Written by 15 h 37 min Environment and Climate, Strategic litigation

SOCAPALM – Cameroon: a plan of action to remedy violations

Country: Cameroun

Company targeted: Socapalm


An overview of the facts and proceedings… 

SOCAPALM (Société Camerounaise de Palmeraies) is the most important producer of palm oil in Cameroon. Formerly a state company, SOCAPALM was privatized in 2000 in the context of structural adjustment measures spurred by the World Bank and the IMF. PALMCAM (Palmeraies du Cameroun) became the majority shareholder with nearly 70% of the shares while the state of Cameroon retained 27%*.

SOCAPALM met with a great deal of tension from local populations. With the arrival of the plantation, hectares of forest and arable land were withdrawn from the local populations. Many fishing areas became inaccessible to them. The activities of the company affected the quality of their environment and posed a serious risk to their health. In addition, the local populations have not benefited from the employment and business opportunities offered by
the plantation, in spite of the company’s promises. As regards the employees, they have endured deplorable conditions of work and housing.

In addition, the Bolloré Group is the holder of nearly 39% of the capital of Socfin. This latter exercises its control over SOCAPALM. It has therefore been recognized that the Bolloré Group itself exercises control over SOCAPALM, which is thus one of its subsidiaries.


The Litigation…

On 3 December 2010, Misereor (Germany), the Centre for the Environment and Development and FOCARFE (Cameroon) along with Sherpa submitted a specific instance (complaint) to the national contact points (NCPs) of France, Belgium and Luxembourg against the companies Bolloré (France), Financière du Champ de Mars (Belgium), SOCFINAL (Luxembourg) and Intercultures (Luxembourg), all four of which, in concert, exercised control over Socapalm.

With the French NCP only accepting the receivability of the case on 5 July 2011, and the Bolloré group not agreeing to cooperate with the NCP a year later, in July 2012, the hearings took place two years after the deposition of the specific instance.

Socapalm truck on a plantation in Cameroon – ©Moussi

In February 2013, deploring the absence of a final report from the NCP at this stage of the process, the complainants accepted the principle of mediation on condition that the final report would be published as soon as possible, to which the NCP agreed. Finally published on 3 June 2013, this report exaggerated the positive effect of the commitments undertaken by the Bolloré group, while also detailing the violations of different chapters of the guidelines referred to in the complaint (chapters II, III, IV and V).

A plan of action to remedy the violations

With the Bolloré group having agreed to withdraw its defamation complaint[1] against Sherpa, six months of mediation between the two led to the presentation of a plan of action in September 2013. In order to remedy the violations recorded in the framework of the guidelines and to improve the living conditions of local residents and Socapalm workers, the implementation of this plan of action should be monitored by various civil society actors.

 While the Bolloré group agreed to enter into mediation because of the institutional character of the NCP, it was not thanks to the NCP’s good offices that the group committed itself to implementing this plan of action. The NCP should be reformed to increase its effectiveness and legitimacy in combating the impunity of multinationals, while awaiting genuinely binding instruments.

Legal basis … 

The complaint or «specific circumstance» that Sherpa filed with the National Contact Point (NCP) of the OECD circumvented the inappropriateness/ inadequacy of hard law to the evolution of business. Indeed, civil and criminal liability law does not currently permit us to question the liability of parent companies for acts caused by their subsidiaries in financial schemes such as that of SOCAPALM, whereas the OECD Guidelines take account of these
relations of control and influence between parent companies and subsidiaries (or subcontractors).

Sherpa therefore had no recourse other than the NCP to call upon Bolloré to act on SOCAPALM. In addition, the NCP’s institutional framework for negotiation encouraged Bolloré to accept a mediation process. Thanks to this framework, Sherpa managed to go well beyond what could have been obtained within the classic framework of direct negotiations with the group.

Finally, the use of this little exploited procedure in 2010 also implied that it could be improved. Sherpa thus used this procedure to present suggestions of reforms to the NCP in order to strengthen its effectiveness.

What Sherpa’s work has enabled … 

Through this procedure, Sherpa has managed to obtain an unprecedented plan of action englobing a commitment by the group to specific actions on all the points raised in the original complaint: dialogue with the neighboring populations, land issues, environment, public service missions to be ensured by SOCAPALM, local development to
ensure, conditions of workers and subcontractors, transparency, and finally compensation to local populations for the damage suffered as a result of the activity of SOCAPALM.

Although mediation procedures before the NCP are infrequent between businesses and associations, it is the very first time that this process has been finalized and has allowed the commitment of the parties to implement a plan of action to remedy the shortcomings of the OECD Guidelines. It is also the first time that an operationalization monitoring mechanism has been implemented to ensure that the plan of action is actually applied, consisting of one
body in France and one in Cameroon. Several years of work by Sherpa on the SOCAPALM case has created a precedent that could encourage parties to use the NCP to obtain specific remediation actions. However, the group announced to Sherpa that it could no longer continue to implement it as Socfin, one of the subsidiaries, was blocking the process.

All of Sherpa’s efforts in 2015 therefore consisted in requesting Bolloré by various means to respect its commitments. Sherpa also worked with the French NCP via several written documents to ensure that its March 2015 statement carried a clear demand, written in strong and dissuasive terms, for the Bolloré Group to exercise its influence over Socfin to unblock the situation.

Sherpa has also continued to relay the claims of local residents and workers, and to monitor the situation on site with the different organizations involved, notably including the monitoring agency chosen in Cameroon (SNJP) and the Synaparcam (local residents’ association).

Chronology of proceedings… 

December 3, 2010 – Complaint filed with the French, Belgian and Luxembourg National Contact Points by Sherpa, FOCARFE, Centre pour l’Environnement et le Développement, and MISEREOR against Bolloré (France), FINANCIERE DU CHAMP DE MARS (Belgium), SOCFINAL (Luxembourg), and INTERCULTURES (Luxembourg) – all 4 jointly exercising their control over SOCAPALM, Bolloré being the parent company

July 30, 2012 – NCP hearing of the parties.

February 7, 2013 – First mediation meeting between Bolloré and the different parties.

Late May 2013 – Bolloré agreed to withdraw its defamation complaint against Sherpa.

September 3, 2013 – After six months of mediation, submission of the plan of action developed by the parties to the NCP.

November-June 2014 – Sherpa and its partners developed a system to monitor the plan of action to be implemented by a European body (GRET) and a local partner (SNJP).

September 12, 2014 – Validation of the first stages of work and a first mission of the GRET and the SNJP in Cameroon.

December 15, 2014 – Notification by Bolloré to Sherpa of the withdrawal of Socfin, who no longer wished to participate in the action plan. Bolloré stated that it cannot enforce the plan.

January 9, 2015 – Letter from Sherpa and its partners to V. Bolloré asking him to unblock the situation and to officially commit to the proper conduct of the plan of action.

February 5, 2015 – Receipt of the response from Bolloré explaining that they had already tried to exercise their influence over Socfin and could do no more.

February 17, 2015 – Letter from Sherpa and its partners to Bolloré, reminding them of their power of influence and their obligation to do everything necessary to see that the plan of action is applied.

February 25, 2015 – Bolloré acknowledged receipt of the letter and said that it had been transmitted to Socfin for comment.

March 2, 2015 – Publication of a statement from the French NCP requesting Bolloré to respect their commitments and to exercise their influence over Socfin to enforce the plan of action.

April 23, 2015 – Letter from the Alliance internationale to Bolloré requiring them to take all the necessary measures.

April 30, 2015 – A second letter from Sherpa and its partners to Bolloré, taking note of their silence and stating «We will be obliged to draw all the conclusions in the near future.»

September 25, 2015 – Request by the NCP to the Bolloré group and Sherpa to make an assessment report of the procedure and a request for a hearing.

[1] Following the deposition, the group first reacted with a “strategic approach against the public mobilisation or gag approach” by bringing a defamation complaint against Sherpa and a number of journalists.

Procedures and Milestones…

Last modified: 17 December 2019