Research exposes plantation giant Socfin's role in deforestation and displacement of Indigenous communities in Nigeria and Ghana

Okumu community in Nigeria. Photo by Elfredah Kevin-Alerechi, used with permission.

This story was originally published by iWatch Africa, and a shorter version is republished on Global Voices as part of a content-sharing partnership agreement.

A six-month investigation conducted by Gideon Sarpong, Elfredah Kevin-Alerechi, and Audrey Travère has brought to light the significant impact of Socfin Group‘s rubber and palm oil resource exploitation on deforestation and the forced displacement of Indigenous populations in Nigeria and Ghana.

Socfin Group, also known as the Société Financière des Caoutchoucs, is a Luxembourg-based company engaged in oil palm and rubber plantation operations and the marketing of oil palm seeds in Asia and Africa. In 2021, the company reported a remarkable profit of 80.4 million euros (USD 86.2 million), marking its highest earnings since at least 2014, driven by rising palm oil and rubber prices. However, paradoxically, the Okumu community and other host communities in Nigeria and Ghana present a stark contrast to the prosperity associated with Socfin's substantial export earnings.

Okumu Oil Palm Company, a subsidiary of Socfin Group located in Okumu, Nigeria, operates an extensive 7,335 ha (18,125 ac) rubber plantation and a sprawling 19,062 ha (47,103 ac) oil palm plantation within the Ovia South-West local government area of Edo State. The company's presence there has become a contentious issue, particularly for the Indigenous people, who have been displaced because of the company's activities. 

Impact on Indigenous people

According to the research findings, residents of Okumu have accused the Okumu Oil Palm Company of forcibly dismantling three villages within the district, namely Lemon, Agbeda, and Oweike. After the eviction of these three communities about 18 years ago, the company proceeded to expand its palm and rubber plantations, acquiring a staggering 1,969 ha (4,865.5 ac) of oil palm and 1,811 ha (4,475 ac) of rubber in the process. The activities of the Okumu Palm Company not only led to the forced relocation of hundreds of Indigenous residents but also resulted in the dire consequences of farmland destruction, loss of life, and the disruption of children's education within the affected community. 

Austin Lemon, now 33, whose father was the founder of Lemon Village in 1969, witnessed the pleas of his parents and fellow Lemon villagers. He ruefully reflects, “The company planted their plantation without heeding to their pleas.” The consequences were catastrophic — every single house in Lemon met its demise, and the once-thriving areas reserved for the cultivation of plantain, cassava, cocoa, and cocoyam were reduced to ruins. He added,

For a whole year, I couldn’t attend school because we were displaced and struggling to make ends meet. It was the company’s actions that ultimately led to the death of my father, who had high blood pressure. He perished because the farms he once relied upon to feed his 32 children were also obliterated.

The company denied the research findings. According to Socfin's communications team, the company acquired the plantation following the de-reservation of a portion of Okomu Forest Reserve by Nigeria's federal government, in compliance with the Edo Forestry Commission Law (1968) and its subsequent amendments, among other relevant legislation.

Ajele Sunday, a spokesperson for the Okumu community, said the community “never received any compensation” when Socfin claimed to have procured the land from the government. Multiple sources within the Okomu village have raised concerns, contending that the company conducted negotiations with the government without seeking or taking into consideration the community's perspective.

This apparent lack of consultation with the community “directly contradicts the principles outlined in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, particularly the concept of Free Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC),” Sunday argued. This breach raises critical concerns about the treatment of Indigenous communities and their rights in the context of corporate activities, highlighting the urgent need to adhere to these vital principles. According to FPIC, Indigenous peoples possess the right to grant or withhold consent for projects that stand to impact them or their territories.

Plantation Socfinaf Ghana and deforestation

The research conducted by Sarpong, Kevin-Alerechi, and Travère also revealed that in Ghana, the operations of Plantation Socfinaf Ghana (PSG), a subsidiary of the Socfin Group which operates rubber and oil palm plantations in Manso and Daboase in the Western Region of Ghana has led to the destruction of vital rainforests.

The researchers found that in 2017 and 2018, PSG contracted Proforest and HS+E, respectively, to conduct environmental assessments at its Subri site in Daboase ahead of the construction of a palm processing mill in 2019. Findings from this assessment showed that any large-scale operations at the Subri site would result in the “loss of biodiversity, land degradation, increase in ambient noise levels, aerial emissions and the destruction of unique endangered ecosystems and species within the catchment areas.”

Notably, the Proforest assessment emphasized the substantial environmental value of the PSG Subri site. It was found to host a substantial “carbon stock of 981,080.74 metric tons,” and served as a crucial “habitat for a vulnerable population of species” in need of conservation measures.

Despite these findings, PSG proceeded with the construction of the palm processing mill in 2020, costing USD 20 million (18.6 million euros). 

In addition, PSG admitted that between 2012 and 2016, over 1,089 ha (2,691 ac) of natural forests were cleared to make way for its plantations, failing to heed concerns by environmental groups.

Despite mounting concerns and inquiries into PSG’s actions, the company has remained conspicuously silent, failing to respond to the researchers’ requests for information regarding their mitigation plans and the repercussions of their operations on the communities around Daboase and the environment at large.

Data from Global Forest Watch paints a distressing picture. Between 2001 and 2022, Ghana’s Western Region witnessed the loss of a staggering 536,000 hectares (1,324,485 acres) of tree cover. This represents a 23 percent decline in tree cover since the turn of the millennium, accompanied by a grim emission of 297 million metric tons of CO₂ equivalent. It’s worth noting that this region, the wettest in Ghana, plays host to PSG’s extensive plantations.

The ramifications of this ecological decline extend beyond the boundaries of forests and into the lives of the local communities. Farmers like Godwin Ofori, a 35-year-old resident of Daboase in close proximity to PSG’s plantation, have borne the brunt of these changes.

Ofori expressed his frustration with the evolving rainfall patterns, stating,

One of the biggest challenges over the last decade has been unpredictable rainfall patterns. We cannot predict the rainfall pattern nowadays, and I believe that this is partly because of the destruction of our forests.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Leeds has shown that African tropical forests remain critical to the fight against the climate emergency, absorbing three times more carbon each year than the UK emitted in 2019.

The direct link between the decline in critical rainforests and these erratic weather patterns underlines the adverse impact on the livelihoods and food security of those living in the vicinity.

Findings from the research conducted by Gideon Sarpong, Elfredah Kevin-Alerechi, and Audrey Travère further revealed that Socfin’s interpretation of “zero deforestation” does not align with the industry-recognized standard known as the High Carbon Stock Approach (HCSA). It was also found that neither Socfin nor its subsidiaries across West Africa are members of the HCSA. 

Greenpeace Media has sounded a resounding alarm, cautioning that Socfin’s steadfast resistance to adopting the industry’s zero-deforestation standard poses a significant and looming threat to the forests of West Africa, where the company’s operations are concentrated.

The future of these critical ecosystems remains at a crossroads, demanding enhanced vigilance and rigorous commitment to sustainable practices.

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