling financial flows seems almost impossible’ because of the complexity of the set-up and of the number of cross-holdings. ‘For instance, Plantations des terres rouges owns 61.7% of Compagnie du Cambodge, which owns 36% of Financière Moncey, which owns 42% of Financière d'Artois, which is also a shareholder at 22% of Plantations des terres rouges, and so on.’ Mediapart concluded ‘dividends circulate from one structure to another, come back, are lost. The whole thing is unreadable.’

Such a structure raises obvious questions about the accountability of these firms and their shareholders and concerns about their overall impunity when confronted with their responsibility and role in malpractices and abuses in their different operations in different countries.


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