Media Release

Rubber group ousts farmers in Liberia

20.02.2019
Bern/Lausanne, 20 February 2019. Land rights violations, expulsions, violence: According to a report by the development organization Bread for all, the Luxembourg-based Socfin plantation group and its Swiss subsidiaries are involved in serious human rights violations in Liberia. Food security and access to water and education have also deteriorated in the villages surrounding the rubber plantations. This example demonstrates the urgency of the Responsible Business Initiative, which is currently being discussed in the Swiss parliament.

Rubber is a lucrative product: it can be used in many different ways and for common items like tires, condoms, outdoor clothing and mattresses. Global demand has more than doubled in the last 20 years. The Luxembourg-based Socfin Group has expanded its plantations in Liberia, West Africa, to provide more natural rubber for the world market via its Freiburg-based subsidiary Sogescol. But the expansion has had devastating consequences for villages around the plantations.

According to one farmer, “When the company came in, we were told that it was going to improve our lives. (…) We did not know it [the plantation] was not a blessing, but a hell.” When rubber monoculture plantations were developed, many people lost the fertile agricultural land on which they depended to survive. In addition, sacred forests or graves have been destroyed, and access to water has deteriorated. Many people in the villages report that their water has been contaminated by pesticides from the plantations.

Violation of due diligence
Three villages yielded their land because company employees bulldozed their crops. The villagers felt intimidated. “When the bulldozer comes, you can’t stay in the village,” said one of the village elders. The report concludes that traditional land rights have also been violated elsewhere, in some cases even on private lands with official land titles. Socfin bought the concessions for two plantations in 1998 and 2007, respectively, and from the authors’ point of view should have checked whether this land sale affected customary land ownership.

This is a violation of the due diligence to which the Socfin Group should adhere according to international standards, such as the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the OECD Guidelines. Although some compensation has been paid, it has not been sufficient to restore the previous living conditions of the people concerned. Today, women in particular suffer from loss of access to forests and farmland, as they are responsible for feeding their families.

Women have also repeatedly reported being subjected to sexual violence by subcontractors and, in some cases, by plantation security guards. The statements made by numerous people living on or next to the plantations tell about to a climate of fear. In a particularly serious incident in 2013, plantation security and police violently raided the village of Daokai within the Socfin concession area. According to reports, they ransacked houses, stole electronic equipment and beat up a villager.

Rubber traded via Switzerland
The structure of the Socfin Group, which owns the plantations in Liberia, is complex and convoluted. What is clear, however, is that practically all the rubber Socfin acquires from Liberia is traded via the subsidiary Sogescol, which is based in the city of Freiburg, Switzerland. Socfinco, also based in Freiburg, is responsible for the management and sustainability consulting of the plantations. The Swiss companies thus exert crucial influence on the plantation companies. As the exclusive trading partner of rubber, Sogescol even exercises de facto economic control.

According to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGP), Sogescol and Socfinco are responsible for preventing human rights violations through the business activities of the plantations in Liberia. Bread for all’s report clearly shows that this has not happened. Voluntary standards and measures are therefore not sufficient to protect the rights of local people. This is why the Responsible Business Initiative is needed: to legally oblige Swiss companies, their subsidiaries and “de facto-controlled” companies to comply with human rights and environmental standards even when doing business abroad and to carry out appropriate due diligence measures.

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Authorship

This report was produced in close cooperation with the Liberian organizations Alliance for Rural Democracy, Green Advocates International and Natural Resource Women’s Platform.