Bolloré blacklisted over alleged rights violations on plantations in Africa and Asia

  • French logistics giant Bolloré SE has been deemed an unethical investment by some of Switzerland’s most powerful pension funds.
  • Bolloré failed to act to resolve accusations of human rights abuses committed by its subsidiary, Socfin, around oil palm and rubber plantations in West Africa and Southeast Asia, the Swiss Association for Responsible Investments (SVVK-ASIR) determined.
  • Investigators commissioned by Socfin recently found credible claims of sexual harassment, land disputes and unfair recruitment in Liberia and Cameroon; field visits to other sites will take place later this year.

Some of Switzerland’s largest pension funds have placed French logistics giant Bolloré SE on a blacklist. The Swiss Association for Responsible Investments (SVVK-ASIR) decided its members should no longer invest in Bolloré after it failed to act to resolve accusations of land-grabbing, environmental damage and complicity in human rights violations on oil palm and rubber plantations operated by Socfin, in which it holds a 39% stake.

“Bolloré SE’s subsidiary has been repeatedly accused of violating the rights of local populations in countries such as Cambodia, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Cameroon,” wrote Christina Meier, an associate at SVVK-ASIR, in an emailed response to Mongabay. “Bolloré SE shares responsibility for ensuring that human rights are observed and protected by the subsidiary due to its considerable influence.”

SVVK-ASIR is a group founded by some of Switzerland’s most powerful pension and social security funds, which together manage $329 billion in assets. The association regularly assesses the ethical conduct of companies its members have invested in with reference to standards set by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the U.N.

There are currently 30 corporations on the association’s exclusion list Bolloré is the first French company to be placed on this list, which is part of a voluntary guideline to ethical investment to which SVVK-ASIR’s members agree.

SVVK-ASIR blacklists companies only after an extended process. When a company is found to be involved in demonstrable, severe and systematic violations, the association initiates a dialogue to give the accused company an opportunity to improve its conduct. This process can take three to four years, after which a company will receive a final call for dialogue before it is blacklisted.

“The exclusion recommendation from Bolloré SE was the result of an unsuccessful engagement dialogue that lasted several years,” wrote Meier, explaining that the company did not respond adequately or constructively to SVVK-ASIR and its partners’ questions. “There was no substantial contribution to meet the goals of the engagement.”

Repeated attempts by affected communities to address grievances directly with Socfin have failed to produce results.

Neth Prak, a spokesperson for Cambodia’s Bunong Indigenous People Association (BIPA), told Mongabay that his association has been trying to resolve land disputes with Socfin since 2008. “The problem is that Socfin has not been willing to sit down with us and find a solution together,” he said. “Instead of entering a dialogue, the company brought in their own mechanism and tried to use its power to make things look as if they were solved.”

In Nigeria, complaints over forced evictions and arbitrary arrests of community members living around Socfin’s Okomu plantation have also produced no results. “Judging from the Nigerian perspective, there is no traceable effect. We are still like the corn crying for justice at the court composed of chickens,” said Ajele Sunday, the coordinator of Community Forest Watch Nigeria.

Sunday said SVVK-ASIR’s move to blacklist Bolloré could be a step in the right direction. “I hope that other institutions could also take the bull by the horns.”

Communities have approached international organizations for help before. Grievance procedures filed with the International Finance Corporation and the OECD both confirmed irregularities. Socfin, however, rejected the findings.

The OECD complaint led to that organization’s French National Contact Point, Bolloré, and French social justice association Sherpa drawing up an action plan to address complaints in Cameroon in 2013. But a year later, Bolloré shifted all responsibility for implementing the plan to Socfin, which later pulled out of the agreement entirely, objecting to independent monitoring of its actions.

Socfin and Bolloré may be running out of room to avoid addressing complaints. Sherpa has sued Bolloré in a French court to compel it to implement the OECD-brokered action plan for Socfin’s Cameroon operations. Socfin recently hired the Earthworm Foundation to investigate grievances in its West African and Asian operations; preliminary findings after visiting sites in Liberia and Cameroon found credible claims of sexual harassment, land disputes and unfair recruitment.

And now Bolloré has landed on the Swiss pension funds’ blacklist. Silva Lieberherr, an agricultural scientist who has been working with communities affected by Socfin for the Swiss NGO Bread for All, said Bolloré’s listing is significant. “It is a very important step and a powerful sign that an independent advisory group takes a stand on this company based on years of reporting from communities and their allies. It sends a strong message that someone is listening to these voices — at one of the centers of financial capitalism.”

Bolloré SE didn’t respond to Mongabay’s request for comment; Socfin declined to comment.

Banner image: Members of Synaparcam, an association of communities affected by Socapalm. Image courtesy Thierry Didier Kuicheu

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