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Covid-19 compounds local ire against palm oil firms in West Africa


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 (WRM) stated.

“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 for them.”

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 dwellers.” 

In response, Wilmar, which runs a refinery and several plantations in Nigeria, denied the claims and said its investments have benefited communities.

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 communities 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 workers better”

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 plantations.”

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 years.

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. 

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