Is there an end in sight to labor abuses for this certified “sustainable” palm oil producer? 

Belgian company SIAT has the ambition to promote sustainable palm oil across West Africa. Yet, its Ghana plantation is rife with ongoing land conflicts and precarious labour conditions. A new EU directive on corporate due diligence gives hope that abuses in the Global South are coming to an end.

We enter the plantation of Ghana Palm Oil Development Company (GOPDC), a subsidiary of the Belgian SIAT (Société d’Investissement pour l’Agriculture Tropicale), in the Aboabo village from across a football field. Soon we bump into Nana Abbo, a retired villager arranging palm leaves on the floor. She makes brooms to sell for 2 cedis (0.15 EUR cent) and make some living. Although GOPDC has no use for palm leaves, she says that broom-making is a dangerous enterprise: “We felt that since we didn’t have jobs to do, we could go to the company, get some palm branches, make brooms and get earnings out of it. But the security guards, when we are caught, beat us or take us to prison, for just the palm branches. This makes life very unbearable.”

A woman stands in front of a lush plantation, she grimaces with her hands clasped in front of her waste.
Nana Abbo. Photo by Zuza Nazaruk.

Nana Abbo’s story is typical of the Aboabo and Okumaning villagers, whose rights were trampled when the palm oil plantation settled in. The abuses happened despite a sophisticated certification scheme designed to prevent precisely such human rights and environmental violations. Our investigation shows how a voluntary industry standard repeatedly fails to ensure dignified working and living conditions, underscoring the importance of the currently-negotiated EU directive on corporate due diligence. 

Why not sustainable palm oil?

GOPDC delivers certified-sustainable palm oil to European and African markets, for example, Unilever or PZ Cussons. Palm oil’s diverse uses – from lipsticks and soap to crisps and cooking oil – made it ubiquitous in our daily life. 

GOPDC’s parent company SIAT joined Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) in 2004 as one of the first members. GOPDC was the first in West Africa to be RSPO-certified in 2015, and SIAT repeatedly expresses the ambition to promote the certification in the region. 

SIAT is part of several RSPO working groups tasked with, for example, deciding on national interpretations of the RSPO standards in Ghana and Nigeria or promoting the consumption of certified palm oil. The company’s previous Deputy Managing Director, Gert Vandersmissen, sat on the RSPO Executive Board representing “Rest of the World”.

The company’s section on the RSPO website states that SIAT wants “to be ahead of the other producers in Africa and be an example so that others are convinced to join the RSPO as well”.

The RSPO certifications came to SIAT despite multiple cases of abuse in the company’s compensating of indigenous communities for their land and employing workers, some of which go back decades.

The European Commission deemed voluntary, industry-driven certifications – such as the RSPO – inefficient in preventing environmental and human rights abuses and in 2022 proposed the Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive. The directive’s original proposal envisioned that companies screen their full supply chains to improve their respect for human and environmental rights. During the lobbying process, business representatives have worked to convince Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) and European Commission officials that voluntary industry standards are enough to mitigate risks of violations.

The present version of the Directive’s proposal, to be negotiated this summer, obliges companies to take much more robust steps to mitigate any risks identified during due diligence. This may include developing and implementing policies and procedures to address identified risks, as well as engaging with suppliers to address issues if they arise. 

A few houses sit beside towering trees of a palm oil plantation in Ghana
View of the Aboabo village. Photo by Zuza Nazaruk.

Giuseppe Cioffo, a Corporate Regulation and Extractives Officer at development NGO CIDSE, explains, “The law would have obliged SIAT to prevent abuses by its subsidiaries, including by consulting communities and respecting the rights of Indigenous people. If a strong civil liability regime was implemented, it would allow communities to hold responsible the parent company in Belgium for the abuses committed by its subsidiaries abroad. It would allow communities to seek justice where the headquarters of SIAT are located. Importantly, it would also lift barriers to accessing justice in such cases – including removing monetary fees and language barriers. In short, the SIAT Group would not be able to dismiss its responsibilities with regards to the actions of its subsidiaries.”

As the story of SIAT’s supposedly sustainable plantation in the Eastern region of Ghana shows, it is about time.

No other choice than precarious labour

Before 2004, Abbo and other villagers grew food and cash crops on the land of a failed large-scale government plantation (see infobox below), which they reclaimed per customary land rights. They recall that they could feed their families and sell extra produce at the local market. When GOPDC came to survey their land, the villagers opposed the establishment of a palm oil plantation but were met with brutal opposition.

“SIAT came with the regional minister, the inspectors of police, even the chief of the community, to forcefully eject us from our land and take us to prison,” states Laryea Isaac, who got imprisoned and lost his land then.

When the opposing villagers came back from imprisonment, “every property they had on the land was destroyed and SIAT was in the process of establishing palm,” Isaac adds. In 2004, GOPDC took around 12,000 hectares. 

Villagers were entitled to compensation for their lost assets but what they received was largely inadequate. Some never received anything. Those that did claim that the compensation was not based on a third-party valuation of their losses. 

Laryera Isaac got imprisoned and lost his land in 2004, when GOPDC established its palm oil plantation. Photo by Zuza Nazaruk.

Then, in 2010, the company extended its plantation by another 3,000 hectares, again without offering adequate compensation. 

SIAT claims to assist “communities with education and social infrastructure development such as roads, potable water, electricity and dispensaries.” Despite promises of development, the palm oil plantation impoverished the villagers from Aboabo and Okumaning estates. Without their farmland, the villagers are forced to buy daily staples which they could grow before. “We do not have food to eat because we grow nothing apart from palm oil,” Daniel**, who currently works for GOPDC, states.

The recent resurgence of industrial palm oil plantations in Africa stems from brutal history. Most of the recent projects involve old concessions with long-simmering land conflicts. 

Today, the expansion of industrial oil palm plantations in Africa is dominated by a handful of large, multinational companies. Just five companies control about three-quarters of the planted, industrial oil palm plantation area on the continent. The two most important are SOCFIN of Luxembourg and SIAT of Belgium, which control a quarter of all the large oil palm plantations on the continent.

Both of these companies built their plantation empires upon the ruins of a World Bank programme to construct oil palm and rubber plantations across several countries in West and Central Africa in the 1970s and 1980s. That programme was carried out in close collaboration with SOCFIN’s consulting firm, SOCFINCO. 

The person leading SOCFINCO’s operations in Nigeria was the founder of SIAT, Pierre Vandebeeck. From 1974 to the end of the 1980s, SOCFINCO crafted master plans for at least 7 World Bank-backed oil palm projects in 5 different states. Each project envisioned creating a para-statal company to take over the state’s existing plantations and develop new ones, as well as palm oil mills. 

As the parastatal companies claimed to act in the national interest, the palm oil companies could be sure that government will use decrees and military force, where necessary, to uproot people out of lands considered suitable for oil palm cultivation. The African governments also used public money to pay for this expansion, by way of loans from the World Bank. In Ghana, the government forcibly acquired the community land in the 1970s for its palm oil ambitions.

Then, in the 1990s, with the state plantation companies deep in debt, the World Bank pushed for privatisation. Vandebeeck established his own company, Siat Group (Société d’Investissement pour l’Agriculture Tropicale) in 1991 which gradually took over formerly state-owned companies in Nigeria, Ghana, Gabon and Ivory Coast. Today, SIAT’s subsidiaries own almost 47,000 hectares of palm plantations and over 5300 rubber plantations in Africa as well as it operates a 2700-ha rubber plantation in Cambodia.

However, many of the oil palm plantation projects that were announced over the past decade have failed, mainly because of the resistance of local communities that have been threatened by displacement and losing their source of income. As the report of The Alliance against industrial plantations in West and Central Africa shows, only 220 608 hectares have been developed into industrial oil palm plantations or replanted over the past decade. 

The reason for the failure of some investments is that many of the projects were led by companies with little or no previous experience with large-scale agriculture. Some of these companies simply wanted to profit from the rush for farmland in Africa, and most were interested in securing leases or concessions over large areas of land that they could then sell to another company after making minor investments in operations or no investments at all. 

Recent years have shown that industrial oil palm plantations are an ineffective mode of corporate agriculture. Despite considerable financial support from governments, financial institutions, or private donors, big palm oil companies only account for 10% of total harvested area of oil palms in Africa. Most of the palm oil sold in Africa comes from Malaysia and Indonesia. This cheap, low-quality palm oil undercuts the local markets for the higher-quality traditional palm oil supplied by small-scale producers.

“They took our land away and we ended up working for them”

Increased food prices mixed with decreasing employment opportunities pushed many villagers into working for GOPDC. “They took our land away and we ended up working for them,” Emmanuel Obeng, who lost his lucrative citrus trees in 2004, states bitterly. Obeng moved on to other work but many villagers continue working for GOPDC, where working conditions are dubious. 

Workers stand beside a pile of palm oil plants in a plantation in Ghana
GOPDC workers load fruit branches. Photo: Zuza Nazaruk

During our visit in 2023, Daniel told us that he does “very hard work for minimal wages”. He could not disclose his wage, but Wisdom Koffi Adjawlo, director of the NGO Youth Volunteers for Environment Ghana, who has been monitoring the case, stated the compensation at 500 cedis (39 EUR) per month. The minimum monthly wage in the country is 400 cedis but already in 2018, the living wage was estimated at 900 cedis

Even this small wage is highly precarious. Adjawlo and Daniel disclosed that the company offers only temporary contracts to plantation workers. By not hiring permanent employees, GOPDC avoids paying for health insurance. Caring for oil palms is hard physical work with risks of physical injuries such as cuts or strains. If an accident occurs, the workers have to take care of their health on their own, and the company can refuse to reinstate them after their leave. Additionally, GOPDC does not offer appropriate protective equipment. The workers get one set every year, regardless of wear and tear, and must bear any costs of fixing it. Those tasked with spraying the plantation with chemicals feel this failing particularly acutely.

Aboabo villager poses with a pesticide bottle found near the GOPDC plantation.
Aboabo villager poses with a pesticide bottle found near the GOPDC plantation. Photo: Zuza Nazaruk.

RSPO certification despite abuses and court cases

GOPDC received its first RSPO certification in 2015 from the certification body TÜV Rheinland Indonesia. The way RSPO works is that certification bodies conduct a main audit to determine whether a company is fit to receive the certification. The certificate is valid for five years, with yearly audits and updates from the company.

A certificate issued by RSPO for GOPDC
GOPDC’s RSPO certificate for 2015-2020. Source: GOPDC website.

According to RSPO spokesperson Kimasha Williams, “Unless investigations conclude otherwise, a member is not held in violation of the RSPO’s Standards for growers, the Principle and Criteria (P&C).”

In an email exchange, TÜV Rheinland stated that it conducted onsite audits at GOPDC between 2014 and 2020 according to RSPO guidelines. “The result of the audits was that the company met the requirements during the mentioned period,” the certification body’s spokesperson stated. 

In 2021, GOPDC got re-certified for another five years but with a different certification body: SCS Global. The certification body refused to speak to us, citing the “confidential nature” of their work (They did not have the same constraint while responding to the Dutch climate justice association Milieudefensie’s closer look at their certification practices).

During several audits by two certification bodies, there were at least three open court cases against GOPDC, which did not deter the company from receiving RSPO certification.

In 2015 and 2017, five villagers from Aboabo demanded that the GOPDC pays them due compensation for their lost crops and lands. In 2021 – the year of the renewed RSPO certificate – the court ruled that GOPDC has to compensate the farmers based on the valuation of crops, lands, and nurseries conducted by the government body Land Valuation Board of Lands Commission.

A redacted court case featuring against GOPDC
The first page of the consolidated court case of five villagers against the GOPDC.

In its 2021 commitment to RSPO certification, SIAT states that it has “mechanisms in place to ensure (…) No existence of conflicts or disputes occurs that are not under resolution through a mutually agreed process.” Yet, its Ghanaian subsidiary continues to stall the court orders. In 2021, the company filed a motion to set aside the order for the Land Valuation Board to assess the crops.

The court described GOPDC’s opposition as “way out of line” and “an abuse of the court system.” It stated: “The court sees the arguments of GOPDC in these two application [sic] as an attempt to frustrate a legitimate order made by this court.” The judge dismissed the motion and ordered GOPDC to pay both the compensation and legal costs.

GOPDC now brought the case to the higher instance, the national court, where it awaits the decision. The plaintiffs still do not know when the court proceedings will resume. 

RSPO has its own complaint system. Yet, the Aboabo community is unaware of it. Diana Kyeremateng from the NGO Youth Volunteers for Environment Ghana highlighted that the community needs a person familiar with the certification to help them navigate the system. 

In an email exchange, RSPO spokesperson Williams suggested that “the certification process was not clear” to us, adding that “indeed it does take some time to understand”. If journalists who spend months on research supposedly cannot comprehend the certification process, one is left to wonder how affected communities or end consumers are supposed to get it. Subsequently, Williams informed us that there are currently no open complaint cases against GOPDC. 

The certification body TÜV Rheinland and consultant NGO ProForest noticed several of GOPDC’s abuses as far back as 2014. Then, ProForest described “major concerns over delay in payment” to people evicted from their farmland.

The NGO, however, only consults, and the final decision on certification is left up to the certification body. TÜV Rheinland also noticed several violations of the RSPO principles. In its 2017 surveillance report on GOPDC, the certification body describes an inadequate bonus system, a lack of facilities for protective equipment, and a failure to respect the company’s own medical insurance policy. 

According to the certification body, SIAT, and RSPO, all those issues were fixed in the following years. Yet, as our visit has shown, the problems still prevail in 2023 - and to such an extent that last year, the villagers’ struggle reached Brussels.

A coalition of local NGOs from Ghana, the Ivory Coast, and Nigeria, all affected by abuses from SIAT’s subsidiaries, visited SIAT’s headquarters and the European Parliament to bring attention to their case. The Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive was an impetus for their visit, as it gave them hope that multinational corporations’ impunity in the Global South is coming to an end. “The [corporate sustainability] due diligence directive is a very good stand that countries, communities, and NGOs, could use to address the legality of possessing our land by the foreign company which only farms for export, not for the good of our communities,” Adjawlo, who represented Ghanaian communities, said.

The coalition met with SIAT’s CEO, Jan van Eykeren, who promised to meet the affected communities. Although the schedule was ready, the meeting did not take place. “We feel fooled once again,” Adjawlo shared.

The year of their Brussels visit, the three-country coalition also issued a statement in which they announced their boycott of the RSPO. 

Enforcement issues

RSPO established “a definition of sustainable palm oil,” states Peter Oosterveer, a professor specializing in food systems at the University of Wageningen. “There’s a reference point. Before that, no one had a definition of sustainable palm oil. That’s an important step.” Yet, many issues stand in the way of ensuring real sustainability on the plantations. Difficulty in monitoring, the complexity of land rights, and conflict of interest due to financial dependency are the most important ones. 

A worker presses palm oil in a refinery in the Okumaning region. Photo: Zuza Nazaruk

While the RSPO standards may be applause-worthy, their implementation is often dubious: “Much depends on monitoring and control, and that’s often problematic,” Oosterveer states.

NGOs have been highly critical of RSPO’s audit system. Danielle van Oijen from Milieudefensie (Friends of the Earth Netherlands) calls the auditing a “check-the-box exercise”: “The auditors look at the company’s policies and then they have a few days of going inside the plantation.” Besides, auditors usually do not come from the region they are surveying. The first RSPO certificate for GOPDC was issued in Indonesia, while the second was agreed in the United States. “How, as a foreigner, who doesn’t even speak the language or know the local context, do you assess in a few hours if what the company says in the policies is true and happens in the plantations?,” van Oijen asks. 

TÜV Rheinland claims that they interviewed many stakeholders, including over 100 GOPDC employees and their family members, and visited at least two villages per audit. The villagers and Wisdom Koffi Adjawlo claim that at least 21 communities were affected by GOPDC’s actions. The rate of visiting two villages per audit for five years did not allow the certification body to visit even half of the affected communities.  

Nana Abbo, a retired villager beaten up for collecting GOPDC’s leftovers, did not make it into any audit reports. 

Additionally, customary land rights in West Africa are often not documented, which makes it a complex task to decipher property claims. Multiple NGOs, such as GRAIN and Friends of the Earth, point out that communities are often informed of the land lease agreement after it has already been concluded between the company and the government. The delay renders the Free, Prior, and Informed Consent (FPIC) principle unfulfillable. 

“Land conflicts are complex,” van Oijen highlights. “It’s just not possible to make a full assessment during an audit.” 

Finally, there is an inherent conflict of interest if companies pay certification bodies. According to Williams, having certification bodies with an “independent and third-party” relationship to RSPO do audits on the ground is a way to “ensure transparency and avoid conflict of interest.” Yet, this dependency can work the other way round: “If certification bodies are too harsh and do not give the certificate, they will not be hired anymore. A plantation company can shift to another certification body. This is a big problem in voluntary certification schemes,” van Oijen highlights. 

The issue is not restricted to RSPO but is endemic among voluntary certification schemes. RSPO’s sole accreditation body, Assurance Services International, which accredits companies like TÜV Rheinland or SCS Global to audit and give certifications, was recently named in an investigation on how FSC paper labels do not prevent deforestation. SCS Global was called out for certifying plantations with human rights abuses across West Africa. 

All this evidence circles back to why the Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive came about – voluntary schemes do not ensure that no human rights violations take place. According to Van Oijen, “The industrial palm oil sector just has too many structural issues with labour, environment – like pollution and deforestation – and also with land rights. These structural issues are not solved by any certification scheme.”

Adjawlo puts it more bluntly: “RSPO is a protective body to legalize what the companies are doing. If you look at the criteria on which RSPO is based to license palm oil companies, you realize that they don’t take into consideration the human rights aspect. If they did, what happened here in Ghana, what is happening in Nigeria, cannot be happening. And RSPO goes ahead to certify these bodies.”

MEPs managed to push away lobbying in the de-forestation directive, where tire companies tried to exclude the rubber sector. SIAT has rubber plantations in the Ivory Coast and Cambodia and its clients were part of the lobbying effort. It seems that the MEPs will manage also with CSDDD and not allow for voluntary certifications to suffice instead of actual, long-awaited and belated, due diligence by the companies themselves. 

As GOPDC keeps on stalling the compensation, the directive may be decisive in changing the fate of the Aboabo community. Otherwise, many villagers remain stuck despite keeping up their fight. GOPDC worker Daniel explained that he is a car mechanic who doubles as a driver. Yet, without money, he cannot move to a different town to work, renew his license, or buy a car. “My hands are tied. I can only work with the company here to make ends meet,” he shares.

**Name changed for security reasons

SIAT withdrew comments on the article, citing partial contextualisation and referring us to official documents. The company claims to have a publicly available policy covering its commitment to FPIC but it is nowhere to be found. Similar to GOPDC’s land tenure agreement, which, according to the company website, is available upon request. We have asked for it on six different occasions over the span of 2.5 months, from GOPDC’s Office Manager Augustine Owosu-Sarpong and SIAT’s Chief Business Development Officer Mano Demeure, but we never received it.  

The production of this investigation is supported by a grant from the IJ4EU fund. The International Press Institute (IPI), the European Journalism Centre (EJC) and any other partners in the IJ4EU fund are not responsible for the content published and any use made out of it.

About the authors

Magdalena Krukowska (Belgium/Poland) – since 15 ys cooperating with Forbes magazine, professor of sustainability and journalism, author of the film reportages “Mantra of Bhutan”, “Shule Bora”, “War for the minerals of war”, broadcasted, among others in VOD.pl, TVN24, forbes.pl, and of the documentary „New City” about the land grabbing in the Philippines.

Zuza Nazaruk (Netherlands/Poland) – Rotterdam-based journalist covering climate & environment. Current BIRN Fellow for Journalistic Excellence, a fellow with Civil Forum on Asset Recovery, and with International Journalists’ Programme. Her multimedia reporting appeared in Euronews Green, Unbias the News, DutchNews, Vers Beton, Kyiv Post, Gazeta Wyborcza, ENTR (France24), Equal Times, and more, in seven languages. 

 

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