- Friends of the Earth says Wilmar never got legitimate permission to operate on community lands
- Area in question home to vast tracts of forest and endangered gorillas
- Wilmar’s Ugandan plantation plagued by similar allegations
A new report from Friends of the Earth builds on accusations that the Nigerian palm oil operations of Wilmar, one of the world’s largest agribusiness companies, are founded on a land grab that has left communities empty-handed and destroyed areas of high conservation value.
Published last week, Exploitation and empty promises: Wilmar’s Nigerian land grab accuses the Singapore-listed trader of failing to carry out adequate environmental impact surveys and secure the free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) of many people relying on the land in the southeast of the country.
Through its subsidiary PZ Wilmar, the company acquired around 30,000 hectares of land in Nigeria’s Cross River State, an area rich in agricultural history and legacy but also home to vast tracts of natural forest and a host of endangered species including the Cross River gorilla.
“If Wilmar continues to neglect environmental and social issues [and] communal rights to land and [be] involved in human rights violations, then the company should pack up and leave,” Godwin Ojo of Friends of the Earth Nigeria told mongabay.com.
The report is based on first-person testimonies, satellite imagery and information filed by Wilmar with the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a voluntary certification scheme.
Friends of the Earth claims Wilmar’s Obsanjo Farms concession overlaps both Cross River National Park and the Ekinta forest reserve. The NGO says the alleged land grab underlines the need for a binding global treaty on corporate human rights abuses.
Some affected communities have signed up for a lawsuit seeking compensation. Others simply want their land back. Given the high costs involved in litigation and the vagaries of the Nigerian justice system, some residents are steering clear of the legal route.
Wilmar for its part denies it is responsible for any compensation claimed by communities. It also claims its presence in the area should be seen in a positive light, bringing, it says, much-needed investment and employment.
Wilmar has had no meeting with Friends of the Earth and claims it has already provided a response to most of the allegations but will issue a full statement on the matter in the coming week.
In a statement sent to mongabay.com by Iris Chan from the company’s corporate communications team, Wilmar said: “Many of the allegations are rehashed and have been dismissed by the RSPO Complaints Panel. Wilmar has already previously responded with substantial information clarifying its activities in that region, and reaffirming its commitment to responsible practices in all countries and communities where it operates.”
Nigeria was once the world’s largest producer of palm oil, back in the 1960s. The rise in prominence of production in Southeast Asia and state-led efforts that ended in economic and environmental disaster mean that, while still Africa’s largest producer, the country is now a net importer of palm oil and other commodities.
The government is trying to change that and revive the country’s agricultural sector. Nigeria is one of 10 African countries to have signed up to the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, a Group of 7 initiative aimed at fostering investment in Africa’s agriculture sector.
Jeff Conant, an international forest campaigner with Friends of the Earth US, believes the economic impetus argument presented by Wilmar and others is something of a red herring.
“I don’t believe there is any sense at this point that [oil palm] plantations are necessarily economically beneficial to the area, as these plantations have yet to produce, and the impacts to water sources and subsistence farming have caused serious negative economic impacts already,” he told mongabay.com.
“The question is not simply, will plantations be economically beneficial, but, what kinds of economic benefits are we talking about, and for whom, and under what conditions, and for what period.”
At the end of 2013, Wilmar signed up to an ambitious no-deforestation policy whose scope was seen as a great step forward. But the company has repeatedly come under fire recently from environmental groups, particularly over its social policies and relationships with communities.
On the same day as the Friends of the Earth report, international NGO the Forest People’s Programme released the findings of an investigation into the company that determined Wilmar was resorting to “dirty tricks” in its dealings with communities in Borneo, Sumatra, Uganda and Nigeria.
The company has also received criticism over its plantation on two islands in Lake Victoria in Uganda, with again allegations being leveled at them of evicting local farmers from their land, polluting local water supplies and destroying forested areas.
Similarly, communities there are seeking legal recourse over what they say was unfair removal from their land.
Africa is seen by many in the industry as a “new frontier” for production. Many of the world’s largest producers such as Golden Agri-Resources (GAR), Sime Darby and Olam International are developing plantations on the continent.
However, social conflicts and disputes over land tenure and FPIC are a common problem throughout Africa. In Liberia, GAR has received criticism over the operations of its subsidiary Golden Veroleum Liberia (GVL) which is covered by its own no-deforestation policy. Meanwhile there were coordinated protests in four different countries earlier this year against rubber and oil palm plantations run by Socfin and Bolloré.
Scott Poynton of The Forest Trust (TFT), an international nonprofit that helps companies including Wilmar implement their policies, has argued for companies to move “beyond certification.” But he also previously said that traders such as Wilmar and GAR do come under increased scrutiny quite simply because of the ambition of their policies, whereas smaller traders’ bad practices perhaps get less attention.
However, according to Godwin Ojo of Friends of the Earth Nigeria, that is of little concern for the communities in Cross River State who he says see little benefit from Wilmar’s plantation or its policies.
“We condemn oil palm plantations driven by foreign capital for export and profits at the expense of local small-scale farmers and food security for the local people,” he said.
Disclosure: In late December 2015, it came to light that the author was a public relations contractor for Greenpeace at the time of this story’s publication. The author says this affiliation did not influence his reporting. The story was independently edited and fact-checked by a Mongabay editor.