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Cameroon: Palm oil labourers complain of terrible conditions, poor pay from plantation owners (Les Inrocks)

On a palm oil plantation in southwestern Cameroon’s Dibombari district, men gather palm nuts with long, heavy poles, beads of sweat forming on their brow. They say their work is difficult and they receive only a small salary. Some are young, perhaps as young as 14.

One worker wears sandals as he gathers the palm nuts. He says the workers must purchase their own equipment. Another shows off the holes in his gloves and his sore hands. He says, “It’s as if we are animals of the bush…. It is as if we are not humans.”

These are some of the powerful images shared in a report by Complément d’enquête about the palm oil company Socfin and its majority shareholder, the French industrialist, Vincent Bolloré. The report includes film footage shot on Socapalm plantations in Cameroon, which are largely owned by Socfin.

Mr. Bolloré has refuted the accusations in the documentary, charging that the workers were paid to make false statements.

Emmanuel Elong lives on the Socapalm plantation in Dibombari district, and is president of Synaparcam, an association that represents area residents. He says the plantation labourers are poorly paid by Socfin, since they are paid by the task.

Mr. Elong explains, “If you are not strong enough to lift the pole at all times, you cannot harvest 50 fruit bunches in one day.” A worker earns 1,500 francs CFA [$2.55 US] by gathering 50 bunches, less than what warehouse workers and drivers make in Cameroon. He adds, “It’s the harvest that pays a lot. If you are not strong, then it isn’t possible to have a 40,000 franc CFA [$68 US] salary on the Bolloré plantations.”

Instead, Mr. Elong estimates that salaries on the plantation average 18,000 francs CFA ($30.50 US). He adds that the labourers “work like slaves.”

When the Socapalm plantation was state-owned, it bought palm nuts from small-scale farmers in the area. Now, these workers are in a more precarious situation. Many work on temporary contracts and live in temporary housing.

Mr. Elong says the problems between the workers and plantation owners worsened when Socapalm was privatized in 2000. He says many social benefits were abandoned at this time, including access to health services, water, and education, as well as the ability to maintain plots of land for farming.

It is now difficult to access drinking water, as the work of the Socapalm plantation pollutes local rivers. None of the 13 villages in the Socapalm plantation in Kienké have electricity. There is no good road for moving products or people, and there is only one primary school. Workers’ complaints have been published before in reports from local and international NGOs, and by many news outlets.

Mr. Bolloré and the plantation workers began negotiations in 2014, but discussions stalled when Socfin refused to join in. Luc Boedt is the CEO of Socfin. In 2015, he told The Guardian newspaper, “We deal with the real stakeholders. We speak with elected people and not some excited villagers.”

Since then, Socfin has made some changes, but workers say they are not enough. Some housing was improved, but not all. Water purification systems were set up, but they overflow directly into the waterway, causing more serious pollution.

Mr. Elong says he recognizes the contribution of Socfin, and palm oil production, to the Cameroonian economy, but would like to see the company live up to the promises it made the government when Socapalm was privatized. He adds, “Socapalm cannot continue to act on the model of the 1930s.”

To read the full article on which this story is based, Le conflit social gronde dans les plantations de Vincent Bolloré, go to: http://www.lesinrocks.com/2016/08/27/actualite/conflit-social-gronde-plantations-de-vincent-bollore-11859400/ [1]

To read a story from The Guardian in 2015, go to: https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2015/jul/27/palm-oil-boom-cameroon-land-ownership-protest [2]


Photo: Screen capture from Complément d’enquête