The Tentacles of Bollore-Socfin Stretch Far and Wide

DSCN1867Douala   We listened carefully to two more reports from our delegation at the Organizers’ Forum about the land grabbing of Bollore-Socfin, the Paris and Brussels-based conglomerate. One was from two organizers from the Ivory Coast and the other was from an organizer in Cambodia who was on his way to our meetings, but turned back arbitrarily at the airport. The company’s strategy and colonialism became crystal clear.

In the Ivory Coast, Bollore in fact blinked in the negotiations over its expropriation of land, but then it spit. They had promised to rebuild the villages and provide other development aid when they expanded to 38000 hectares, but they had not done so after decades. They finally settled and came to an agreement with the villages where on a per hectare basis they agreed to pay 75 million francs per year to the more than 30 villages impacted adversely. Fine so far, but then, outside of the terms of the agreement, they created a middle-man, an association ostensibly with representation from each of the villages, which would receive the annual payments and approve them for the villages once a development program was submitted. The association’s leaders were pretty much hand-picked though and fairly quickly there were charges of corruption where a school that would normally cost one-million francs to build was being set at thirty-million francs and awarded to a company run by relatives of the leadership. Elections were cancelled when opposition arose. Many members and villages complained. An alternative association was organized. Bollore claimed it would not deal with the second association because it wasn’t registered, but then neither was the original association until recently. Bollore, once it agreed to the settlement, seems to have shrewdly created a divide-and-conquer strategy to keep the villages jammed up.

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In Cambodia, Bollore has stalled but has finally agreed to tripartite negotiations after actions with the company, locals, and the state all at the table. There they agreed to even allow certain NGOs to monitor the negotiations, and after a lot of back-and-forth the UN Human Rights Commission was allowed a representative. The company has already agreed to not disturb sacred forests and cultural sites in its rubber plantations. Issues on the table include compensation. Are these negotiations for real? Our organizer wasn’t sure, but we’re going down that road.

Striking to me is the very determined way that Bollore has adopted a different strategy in each country, I now suspect it is based on what it believes its clout is place to place. In Liberia, the company simply shrugs off its agreement and promises. In Cameroon it does much the same, except that every time there is an action, it agrees to negotiate, but is dilatory in doing so, and bargains in exceptional bad faith on a strategy of containing the conflict in the villages far from the cities. In Ivory Coast, it is divide-and-conquer with a middle-man fabrication that allows them to claim innocence. In Cambodia, they seem to be negotiating in earnest. Clearly this is all a strategy cleared and implemented from Europe, but how outrageous.

During the last discussion I had internet for a fleeting minute. Hitting Bollore and Cameroon on the search, an article popped up that Chairmen Bollore had visited the President again for the first time in four years in May. The article asked if Bollore had replaced France as the colonial power in Cameroon? For good reason, it seemed. Bollore was reviewing its primary investments in Cameroon, and the plantations didn’t even make the top of the list. They own the largest trucking company in country. They have a concession to manage the Douala port. They just “won” a contract under controversial and suspicious terms to build and manage the first deep-water port in central-west Africa. They are building a train between Douala and the capital, Yaounde, to shorten travel time to three hours in another major concession. The list goes on.

Bollore seems to think all of these countries in central Africa are colonies there for its private exploitation and its own financial bottom line. Promises and agreements with the local people are just pieces of paper to them, a means to their ends, and nothing that they take very seriously or seem to be very worried that the governments will bother them about, since they, and not the government, are the big dogs barking here.

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Visiting the Villages in between the Socfin-Bollore Plantations

DSCN1814Douala    Visiting the members of our affiliates in the villages along the plantations where they lived in Koungue and Mbambou was always going to be a highlight of this Organizers’ Forum and ACORN International dialogue in Cameroon, but I had not realized as fully until we left the paved road and entered the water-filled potholes of the endless orange-clay dirt track how much our delegation was going to get a sense of being in the very footsteps of the daily experience of our organizers working with the chapters, village to village, trying to win justice from Scofin-Bollore and its palm oil plantation land grabbing.

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After we squeezed 16 people into the allegedly 19-person van about 45 minutes late from Douala, we were on our way, but of course that basically meant we puttered into the morning traffic jam of the city for more than an hour. As uncomfortable and close-quartered as the van was, it might still have been a step up from the normal way the organizers when to the field. Their trips involved a moto ride on the rear end of a motorcycle from the city to the river off-road, then a boat across the river before picking up a second moto ride to the villages. It was quicker that way than the way we were going, but it had a separate set of risks and challenges obviously.

We are in the rainy season. Everyone it seemed had heard the huge crack of thunder in the middle of the night and then the monsoon-level downpour for more than an hour. It rained intermittently throughout our day along the palm oil plantations and villages in-between, making the road slow going as we bounced along.

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Our first meetings in Koungue found a crowd waiting for us in the front room of our leader’s house there, even though we were an hour late. We waited for the chief to begin. Working with the local village chiefs, some of whom are elected, while others are hereditary, and some are in dispute, is one of the challenges, since the company tries to force the organization and any individual dispute through the local chief, some of whom they have played strong roles in electing. In the meeting we heard what is becoming the usual litany of complaints. More broken promises. More bad faith meetings and constant delays.

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Members and leaders were caught in a tactical bind. Socfin-Bollore only responded to direct action, but each action involved risks, and even when producing more negotiations, simply led to more broken promises. The original negotiations had come after hundreds of members blockaded the roads not allowing the company trucks to pass. Police had threatened leaders since then with arrest and endless jail sentences. This company was committed to exploitation, and seemed to believe as long as it could keep the disputes out in the countryside where it was just their iron fists against the villagers’ solidarity, they could continue to operate with impunity, including polluting the streams and rivers, promising to deliver potable water and fix water pumps, and not following through on these promises either.

Our day was destined to be one of stops-and-starts, anxious meetings filled with frustration, anger, and hope coupled with long drives between villages and visits. Lunch with one of the members became dinner, and as we left in a drizzling rain once again, it seemed our long day was ending, and our jobs had been done for another day.

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But, welcome to organizing and Africa, the trailing car suddenly lost power along the starlit road. Attempts at repair were futile. A moto driver found a rope up the road and after it broke several times, the van was able to pull it the 5 miles or so to the highway over the rough terrain. We couldn’t abandon the car, because all of the locals were convinced the driver would be robbed, beaten, and possibly killed, and the car stripped. After more disputes over pay, somehow miraculously on the highway, squeezed between passing 18-wheelers, the van was able to get the car to a service station he trusted another 5 miles down the road. The battery had now lost its charge in the car, so a makeshift set of cables was fashioned on the parking lot to enable the windows to be closed, and a bunch of our guys pushed the car to a hiding place.

After a day that began at 7am, we pulled into the hotel finally at 10:45 pm, after another amazing day of exhilaration, anger, hope, waiting, and traveling to meet our members near and far.

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Wells Fargo, Criminal Enterprise

ct-wells-fargo-settlement-questions-oversight-20160910New Orleans   I’ve never been a fan of Wells Fargo. We fought them endlessly over predatory lending practices in mortgages and subprime products. They don’t listen, they obfuscate, stonewall, and hide behind layers of lawyers in stubborn refusal even when faced with evidence of clear misdeeds. We were able to fight Citicorp, Bank of America, HSBC, and a ton of subprimes, even Countrywide, and succeed in reforming practices and achieving decent settlements, but Wells Fargo, even when they settled did so narrowly and without conviction. I was clear for ACORN and our members, you just can’t trust a bank like that with your money.

It is some relief that now everyone in the United States is getting a crash course in learning that Wells Fargo is not the community banker it has claimed to be, but a criminal enterprise.

Let’s review the facts, now being widely reported. For five years employees of Wells Fargo opened up to 2 million bank and credit card accounts willy-nilly without any permission from anyone. Often the accounts were closed fairly quickly which is why the penalties now being paid by the bank are less than $200 million. It was a penny ante, amateur scam with employees making up email addresses and sometimes virtually opening up the accounts from Wells Fargo internet domains. The bank has now fired 5300 employees who were involved in this fraud. As the New York Times’ columnist, Andrew Sorkin, points out, “that’s not a few bad apples.”

Wells Fargo has taken out ads apologizing and taking responsibility, but they clearly, as usual, have their fingers crossed behind their backs. A couple of months ago before all of this criminality became public, they allowed Carrie Tolstedt, a 27-year veteran and their head of “community banking,” to retire and walk away with over a $120 million going away present. Various banking analysts are calling for a “clawback” since Wells has rules allowing them to recover monies from executives where there were ill-gotten gains. The Wall Street Journal was so grossed out by all of this that they reported the calls for clawbacks and showed a picture of Ms. Tolstedt, but couldn’t bring themselves to mention the $120 million she took away with her office plants for fear that all of us Visigoths would be clamoring at the gates.

What will they learn? Likely nothing.

But, it’s easy to explain how this happens, and it is the same way that it happened when mortgage brokers were writing fictitious so-called, “lair’s loans,” where many observers of the 2008 financial meltdown are still confused and some think it was the borrower fibbing, rather than the underwriter. In the current Wells Fargo case on cards and accounts, as well as their own and many other situations previously on loans, it is crystal clear that once you link pay to simple production, you can guarantee there will be fraud. The only question will be how long it takes you to be caught, and how much money the bank makes in the interim.

For managers there, just like Carrie Tolstedt, there is a disincentive to impose the kind of controls that would weed out these problems. Top dogs get paid on the numbers, just like the runts of the litter. In bank after bank, once you get them across the table for all of their talk about protection using sophisticated algorithms, risk management, and blah, blah, blah, they simply are culturally and systemically unable to tightly manage on performance and standards, once production is all, and pay is linked to such incentives.

They are all smart enough to know this, but it’s the nature of capitalism in some ways to ignore it. You can only conclude that they didn’t care or thought that they wouldn’t be caught. None of which recommends a bank like Wells Fargo as a place to trust your money, since they are clearly committed to themselves first and their customers last, as little more than numbers being crunched in their back rooms somewhere.

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Please enjoy Phish’s Breath and Burning. Thank you KABF.

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Tradeoffs Between Time and Money

timeormoneyNew Orleans   Two professors reported on the results of a study they made about the choices people made between time and money. They reported that people were happier and more satisfied with their lives when they chose to value time over money. They led into the piece by mentioning that one of the economists – a man – faced the choice analytically over spending time over a weekend with a new baby. He was offered a reasonably lucrative opportunity to conduct two days’ worth of workshops across the country which would have helped pay for the cost of daycare and other associated expenses of a new child, or he could have chosen to spent the time at home with the child. We were sort of left hanging on this one, but given their survey result and his argument, he clearly chose time over money.

All of this seems fine and dandy, but it also stops way short of being about reality. To have any real meaning such a study would have to try to determine what the financial benchmark would be that would realistically allow an individual the luxury to choose. Furthermore, there are two edges to this sword when you grab it, but we’ll get to that.

At the simplest level you have to have money in order to choose time. The professor was making a choice on allocation of his resources, but he started with sufficient resources to allow him to have a choice or at least believe that he had a choice and to believe that the consequences of either decision would not have been fatal or painful or face public scorn. And, in fact his time itself had value, as evidenced by the fact others were willing to pay him to expend it. An interesting question for him, as an economist, might have been what level of payment for these two workshops would have established a tipping point where he chose the work and the money, being able to rationalize that it would allow him to essentially purchase more time in the future.

For marginal workers and lower income families all over the world who lack baseline resources, there simply is no choice. If someone shows them the money, they have to go for it. And, in fact there’s another public risk for lower income individuals and families, especially those that get any kind of public support or resources. This is the other edge of the sword. This is the “welfare Cadillac” problem. A significant part of society wants all lower income individuals and families to never have a choice, but to always choose money, meaning work, because they believe against all evidence that work is always available, that nothing is too menial, and that anyone essentially choosing time is stealing their money and should have no choice. When it has to do with women on welfare with children, the same folks might want their wives to stay at home with their children for the sake of the children as their view of a social good, but want to deny such a choice to anyone receiving public aid.

Admittedly all of this was on my mind recently as I spent more than 30 hours in order to travel in one day from Berlin to Amsterdam to Washington, DC to Toronto and then wend my way through rental car hell and pouring rain to my final destination all as the result of a series of decisions solely based on being forced to choose money and assign zero value to time. The pre-dawn train and flight from Berlin to Amsterdam, is what had allowed visits with many activists, organizers, unions, and parities in Hamburg and Berlin in the first place. The cost of the roundtrip to Amsterdam was at the lowest possible cost to allow a peoples’ party to marshal its resources and the last and cheapest flight to Toronto and the cheapo 24-hour EZ-Rental Car operation was about saving every looney and toony for ACORN Canada.

Are people really happier with time rather than money? Sure, if that have enough money to start with and the right to make a choice in their best view of their interests. How many people are excluded from the right to make such a choice? Without that information, it would seem the conclusions are both irrelevant and trivial.

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Renters’ Rising

banner_fb-page001Buckhorn, Ontario   It is starting to feel like we’re getting real traction in what has become a global fight for tenants’ rights. Not only has ACORN built an effective organization for tenants to resist the arbitrary, capricious, and sometimes dangerous and unhealthy practices of landlords in an often uncertain legal environment, but as importantly we are developing real programs for real protections from government and policy makers. As I was crossing the Atlantic to attend an ACORN head organizers and staff training session in Ontario, there was evidence of this kind of progress for tenants on both sides of the ocean.

In Bristol, in a conference attended by hundreds, ACORN organized a wide-ranging discussion on steps that needed to be taken to shore up and advance tenants’ rights not only in Bristol but throughout England. Launching a new campaign, Renters’ Rising, with actions and events throughout England, ACORN is calling for a country-wide Renters’ Union. Similar steps are being taken by ACORN Scotland on the wake of their parliamentary victories on security of tenure and rent control.

The crisis in affordable housing in the United Kingdom touches through virtually every city. London is now world famous for the breadth of the issue, but ACORN chapters in Newcastle, Reading, Birmingham, and of course Bristol and London have organized meeting after meeting where members are demanding solutions and are determined to take action. The collapse of social housing and the dramatic increase of private landlord tenancy has created an environment where protective rules and policies for tenants has not caught up, giving too many landlords the upper hand which they are exploiting. ACORN Bristol’s promotion of an ethical letting charter and its support by the Bristol Council as well as several letting agencies themselves has given momentum to these campaigns.

On the other side of the water the progress in Toronto in winning a landlord licensing regime with real teeth in enforcement after a campaign with ups and downs over more than a decade is finally at the finish line. ACORN has already won initial support by the full council but the devil is in the details and is now rounding up council support in anticipation of the staff report and final votes on implementation. Organizers reported real progress pretty much across the board with strong support from various council allies who are essentially telling us, “We got this!” Nonetheless, members are involved at every step along the way and will be present in large numbers at every opportunity. ACORN Canada President Marva Burnett was realistic in a recent interview on what the approval of landlord licensing would mean. She noted both her disappointment at the Toronto Council’s rejection of the proposal in 2008, as well as her expectations and hope for the final vote on the plan this fall.

Burnett’s points are inescapable. None of this is easy and, given the power of landlords, these fights are won through persistence. But the factor on ACORN’s side on both sides of the Atlantic seems to be that politicians cannot ignore reality forever. The rental market is out of control and that demands effective regulation. The other point that is equally inescapable whether Canada or the United Kingdom is that tenants can neither fight nor win without effective, mass organization and that’s what they have built in Toronto and elsewhere in Canada and that ACORN is now building with is Renters’ Union in England.

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New York Times Columnist Beats ACORN Dead Horse

c99e3db826c0f4cc2688a36ce3b60e1a_XLNew Orleans   A New York Times columnist, Timothy Egan, opined in his op-ed piece on what he called the dumbing down of democracy. It was largely a semi-rant covering a wide range of topics that you would expect from what the alt-right, or whatever it’s called, would say is still the elite, effete, northeastern corridor so prized by Nixon’s Vice-President for a time, Spiro Agnew.

His unhappiness was general. People don’t read. Trump has stepped up as a non-reader leader. What they do read, they don’t understand. An alternate reality of one’s own choosing from conspiracies, the internet, friends on Facebook has substituted for real information, real books, real maps, real news, and even real temperatures. Egan points out for example that even during the hottest year ever last year found 45% of the Republican masses telling the Gallup pollsters that they “don’t believe the temperature.”

Egan’s leading point on the polarity of politics and the disease of denial for the Republican base though came from Texas, where he wrote:

“A recent survey of Donald Trump supporters there found that 40 percent of them believe that Acorn will steal the upcoming election.”

Egan could have pointed out that that figure shows progress, which it does, since following the 2008 Obama victory polling of Republicans in various areas has found the number annually who believe that ACORN stole the first and then the second election has gone from a huge majority to the lower 40 percent range. To only have 40% in Texas believing that ACORN is ramping up for ballot box theft in 2016 seems somehow encouraging to me.

But, no, Egan’s then has to beat the ACORN horse with a vengeance, saying,

“Acorn? News flash: That community organizing group has been out of existence for six years. Acorn is gone, disbanded, dead. It can no more steal an election than Donald Trump can pole vault over his Mexican wall.”

Ok, Ok, I get the point, and true enough ACORN didn’t steal any elections in the past any more than we will in the future. I’ve said the same ad infinitum, ad nauseum, but still “gone, disbanded, dead,” geez, and in the same paragraph with Donald Trump? Let’s show some respect!

And, speaking of illiterate, how can Egan and the Times-sters write “Acorn” that way with lowercase letters, when the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now was as much an abbreviation as an acronym? The New Yorker and just about everyone else knows better, but I don’t want to get off the point.

ACORN is alive and well all around the world and through ACORN International even continuing to be active in the United States with affiliates in anti-lead fights in Louisiana, internet access campaigns in Pennsylvania, Texas, and Arkansas with Comcast, housing rights in Pittsburgh and Arizona, the rights of mental health consumers in Alaska, and the beat goes on. Furthermore, many of the ACORN affiliates that reorganized several years ago have been continued the strong tradition in California, Texas, New York, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Arkansas, and elsewhere. The conservative blogosphere and the Breitbart folks and their friends continue to keep ACORN’s name in front of their viewers rightly aware that the movement of low and moderate income families for their own organization and the power they need to win justice and equity is not easily stopped and could rise and erupt at any moment.

So, yes, election theft is a ridiculous fantasy for the Republicans in Texas and elsewhere to hold on to, but sometimes your enemies know you better than your friends, and they just might be onto something by keeping an eye on ACORN itself and its progeny, because the work goes on, the spirit is indomitable, and as ACORN members have always chanted, The People United Can Never Be Defeated.

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