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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Rough Road for Unions in Cameroon

DSCN1852Douala   About 30 years ago in the 1990s there was a “liberalization” in Cameroon. Citizens were given freedom of expression, the total autocracy was diluted, and they gained freedom of association, including the ability to form unions. There is a labor code. The state does actively involve itself in labor-management disputes. In talking to workers who had the experience of organizing unions even in recent years, make no mistake though, this is not an easy road to travel.

We met at length with a leader of the teachers’ union branch that has been involved in trying to win recognition for a union of more than 740 parochial school teachers in the Archdiocese of Douala. Listening to the story of his own career as a teacher, it was no surprise that they had sought a union. He had been a teacher in the Catholic system for 42 years and his top pay was 38,000 francs per month or about $65 USD monthly, less than $1000 per year.

They began organizing in 2012. It took them two years to receive the necessary filings from the state for their organization. A first reaction to their unionization by the diocese was to fire all 65 of their leadership delegates. A strike then lasted six weeks before they were back to work without many concessions, and 14 of their leaders were still not reinstated and continued not to be paid.

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They had enrolled more than half of the teachers in their union and sought to win recognition, move pay to 50,000 francs per month, get some minimal benefits, win seniority pay and some pay recognition for additional degrees, an end to arbitrary transfers, and better conditions in the schools. Meetings with school management were fruitless even though the system reportedly produced more than a billion francs per year in surplus revenue. They struck again for two days on November 11th, 2015. 654 of the 750 odd teachers participated in the strike. They went back to work after two days waiting for a new governmental minister to be appointed and the Bishop to return from Europe. The government sided with their demands for an increase to 50000 francs monthly and more than a dozen of their other conditions. Management promised to comply, but did nothing other than raise pay to 50000 francs monthly. Seeing no action, they struck again in the middle of March. Of their eighteen demands, the Archbishop had claimed he had met them all in a letter to the state, but the union knew only two had been met.

They are now before the labor court trying to win compliance given the state’s support. Meanwhile nothing more has changed. More promises are not kept, and more than a dozen leaders are still off the job. No ending to this struggle is in sight, and no happy ending seems possible at this point.

We heard similar stories from a member of the shipyard workers union. We listened to three student union leaders tell of having been jailed for challenging the imposition of a new fee for a student ID after the costs for schooling had been set by the university. The president has to register with a human rights organization in France whenever he travels and avoids any nighttime travel feeling that they are still under threat from the government for their protests on fees and housing.

Unions do not even exist by and large among informal workers, and they constitute 80% or more of the employment.

No one was giving up, but there was also little optimism in the room.

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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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Bollore-Socfin Steals Liberian Land with Empty Promises and Government Help

dscn1740Douala, Cameroon   The Organizers’ Forum and ACORN International delegations spent an afternoon meeting in the cabaret of our hotel yesterday. We had finally come to the part of our agenda where we were hearing about the campaigns a number of our partners and organizing colleagues of recent days to stop land grabbing, particularly in their struggles with plantations and operations of Bollore, a French rubber and palm oil conglomerate, now owned by Socfin, a Brussels-based company. The Cameroon story featured a number of blockades in the five of the six plantations areas organized with the assistance of our partner, ReAct from Grenoble. We are visiting with leaders in several of these villages, so I will hold that story for later, and instead share what leaders and organizers from Liberia told me, and as importantly the written and executed document they copied for me.

In Liberia, the Bollore subsidiary, named the Liberian Agricultural Company and popularly called LAC, wanted to significantly expand its holdings in 2004. The expansion would involve the displacement and relocation of 419 families. Talking to the organizers, there was unhappiness about all of this, but given the threat of eminent domain that is enshrined in the Liberian constitution, the rubber and subsistence farmers felt that they had little to no choice, but to try and negotiate the best agreement they could.

It’s complicated, but my best understanding is that they were offered various prices, many of which they refused until they were able to get a better deal, as well as a sum of six dollars per rubber tree they were welling on their lands. Half of that sum was to be paid by the company and half was to be paid by the government.

The sweetener in the deal was what we would call a “community benefits” package of agreements that were also include in the financing and purchasing document signed by all parties and finally executed in 2007. This agreement committed to the hiring of an additional more than 700 workers, 500 of them from the local villages when the expansion of the plant was completed. It also committed to building a school for the communities impacted. The company had a school, but to attend you had to be employed or have a connection of some kind to the company. Otherwise your children had no school, but the agreement promised they would build a school so the displaced and others would have education. Playgrounds were promised and a number of other basic amenities, though that seems the wrong word since most were vital necessities.

All of this began in 2004 and now in 2016, this seems more like a treaty made with the Indians by the US in the 1800s. Virtually none of the promises were kept. The farmers had to go to court to get some of the financial payments, and have still only succeeded in getting the company’s half, not the government’s share. Absolutely none of the benefits promised in the agreement have been provided. The company doesn’t deny the agreement. They have met with LACDISFAC, the farmers’ organization numerous times after innumerable delays, but still have not implemented the agreement.

Reading the agreement was the kick in the gut for me. The financing and guarantees were underwritten for the company by the French Development Bank (AFD) to the tune of $22 million USD. They made the loan and warranted the agreement after it was executed by the company, the government officials, and the farmers themselves. They have done nothing to assure that the terms of the agreement were met.

I’m betting once I have better internet that I will find that the French Development Bank has continued to have a hand in financing other land grabbing deals by Bolliere-Socfin and land predators just like them in Africa without ever assuring that the interests of the parties were respected or that the priorities and objectives of the French people were honored either.

What impunity! The French Development Bank is the equivalent in Liberia to the look-out and bag man on a plain and simple grand larceny robbery.

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The Organization of Marche De Sanaga

DSCN1704Douala, Cameroon   Because ACORN organizes tens of thousands of hawkers and street vendors in India, I’ve spent a lot of time in a wide variety of markets over the last decade from ones that have been operating for literally four hundred years to some that were thrown together overnight as they moved away from police harassment. Nonetheless the visit to the Marche de Sanaga or Sanaga Market, the largest fruit and vegetable market, we were told, in all of central Africa, was a fascinating experience, as we toured for several hours with the President of the workers’ association that ran the market.

Sanaga is the name of the river nearby and giant gantry cranes tower within a short distance, and in fact some of the goods are broken down from trucks here and put in containers for shipping to other African countries from here. The Sanaga Market is a bulk or wholesale market. Visiting in the rainy season, we can testify that it was a working market as we stepped lively between the puddles to avoid trucks, vans, and scooters hauling out produce. Amazingly these 30 to 35 kilo baskets were being head carried by laborers drenched in sweat and dirt continually from the trucks out to the moto drivers. In India these laborers are called Mathadi workers, and in the huge public markets in places like Mumbai, their union is storied and strong. In Douala, the work seemed more informal.

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The moto drivers tied what seemed to be more than 500 pounds of these baskets on their small 125 cc motorcycles. We watched one so loaded that he needed to be pushed by the laborer off of his kickstand in order to move the bike forward – the load was so heavy.

The President explained that there were 4500 vendors in the market, not counting the thousands of drivers and laborers. The market was organized into twelve sectors and he had two stewards, for lack of a better word, who managed each sector. Each sector handled three main items whether okra, tomatoes, carrots, or whatever. The stewards collected the dues or rent from the vendors on a weekly basis. The dues was 500 francs or a little less than $1 USD per week. Surprisingly, the market had only been in operation for about twenty years, but it was a huge and bustling operation with little sign of government interference. We saw one policeman in the market who came to the President to make change. There were several traffic policemen up the stairs on the main boulevard surfing the chaos of loading moto drivers, carriers, and regular drivers. The President had been a former student leader. He was also a vendor and had a small office where other vendors could come and do their paperwork out of the weather for a bit.

He told us the vendors were in trouble this week. Prices had dropped for a basket of tomatoes for example from 6000 francs to 3500 francs in just a week. The crops had been too good in the agricultural districts. Some vendors wouldn’t make it.

When asked plans for the future, he said the vendors and the association wanted the government to build a permanent infrastructure for the market with fixed and covered shelters and vending areas. We asked how they would achieve this.

He explained that first they would send a letter to the minister, then they would wait some time for an answer. Then they would send a second letter to the minister, then they would wait some time for an answer. Then they would send a third letter to the minister, then they would wait some time for an answer.

If there was still no answer. They would take action.

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The Evicted Fight On

Group picture at end of the meeting

Group picture at end of the meeting

Douala, Cameroon   The highlight of the first day of Organizers’ Forum and ACORN International meetings in Doula was a visit to the Bependa neighborhood where we met with an organization of the evicted. Their story was wrenching.

In 1986, thirty years ago, 908 families were evicted along the roadway near where we were meeting. The state owned utility wanted to expand their right away along the roadway for more power line construction. They exercised eminent domain. They signed an agreement on an assessment of 1.7 billion Cameroonian francs. They were then evicted. Thirty years have passed, and they have not received a single franc for either their property or the promised relocation payments.

meeting with the evicted

meeting with the evicted

What was the law then?

We were told the law at the time allowed eminent domain of course but required that the payments be made before the evictions were implemented.

The government was difficult to challenge at that time. It was not until 1996, ten years later as we had heard in the morning from a policy researcher based in the capital, Yaoundé, that the government under pressure from France along with the World Bank and IMF, reportedly required some concessions be made in the freedom of association and the freedom of expression in this far from democratic country.

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In 2014, the leadership of the evicted organization told our delegation they began to reorganize an association once again. They had a list of the 908, but had only been able to successfully contact and enlist 158 or so in the organization now. Many had died. Many were whereabouts unknown. Some relatives had risen to be lawyers and even judges, but surprised them by rebuffing their efforts for their families. Before they had been thwarted when they were unable to get the government to legally register their association, thereby allowing the government to refuse to hear their pleas for restitution. This time they were allowed to charter. They had been to Yaoundé several times to demonstrate and meet with various ministers of the government about their situation. They had collected promises, but little else despite their protests.

address of the meeting

address of the meeting

They were now being asked to provide their own assessment – independent of the relocation costs – of the value of their homes and land after thirty years. Not surprisingly they lacked the resources to pay for such an evaluation. Anecdotally, they knew of some lands in the area that has increased twelve times in value over that period, which could push their assessment towards 20 billion Cameroonian francs, if they were able to make it happen.

We asked if there situation was unique?

They told us there were twelve other evicted groups. In fact, we are meeting with a forum that five have come together to form in order to push for the compensation they are owed.

They wanted some story of hope. We discussed the Wilbur Mills Freeway fight ACORN had led more than 40 years ago, and continued to fight even now.

Keep in mind that 1.7 billion Cameroonian francs would equal $2,891,485. Not a huge sum even then and less than $3000 per family approximately. Now it might be more than $30 million to settle, but a debt is a debt and to your citizens, it should be an obligation.

We asked if they had any legal recourse. We could not get a clear answer. There seemed to be no agreement on the rule of law.

uninvited guest at the meeting

uninvited guest at the meeting

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