Photos by Indra Van Gisbergen.
The Société Financière des Caoutchoucs (Socfin) group is one of the world’s biggest independent plantation owners, managing 187,000 hectares of mostly oil palm and rubber plantations in Africa and Asia. Its largest shareholders are Belgian businessman Hubert Fabri and the Bolloré group, run by French billionaire industrialist Vincent Bolloré.
Over the past few years, Socfin’s Cameroonian subsidiary Socapalm has been at the centre of a bitter land rights struggle with the local people who claim that the company is expanding its plantations on their land, and - among other things - preventing them from benefitting from their own palm oil.
Socapalm has said that their crackdown on villagers’ small-scale oil palm operations is in response to theft of fruit from their plantations.
In response to these and other controversies, Socfin has adopted measures aimed at respecting human rights and following strict environmental standards, including working with TFT, the transparency supply chain organisation, and getting its palm oil certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).
But is change filtering through on the ground yet?
Award-winning Cameroonian journalist Madeleine Ngeunga and Fern’s Indra Van Gisbergen recently visited villages in the shadow of Socapalm’s oil palm plantations to see if the issues driving the dispute between locals and the company are being resolved.
Their findings and the testimony they gathered - which will be published fully in a forthcoming report - raise disturbing questions for Socapalm and reveal that the chasm between many locals and the company appears no closer to being bridged.
We approached Socapalm a number of times for a response to the villagers’ claims but have yet to hear back. Any future response will be added to this piece and included in our impending report.
Mbongo village, Dizangue - The indignation in Carine’s voice is clear. “Why does Socapalm stop my father from pressing the nuts that come from our own palm grove?”
Carine, who prefers not to use her real name, was born 21 years ago in Mbongo, one of the 34 villages in Dizangue, an area around 40 kilometres from Douala, Cameroon’s financial hub and largest city, which is situated in the country’s fertile and humid coastal region.
Her entire life has been lived in the shadow of Socapalm, the company created by the Cameroonian government in 1968, and which in 2000 – three years after Carine was born – was privatised and acquired by the Socfin group.
Socapalm produces almost 70 per cent of Cameroon’s palm oil. Its six plantation sites are dotted around the country’s rural areas, bordering - and sometimes encroaching upon – villages and local peoples’ lives.
Census figures show that 58 per cent of Dizangue population of 17,000 is rural. For the vast majority, land is central to their survival.
Carine’s family is no exception.
As she travels near her village, trudging along the dirt roads which criss-cross the oil palm plantations which stretch far into the horizon, Carine ponders her future with a distant look in her eyes.
Her main concern is whether she can attain her high school certificate and reach her goal of enrolling in university. Or will her prospects remain forever constrained by the financial straightjacket her family exists in?
Carine’s father works for Socapalm, earning between 70 and 100 thousand CFA francs (107 – 153 euros a month). It’s a salary on which he struggles to satisfy the needs of his 30 children and four wives.
Compounding the lack of money is another problem: one which emerged as a common grievance among those we spoke to.
Palm oil is an essential cooking ingredient for most Cameroonians (and palm kernel oil is also used widely as skin oil). Yet while Socapalm workers can buy up to 30 litres of palm oil per month from the company, many grow their own in the villages near the plantations.
Carine’s father, for instance, has a palm grove covering 11 hectares, seven of which are operational. It should be a major source of oil supply for the family. But Socapalm’s reaction when the family try to use it evokes a burning sense of injustice in her.
"When the palm oil runs out at home, my dad has to fall back on his palm grove. He asks his wives to gather nuts to extract palm oil required for cooking family meals," she explains. However, for the past two years, they have been forced to sell all their nuts to Socapalm. If not, they face retaliation.
"A few weeks ago, my mum put a small amount of nuts in the fire to cook and extract oil. Socapalm security agents arrived at the house. They took away the pot full of nuts and they took my dad to the Gendarmes’ office". He was later released on bail.
"My dad cannot read or write. He showed us the document that they forced him to sign. This is a letter [which Carine later provided us with] which obliges my dad to no longer consume the nuts from his palm grove," she explained.
"I told him that he should not have signed it because he has the right to manage his palm grove freely. He said he had no choice. It was the condition for keeping his job," Carine continued.
But she was determined not to let this pass. "I went to meet the brigade commander to find out why he had forced my dad to sign it. He turned me away and banned me from his office."
This story – of Socapalm or their agents preventing people from using their own vital natural resource – was one we heard widely repeated.
Mbonjo village, Dibombari - Mbonjo village is reached by a dirt road surrounded by palm groves. On the patches of ground between the oil palms and the road are maize, plantain and vegetables, which people have planted under the high-voltage cables which supply the community’s electricity: a sign of the lack of available land for growing their food crops.
In the village itself old family plots fashioned out of wooden planks are interspersed with newer homes made from grey breezeblocks.
Here too, we find a simmering anger among many towards Socapalm.
Retired customs agent, Sieur Ebongue and his wife Louise Nkakè are among them.
Speaking in front of their home, which is made from a mismatch of breezeblocks and planks, the couple blame their current woes on the soldiers responsible for monitoring Socapalm’s plantations.
They say they’ve faced threats, intimidation - and even violence - from the military: all aimed at stopping them using the oil palm nuts grown on their own plantation.
Louise Nkakè alleges that one day soldiers attacked her by pushing her forcefully with their guns and confiscated the nuts she was roasting. They suspected that the nuts were stolen from Socapalm’s plantation. She insists the nuts were theirs.
"The Socapalm soldiers asked to meet the owner of the press (the mechanical instrument used to mash the fruit and extract the crude oil). I told them that I represent my husband who is the owner. They said that the nuts that I was roasting did not come from my palm grove, but from Socapalm’s. I called my husband who arrived immediately. Despite his explanations, the military did not want to hear what we had to say. They confiscated everything - more than three tonnes of palm nuts,” Nkakè explains.
They decided to file a complaint against the assailants - but this only aggravated things.
"When they [the military] were informed that we’d filed a complaint against them, they returned and ordered us to stop using our press, whether we owned the palm grove or not," says Nkakè.
The couple relented. Next to their home, broken, bent fuses hang near a straw shed, which is raised on a tilt supported by wooden stakes. This is the family’s palm oil press, now lying idle - as it has done for more than a year.
Nkakè says that not only has she has lost two-thirds of her income, but they have been burdened with additional costs to produce palm oil, as they now have to pay to get it pressed on their neighbours’ presses.
The family’s restrictions on using their palm oil press are compounded by a land dispute with Socapalm.
Palm oil trees line the back of Ebongue's concession. According to the couple, these palms were planted by Socapalm whose palm grove can be seen covering an expanse a few meters away.
"They say that our concession is on Socapalm land. Yet this land belongs to my grandfather. All I did was renovate the house. The proof? Here are the graves of my ancestors, built here well before my birth," explains 70-year-old Ebongue, pointing to a clearance, free from grass.
Ebongue sighs and says that he prefers to turn to the courts to seek compensation. He wants to recommence activities at his press to better protect this family heritage.
Threats and intimidation
The presence of the army worries almost everyone in the community.
"It’s serious what's going on here with the military in Mbonjo. You're asleep; the soldiers are outside. They just sleep here outside by the kitchen. They find your nuts roasting on the stove. They accuse you of stealing Socapalm’s nuts. If you deny it, they threaten you, confiscate the nuts and sometimes destroy your stoves," says 70-year-old Martine Amougou angrily.
Amougou is a community elder, a widow and mother of 13 children, and – like other women in the community – she has come to rely on the bravery of Marie-Noelle Etondè, the president of Synaparcam, a collective of palm farmers, otherwise known as the National Association of Peasant and River Populations of Cameroon, to defend their interests. Synaparcam’s membership has grown in recent years.
When they first complained about the disturbing presence of soldiers in the neighbourhoods, many were turned away by the local chief. But when Etondè - a strong character who is not easily intimidated - took the women’s concerns up, their voices were at last heard.
Etondè is constantly demanding justice, especially for women. Among her principal causes is for the soldiers monitoring Socapalm’s plantations to leave. In the past two years, Etondè, a mother of two, says the company has made some efforts to address locals’ complaints, particularly to resolve the issues of water and air pollution.
The odours that once bothered the residents have diminished.
But other pressing issues remain, including women's access to village plantations.
"We always worked our land with our parents even after Socapalm set up here in Souza [a nearby village]. But since Socapalm was privatised [in 2000], we are not even able to exploit the land just outside the plantations, because the inhabitants used to use paths which go through the Socapalm palm groves to reach these peripheries.”
“Furthermore, since people were stubborn, Socapalm’s employees dug trenches [deep ditches] preventing villagers from getting to the paths to access their plantations. Ever since those trenches were dug, everything has changed. In the past, a villager could travel a kilometre to access his field. Today because of the trenches, he or she has to travel about five kilometres to get to his/her field," she said.
Socapalm's security agents roam the village on motorbikes monitoring people’s activity. If there is the slightest suspicion that they are using the palm oil presses, they call on the law enforcement bodies in the village.
On a sunny day in June, we had a small taste of the pressures villagers face when we approached Socapalm’s factory. After barely fifteen minutes in the marshy and muddy forest near the factory, young agents on motorbikes alerted the police to our presence.
The young men circled our vehicle on their bikes, clearly attempting to intimidate the driver.
The area’s brigade commander appeared immediately and asked us to follow him for what he called "identification". We didn’t object, and after almost an hour of interrogation on our reasons for being there, a gendarme explained the risks we were exposing ourselves to. "These people [Socapalm’s agents] are actually treating you nicely. They could have poured toxic products in your eyes", he claimed.
Behind Socapalm’s factory, we see children digging through a mountain of reddish dark earth: this is the pulp - known as nut cake – which is left after the palm oil is extracted from the fruit. Some use it to feed livestock. Ohers use it as fuel.
In the forest near this mound of oil palm residue, trickles of black water from the plant drain away, causing soil erosion over the years. Meanwhile the odours off from the plant affect local populations and especially students from Mbongo High School.
These dirty waters flow into the surrounding streams and according to administrative authorities, speaking anonymously, Socapalm’s activity is the source of this environmental pollution.
The whole community suffers, with women bearing the brunt.
The women who won’t be silenced
"Before, the leaders of the community and our elders prevented us from raising complaints, saying that it is a man's business. But, we believe that women are at the heart of a family’s blossoming. Women provide solutions and are the ones most affected by difficulties. Women use a lot more water. Women use the land a lot more," says Agathe Killeng, who is the president of the Mbongo village branch of the women of Synaparcam and coordinates a group of about 50 women.
"We believe that women are at the heart of a family’s blossoming. Women provide solutions, and are the ones most affected by difficulties. Women use a lot more water. Women use the land a lot more," says Agathe Killeng, president of the Mbongo village branch of the women of Synaparcam.
Despite having three hectares of palm grove, Killeng fights for access to her land.
She explains that Socapalm's agents asked her to gather a group of women a few months ago to meet and talk. But the different parties did not share the same objectives.
"They wanted to get us to be excited by asking women to get together and organise ourselves to find ways to generate income. We told them we need land for agriculture [which Socapalm had taken]. They left and never came back."
On the issue of returning residents’ land there is opacity and diverging opinions; yet Socapalm has given commitments to – and made clear that they are in the process of – hand back some land to locals.
In both Mbongo and Mbonjo, Socapalm is meant to be acting in the public interest. According to Specifications in Socapalm’s concession contract for the plantations, Socapalm is supposedly conducting a public service mission.
But very few of residents admit to having seen those Specifications.
Faced with all these difficulties, women in the community do not know who to complain to.
"We have never been involved in the discussion with Socapalm, yet we want to participate. They only deal with traditional leaders. And at the slightest questioning by residents, the company says that it has already discussed this with our traditional leaders," says Killeng.
Quarterly meetings are held in Mbongo, attended by Socapalm managers, traditional leaders, representatives from Synaparcam and administrative authorities. However, for some these meetings amount to little more than a diversionary tactic.
"The real issues, such as those related to handing back land and water pollution are not on the agenda," says Michel Linge, Synaparcam Coordinator in Mbongo.
The atmosphere in the villages around Socapalm’s plantations remains tense.
But the women here are not leaving their fate in Socapalm’s hands. Long silent, they are now making their voices heard. Many are planning to set up cooperatives to develop agriculture and livestock once Socapalm has handed them back their land. For now, they are doing their utmost to ensure it happens, while demanding the company stops infringing on their rights.