World Rainforest Movement

French economic group Bolloré attempts to intimidate journalists who expose abusive practices on its plantations in Cameroon

Targeting the media

This past May 6, journalist Benoît Collombat and two Radio France Inter directors were convicted of defamation in a lawsuit filed by Vincent Bolloré, CEO of the French industrial group Bolloré. The report that led to the charges featured Cameroonian civil society activists who spoke out about the company’s labour practices in the railway, port and plantation sectors, all of which have been privatized and turned over to Bolloré group subsidiaries. None of the group’s representatives had been willing to respond to the accusations of exploitation of workers, collusion with the Cameroonian regime, deforestation and pollution in time for their statements to be included in the radio report. The court ordered the defendants to pay a fine of 1,000 plus one euros to Bolloré in damages. It specified, however, that its decision was based on the statements made in the report regarding railway and port operations – but not the company’s management of its plantations.

This coming July 2, it was supposed to be freelance photographer Isabelle Alexandra Ricq’s turn to stand trial for defamation. Vincent Bolloré had filed suit against Ricq and two France Inter directors after a France Inter interview in which she talked about the problems she had witnessed on SOCAPALM oil palm plantations and the surrounding area while working on a photo report (published in Le Monde Diplomatique and Alternatives internationaleshttp://www.isabellericq.fr/socapalm.html). Invited by France Inter to speak about her experiences, she described the dismal living conditions of the Bagyeli pygmy ethnic group, the problems of deforestation and lack of access to land, and the deplorable conditions faced by plantation workers who, according to Ricq, “call themselves SOCAPALM’s slaves.” However, two weeks before the trial was to take place, Bolloré decided to withdraw the charges. Most likely, he knew he had little chance of winning, and would also be exposing himself to the serious threat of having his activities in Cameroon brought into the public spotlight.

Strategy of intimidation

Could there be anything more carefully hidden than the production and commercial operations, networks of influence and repressive actions of large business groups? As long as criticism was limited to “fringe” publications, Bolloré saw no need to react. But when public radio broadcaster France Inter aired certain discordant opinions, Bolloré decided that it had had enough and it was time to “attack” back, in order to “set an example,” because “you can’t play around with the group,” as Bolloré second-in-command Dominique Lafont declared at Collombat’s trial. The fact is, Bolloré has become very conscious of its image. “In Africa, Bolloré is a civic enterprise. […] Our strategy is aimed at lifting the continent out of its isolation” through “sustainable development,” stated Lafont. As for the critical opinions, he labelled them as “miserablist” and “otherworldly” – a reference to the anti-globalization protest movement whose slogan is “Another world is possible.”

It should be noted that, in France, Bolloré has other means at its disposal to influence public opinion in its favour. It is the main shareholder in the advertising giant Havas, the world’s sixth largest global communications group and leading advertiser in numerous publications. Bolloré also owns the television network Direct 8 and two free newspapers, Direct Soir and Direct Matin. Obviously, the readers of these newspapers will learn absolutely nothing about the criticisms aimed at Vincent Bolloré’s business dealings in Africa, his collusion with local regimes, the quashing of any protests raised on his plantations, or the environmental destruction linked with the Chad-Cameroon oil pipeline… Instead, as far as the general public is concerned, the activity of this industrial group (one of the most diversified on the global market) is to be summed up behind its most presentable face, that of the manufacturer of the Bluecar, an electric car to be launched in 2011 – and the group’s main tool to achieve the eco-friendly “repositioning” of its image.

Who is Bolloré?

The Bolloré group is currently one of the world’s top 500 companies, with an annual turnover of more than seven billion euros. Its global expansion has been largely concentrated in Africa, where it now operates in 42 countries. Vincent Bolloré – the 18th wealthiest man in France in 2009 – has built an empire much more extensive than the former French colonies. He has gained control over not only plantations and public services throughout Africa, but also, above all, the continent’s ports (historically the group’s main business activity in Africa) and its oil industry. The Bolloré group has had no qualms about working closely with dictators like Denis Sassou Nguesso, Omar Bongo or Charles Taylor. Vincent Bolloré is also a personal friend of French President Nicolas Sarkozy. After winning the presidential election, Sarkozy took a vacation on the industrialist’s yacht and declared that Bolloré “does honour to the French economy.”

By buying up former colonial companies and taking advantage of the wave of privatizations spurred by the “structural adjustments” imposed by the IMF, Bolloré has inevitably become a key player in the economic structure and political life of many African countries. His control of strategic sectors and the transfer of part of his African profits to tax havens like Luxembourg or the Channel Islands provide him with the financial capital needed to back his stock market dealings and expansionist strategy.

Bolloré’s plantations in Cameroon

Cameroon, a former French colony, continues to be governed by an oligarchy that cares more about serving its own interests and those of France than the public interest of its own population (Transparency International ranked Cameroon as the most corrupt country in sub-Saharan Africa in 2009). Many Cameroonians view the control of strategic sectors by large French companies as a form of neo-colonialism. It is not unusual to see Bolloré group executives swanning about in public with President Paul Biya, his wife Chantal or top government officials. For Pius Njawé, director of the newspaper Le Messager, the Bolloré group’s interference in the political life of Cameroon is beyond doubt: “It is a sort of state within a state… a perfect example of so-called Françafrique” (a pejorative term coined by combining the French names for France and Africa).

In Cameroon, the Bolloré group controls vast oil palm and rubber tree plantations, either directly through SAFACAM (which operates 8,400 hectares of plantations), or indirectly through SOCFINAL (which administers 31,000 hectares), together with the two families of the Rivaud group (acquired by Bolloré in 1995): the Fabri and Ribes families. Bolloré holds close to 40% of the shares in SOCFINAL, one of the various Rivaud holdings listed on the Luxembourg stock exchange. One of its subsidiaries, Intercultures, runs SOCAPALM (Société Camerounaise de Palmeraies), the company implicated in the two lawsuits mentioned above. Of SOCFINAL’s total annual profits, no less than 45% come from SOCAPALM. Established through a government programme in 1963 with the support of the World Bank, SOCAPALM was privatized in 2000 and taken over by the group.

SOCAPALM has been a constant source of serious social and environmental problems, as reported by WRM on numerous occasions (Bulletins 112, 116 and 134 and WRM Series on Tree Plantations No. 13). When it was owned by the state, it confiscated lands that were historically the property of local populations without any sort of compensation. Today, it continues to expand without regard for neighbouring ecosystems, thus seriously endangering the food sovereignty of those same populations. In addition, the agrochemical products used on its monoculture plantations and the waste effluents discharged by its factory in Kienké have drastically contaminated the area’s waterways. On the plantations, living and working conditions are abominable: insalubrious living quarters and shared latrines, lack of regular access to water and electricity, mostly temporary employment at miserable wages, etc. Hundreds of workers work six days a week, in some cases from 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., with no social security coverage or adequate protection, for approximately 1.6 euros a day, as long as the subcontractors don’t forget to pay them. This situation has given rise to numerous strikes and protests, but in 2007, when a resistance movement against these labour practices emerged, its leader was immediately arrested by the police, and the authorities let him know that “if he kept it up he was going to get killed.”

Bolloré’s plantations in other parts of the world

The Bolloré group, through SOCFINAL, has a number of other rubber tree and oil palm plantations in Africa and Asia. Many of them give rise to similar problems with their workers and neighbouring communities. In Liberia, for example, SOCFINAL owns the country’s largest rubber tree plantation. In May 2006, the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) published a report that described the dire human rights situation on the plantation: child workers under the age of 14, the massive use of sub-contracting, the use of carcinogenic products, the quashing of trade unions, arbitrary dismissals, the maintenance of order through private militias, and the eviction of peasant farmers obstructing the expansion of the plantation area.

In Cambodia, the situation is not much better (see WRM Bulletin No. 142). After several months of wavering, the government granted a concession for a rubber tree plantation to SOCFIN KCD, a company in which SOCFINAL holds majority ownership. In December 2008, tensions rose to such a height that hundreds of peasant farmers from the Bunong ethnic group joined together to protest against the company, which had already begun clearing the forests and fields near their communities. During the protest, the demonstrators damaged and burned company-owned vehicles. Following this incident, nearly a thousand families from seven neighbouring communities declared that the land belonged to them, since they had been working it for centuries, and that their collective rights, as indigenous peoples, were protected by the country’s Land Code. The community members also accused the authorities of taking the company’s side because of its promises of employment, hospitals, schools and housing. The conflict has still not been resolved.

Conclusion

The subject of the social and environmental impacts of large industrial groups is becoming ever more untouchable, as demonstrated by a new investigative report released by Reporters Without Borders, “Deforestation and Pollution: High-Risk Subjects”. The verdict of the Parisian court in May 2010 bodes poorly for freedom of the press. It will discourage journalists – and civil society in general – from undertaking critical investigations, while encouraging companies to make increasing use of the legal system to silence any attempt to expose their frequently scandalous practices. Along with other large groups like Wilmar and Unilever, Bolloré is now pursuing the development of agrofuels, supposedly “ecological” substitutes for petroleum-based fuels. Will we be facing a situation in which, the more reasons there are to investigate these activities, the greater the efforts to intimidate those who attempt to do so? In any event, there is no doubt that these industrial groups will be anxious to nip any criticisms in the bud and keep them from taking root.

For further references, background information and pictures on this case we encourage you to visit the following special section that WRM has created on its web site:http://www.wrm.org.uy/countries/Cameroon/Bollore.htm