Douala, 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.