This story was produced with support from the Rainforest Journalism Fund in partnership with the Pulitzer Center
DIBOMBARI, Cameroon — “We are going through hell,” the haunting words of Marie Noel resonate with a mix of despair and fortitude. Marie, an activist in her 50s hailing from the village of Souza near Dibombari Socapalm Plantation, paints a somber portrait of her community’s plight. Amidst the cruel grip of hardship, they’ve been driven to the brink, forced to scavenge “Socapalm fruits and nuts” in a desperate bid to quell their gnawing hunger.
In 2006, Société Camerounaise de Palmeraies (Socapalm), a subsidiary of plantation giant, Socfin, embarked on an ambitious endeavor – the cultivation of palm plantations within Dibombari’s lush rainforest expanse in Cameroon. Yet, beneath the veneer of progress lies a tapestry of troubling accusations. Allegations of forcible land displacement, pollution of vital water sources, the decimation of delicate ecosystems, and the sacrilegious intrusion into ancestral lands cast a dark shadow over the company’s operations.
A three-month investigation conducted by Gideon Sarpong and Robert Abunaw puts the spotlight on these unsettling truths. At the core of this narrative looms a protracted legal clash waged in French courts – Sherpa et al. vs Socfin. This ten-year legal drama, ostensibly conceived to quell the quagmire of land conflicts, ecological turmoil, and the cries of the aggrieved, paradoxically seems to amplify the existing travails of these marginalized communities. Thousands, bereft of their means of livelihood, have been forced into the murky realm of petty criminality within the very bowels of Socapalm’s sprawling plantations – a bitter struggle for survival in the face of adversity.
Marie Noel placed the blame squarely on the government of Cameroon and Socfin, accusing the state of leasing all their precious farmlands to the multinational plantation company, and its local subsidiaries.
In her words, this decision has left the neighboring villagers with “nothing, as all their lands have been locked up in a 60-year lease to Socapalm.”
Despite all the controversies, the Socapalm plantation site situated in Dibombari secured a Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certification in 2022. This certification is widely considered a mark of sustainable and environmentally conscious production, indicating that the site adheres to the lowest possible environmental impact standards.
However, a review of a July 2023 EarthWorm Foundation (EF) report, commissioned by none other than Socfin, casts a long shadow over the company concerning its Dibombari operations. The report confirmed accusations of severe improprieties, including the denial of livelihoods and land displacements, sexual harassment of local communities, water pollution resulting in a lack of access to clean drinking water, and the encroachment of sacred sites by the company’s sprawling plantations.
These findings, which are consistent with our own reporting, raise significant concerns about the RSPO certification granted to Socapalm’s Dibombari site. With documented instances of several cases of abuse, many are left wondering how the company managed to obtain its RSPO certification despite seemingly falling short of meeting crucial international regulations.
Mr. Emmanuel Elong, the president of SYNAPARCAM, a Cameroonian association defending the indigenous rights of local communities, expressed deep bewilderment over the continued granting of RSPO certifications to Socapalm.
“In the face of overwhelming evidence of misconduct and questionable practices, there are mounting questions about the legitimacy and effectiveness of the RSPO certification process,” he argued.
In response to this investigation, RSPO contented that “Socapalm Dibombari’s operating unit underwent an audit by the independent third-party certification body, BSI Services Malaysia Sdn. Bhd, who granted certification.”
RSPO further explained that it has “reviewed the EF report against the audit conducted by BSI and will advise BSI to review and verify the findings of the EF investigation. At their discretion, BSI will further investigate/verify those reports/issues/allegations via an additional audit or during its annual surveillance audit.”
The implications of these findings shed light on the ongoing challenges faced by the affected communities, raising urgent questions about the responsibility of both corporate entities and the government to protect the rights and well-being of their citizens.
Laura Bourgeois, Advocacy and Litigation officer for Sherpa, an international NGO dedicated to advocacy and litigation, notes: “The recurring problems we hear from community leaders on the frontline is that community members, stakeholders, are not included in the process and that the certification initiatives make the problems even worse.”
A Decade of Legal Strife and Its Unfolding Impact
Socfin in August 2023 released an action plan to address the findings of Earthworm’s report.
However, considering the company’s track record in Cameroon, skepticism arises among many regarding their commitment to follow through on these claims.
A representative for Socapalm declined to comment on this investigation, pointing to information available on Socfin’s official website.
In 2013, Sherpa initiated mediation with Bolloré, the majority owner of Socfin, to find resolutions to the persistent issues plaguing the plantations and their surroundings. This dialogue culminated in an action plan, where Bolloré pledged to leverage their influence to tackle these problems.
Yet, despite the agreed-upon plan, Bolloré failed to fulfill its commitments, prompting Sherpa and other organizations to initiate legal proceedings against the French multinational. A decade-long courtroom saga ensued, adding a further layer of complexity to the challenges endured by communities ensnared in Socapalm’s operational embrace.
“The non-implementation of the action plan agreed upon in 2013 confirms it is an absolute necessity, when possible, to have mandatory legislation in the field of business and human rights,” asserts Laura Bourgeois. She adds: “Otherwise, soft mechanisms mean that communities remain dependent upon the goodwill of companies. When mandatory legislation does not seem like an option, it seems appropriate to consider legal avenues to harden soft law.”
This legal battle in the French courts to compel the execution of the action plan, and to ensure the delivery of promised remedies, has aggravated the already dire challenges faced by some communities within the operational sphere of Socapalm.
In Kilombo, a village that is situated at the heart of Socapalm Kienke plantation in Cameroon, Yengue Jean’s frustration with the company is palpable. She characterized the company as “irresponsible” and went on to reveal that a borehole, ostensibly installed to benefit the village, was “primarily utilized to irrigate the adjacent Socapalm nursery.”
Jean lamented, “The residents are now compelled to depend on a nearby stream tainted with pollutants,” while sorrowfully noting, “Our once thriving forests have vanished, leaving us without the vital resources to sustain our traditional hunting practices.”
Deforestation and the new European Union (EU) Law
Startling findings from Global Witness showcase the unsettling consequence of industrial palm and rubber plantations across the expanse of West and Central Africa, witnessing the loss of nearly 52,000 hectares of ecologically rainforest since the turn of the century—equivalent to an expanse 16 times the size of Brussels.
A 2021 study led by Cameroonian researcher Professor Tchindjang Mesmin also revealed that palm oil cultivation in the dense forest regions of Cameroon has emerged as the principal catalyst behind deforestation since the year 1990.
In a sharp critique, Mr. Elong blamed the government of Cameroon for its perceived failure to tackle crucial issues, alleging that the administration displays “worrisome indications of corruption,”, especially in the enforcement of retrocession agreements between Socfin and the State.
Cameroon’s Minister of Environment and Protection of Nature, Pierre Hélé did not respond to our requests for comment.
In June 2023, the EU introduced regulations on deforested products to address the challenge of rubber and oil plantation-driven deforestation,
The EU remains the biggest export destination for palm oil and rubber cultivation from West Africa. Data from the Observatory of Economic Complexity shows that the EU imported over $500 million worth of natural rubber from West Africa in 2020 making natural rubber the EU’s most significant import from West Africa in terms of rainforest destruction.
The effect has been the loss of critical rainforests, with a damning impact on local communities, biodiversity, and the environment.
Dr. Addo Koranteng, Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Research Innovation and Development in Ghana lauded the EU’s legislative action against deforestation.
Nonetheless, his commendation is accompanied by a stark warning: “The expansion of rubber plantations must be halted as these rubber-producing trees compete with other forest trees for the already depleted forest land.”
Dr. Koranteng’s concerns are underscored by an inconvenient truth: “As world market prices surge and global demand exacerbate, the extent of deforestation from these commodities will keep on increasing,” he explained.
Recent research compounds the urgency of the situation. Estimates project a need for an astounding 4.3 to 8.5 million hectares of new plantations to meet the mounting demand for natural rubber by the year 2024. Experts are ringing alarm bells, cautioning that this trajectory, if left unchecked, will unleash a cataclysmic toll on precious forests around the world.
So far, our investigation has revealed a notable absence: Neither Socfin nor its Cameroon-based subsidiaries currently have made any commitment to the High Carbon Stock Approach (HCSA), the de-facto standard for zero deforestation in the sector.
Greenpeace has sounded a dire warning, asserting that Socfin’s steadfast refusal to adopt a zero-deforestation policy poses an ominous and substantial threat to the forests of Cameroon, within which the company operates.
Socfin did not respond to email inquiries seeking comment.
A decade-long saga of legal battles in French courts has so far yielded little solace for the numerous villagers residing in proximity to Socapalm plantations.
For these villagers whose ancestral lands have been lost to the expansive reach of Socapalm’s plantations, the passage of time has failed to bring about the restitution they so desperately seek.
“The plight we face is beyond words – a dire and miserable reality,” said villagers from Bikondo and Lendi.
There is however a glimmer of hope as legal practitioner, Agboranyor Jeniffer, with a wealth of expertise in Cameroon’s Common Law and Administrative Court, believes there might be a viable solution on the horizon.
Peering into the intricacies of Prime Ministerial Decree No. 2022/5074PM, she points out a potential avenue: the possibility of initiating legal action against the Government of Cameroon. She cites Section 2(3) of Law No. 2006/022, enacted on December 29, 2006, which lays down the framework for the organization and operation of administrative courts in Cameroon.
“Under this legal framework, the court’s jurisdiction extends to pivotal matters including, but not limited to; claims for compensation due to losses caused by administrative actions and disputes centered around state-owned land,” she explained.
Jeniffer’s analysis offers a flicker of optimism for those who have long grappled with the repercussions of Socapalm’s operations.
As the legal landscape continues to evolve, these insights may hold the potential to redress grievances, foster justice, and pave the way for meaningful change in the lives of the affected communities.
Reporting by Gideon Sarpong and Robert Abunaw. Writing and editing by Gideon Sarpong.