A new wave of alleged environmental and human rights abuses by Wilmar, Socfin and others sees renewed calls for action
Fresh allegations of environmental and worker abuses at palm
oil sites across West Africa during the Covid-19 outbreak has placed yet more
pressure on multinational firms operating in the region.
Communities in Nigeria, Cameroon, Gabon, and Ivory Coast
have spoken out in recent weeks over a lack of protections afforded them during
the pandemic which has reignited debates on long-standing accusations of land
grabs and intimidation used to establish the vast plantations.
The operations of the world’s biggest palm oil producer,
Wilmar, in Nigeria’s Cross River State, European-owned Socfin in Cameroon and
Nigeria, and Olam in Gabon are among those now under renewed scrutiny.
Owned by French tycoon Vincent Bolloré and Belgian
businessman Hubert Fabri, Socfin controls thousands of hectares of rubber and
palm oil sites in Africa and is accused
of multiple abuses.
During the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, local activist
groups and international NGOs called
on Socfin to address alleged worker mistreatment and poor health and safety
measures at its sites in Cameroon, Ghana and Liberia.
“Even before this current Covid-19 crisis, many people in
the communities and among the workers lived in a crisis-like situation,” the
April letter signed by groups including Grain and World Rainforest Movement
“Witnesses from the plantation sites report that the loss of
land due to the establishment of Socfin plantations hampered agricultural
activities and livelihoods and increasingly threatened the communities’ food
security. Now with the pandemic, the situation has become even more difficult
Another Socfin project, the Okomu plantation in Nigeria, is
also at the centre of further community unrest. The 26,4000 hectare site
produces both oil palm and rubber and is Nigeria’s second largest plantation, according to Socfin.
A television report
from June interviewed several locals who claimed Okomu is responsible for
attacking and intimidating communities in Edo State as well as stealing ancestral
lands in what is described as a “dire situation”.
In the country’s south-eastern Cross River State, which is also under
threat from increasing cocoa production, a local NGO coalition in July urged
Wilmar to “stop in all forms of deforestation in our forest” and review its
operations in the region.
The NGOs said: “Land grab has contributed immensely to
global warming/climate change and extinction of snails, and bush mango. That
the emergence and entrance of multinationals and sudden [taking of] our individuals,
families and community lands were done without the prior consent of the rural
In response, Wilmar, which runs a refinery and several
plantations in Nigeria, denied the claims and said its investments have
Three mills named
as supplying the PZ Wilmar refinery in Edo State, the Socfin-owned Okomu site among
them, are all suppliers
to Mondelez, makers of Cadbury and Toblerone chocolate, Earthsight analysis of
the companies’ most recent supplier lists reveals.
The refinery is
not certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, nor are the six
direct suppliers, including Okomu, for whom full company details were provided
in the supply list.
Mondelez also purchases from palm oil giant Olam in Gabon where
have long protested the company’s presence.
A local Gabonese activist recently
told the WRM that because of Covid-19 there would likely be hundreds of job
losses at Olam facilities.
“Now, we know that because of the pandemic, the State made
some decisions and took some measures to support companies that will have
problems,” he said. “But Olam is going beyond all of that. And as a result,
jobs will be lost in order to benefit subcontractors, who do not treat the
In Ivory Coast, a significant source of palm oil to the
EU, the actions of PalmCi, a subsidiary of the Sifca Group, have also been heavily
criticised in recent weeks.
Several communities in the vicinity of the firm’s
plantations told WRM that many workers were sacked because of Covid-19, and for
those that remained health and safety measures had been overlooked.
“Locals are left to defend for themselves, because the company
does not provide them with protective gear,” one woman from the region said. “The
situation is difficult for communities living around and within the industrial
Switzerland-headquartered Nestle, via commodities trading
house Bunge Europe, purchased from nine PalmCi mills in 2019, according
to its most up-to-date supply list published in April this year.
EU imports of palm oil from West Africa, while small
compared to Indonesia and Malaysia trade volumes, have increased in recent
The EU imported 27,283 tonnes from Ivory Coast in 2019, an 171
per cent increase on 2018 levels (10,064 tonnes), while purchases from Gabon in
2019 (4,685 tonnes) rose 52 per cent on the previous year, Earthsight analysis
of UN Comtrade data shows.
Cameroon (94 tonnes) and Nigeria (99 tonnes) also saw modest
increases from 2018 trade volumes, although the pair only account for a small
proportion of the region’s EU-bound shipments.