Sierra Leone: jail time for protest against palm oil

Protest against oil palm plantationThe palm oil company is using lawsuits in an attempt to silence protests.
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The Belgian-Luxembourgish consortium Socfin is establishing plantations in Sierra Leone to produce palm oil for export. The local population is standing up to intimidation and imprisonment and continuing to protest against the destruction of natural areas and land grabbing. Please support our petition.

Call to action

To: Mr. Vincent Bolloré, Chairman and CEO of the Bolloré Group; Mr. Hubert Fabri, Chairman of the Board of Socfin; Mr. Frank Kargbo, Minister of Justice and Attorney-General, Sierra Leone; Mr. Sulaiman Bah, Director of Public Prosecution, Sierra Leone

“Stop oil palm plantations in Sierra Leone; stop lawsuits and intimidation targeted at residents, organizations, and journalists.”

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Companies from abroad are buying up enormous tracts of land in Africa—usually against the will of the local population. In southeastern Sierra Leone's Pujehun District, the government has leased 65 km2 of land to the Belgian-Luxembourgish consortium Socfin to establish oil palm plantations. Nature and traditional agriculture will be replaced by industrial monocultures; the palm oil produced there will be exported to Europe.

The people living on this land were not consulted, and they are on the brink of ruin, forced to relinquish their land to the consortium for at least 50 years.

The 40 villages affected by the palm oil project founded the Malen Land Owners' Association (MALOA) to better defend their rights. Yet anyone protesting against the land grab is threatened by violence. In early October, six leading members of the Association were arrested and jailed for allegedly uprooting oil palms on a Socfin plantation.

"The association urgently needs support; its members are being persecuted all the time," explains Joseph Rahall, Director of the environmental and human rights organization Green Scenery. His organization has been sued by the palm oil corporation for defamation. In France several journalists and media outlets have already been sued by the Socfin and Bolloré groups for libel and damages because of critical reports on the companies' activities in Africa. Green Scenery and ten other organizations are demanding that the Bolloré Group immediately stop such actions.

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Socfin's main (38.7%) stockholder is the French Bolloré Group. Its owner, French magnate Vincent Bolloré, is also a member of Socfin's board.

Please sign our petition to the Socfin's and Bolloré Group's Chairman and CEO and the relevant judicial authorities in Sierra Leone:


Green Scenery was reported to the police after publishing a critical article on a site visit about Socfin’s land deal in May, 2011. 12 international organizations are demanding: “End intimidation around Sierra Leone oil palm project.”

“Bolloré and Fabri are using a defamation suit to silence local opposition and to intimidate an NGO whose only crime is to defend the basic rights of local farmers whose land is being taken away,” says Frédéric Mousseau of the Oakland Institute in the press release.

“Similar practices by Socfin subsidiaries have been reported in recent years in Liberia, Cameroon, and Cambodia, where Bolloré or Socfin have used the threat of legal action against NGOs and the media to silence criticism,” says Devlin Kuyek of GRAIN.

Socfin and its main stockholder, the French Bolloré group, appear to be very concerned about the companies’ reputations and are trying to silence critics in Europe as well. They have filed a number of suits against French journalists and media outlets because of their reporting on the land grab and their companies’ disastrous labor conditions in Africa.

2009: Journalist Benoît Collombat, two directors of the public radio station France Inter as well as photographer Isabelle Alexandra Ricq were sued for libel by the Bolloré group (in French). The reason: the critical 45-minute report “Cameroon, Vincent Bolloré’s Black Empire,” which was aired on March 29, 2009, on the program “Interception” as well as an interview with Ricq in connection with her photo report on the Socapalm subsidiary’s palm oil plantations in Cameroon.

On May 6, 2010, the first three journalists were sentenced to paying 1,000 euros in fines and one euro in damages each (see French economic group Bolloré attempts to intimidate journalists who expose abusive practices on its plantations in Cameroon). The suit against the photographer was dropped in June.

June, 2010: The Bolloré Group sued the magazine “Témoignage chrétien” (in French) for publishing an article about the France Inter radio station case on March 4, 2010, and demanded a right of reply. But since the reply was merely a Bolloré Group advertisement, the magazine declined to print it—and was sued.

3. December 3, 2010: Two organizations from Cameroon, the French human rights organization Sherpa, and the Christian aid organization Misereor filed a complaint with the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) against the Socfin Group and its main shareholder because of negative impacts on the traditional livelihoods of local communities and plantation workers in Cameroon and poor working conditions in subsidiary Socapalm’s Cameroon operations.

In June, 2013, the responsible National Contact Point (NCP) (in French) declared the complaints admissible. Subsequently, the Bolloré Group retracted its defamation suit against Sherpa (in French). Now, the NGOs are working with local people, the authorities, and Bolloré group companies on finding ways to solve the problems at Socapalm.

October, 2011: The Sierra Leone police arrested 40 local people after assaulting some of them in their houses. The villagers were alleged to have participated in protests against Socfin. The demonstrators had protested against land deals, a lack of transparency in the land deals, inappropriate consultations and compensation, corruption, as well as the pressure exerted by Socfin on landowners and local leaders to sign agreements.

A few days later, 25 people were released after Green Scenery had engaged a lawyer, “but 15 were charged on counts of riotous conduct, conspiracy, and threatening language.” Proceedings have been postponed time and again since then.

June, 2013: Green Scenery and its director Joseph Rahall were sued by Socfin (see Press Release: SOCFIN Using Intimidation to Silence Local Opposition to African Land Grab) because the organization had published a critical report on a preliminary study on Socfin’s land deal in May, 2011.

August 2013: The Bolloré Group files defamation suits against the two websites “Basta!” und “Rue 89” (see Rue89 et Bastamag mis en examen sur plainte du groupe Bolloré and Bolloré: Bastamag et Rue 89 mis en examen pour diffamation) because they had published an article on land grabbing (in French) on October 1, 2012.

In early October, 2013, journalist Martine Orange reported that the Brussels Office of the Public Prosecutor filed suit against the President of the Socfin Group, who lives in Switzerland, for tax evasion, improper accounting, and money laundering (in French).

Land grabs in Sierra Leone

The agricultural land used by most farmers in Sierra Leone is not precisely surveyed, and the farmers generally do not hold titles to their land recorded in a land registry. Government officials and companies exploit this situation by selling the land that local people have been using and living on for many generations without their knowledge and consent. The farmers’ vested rights are simply ignored, and at best, they receive symbolic payments and promises of jobs in the future.

The local environmental and human rights organization Green Scenery and the US-based Oakland Institute studied land deals conducted primarily by European and Asian corporations in Sierra Leone. Green Scenery estimates that approximately 20 major investors have gotten their hands on at least one million hectares of land in Sierra Leone, which amounts to almost one-fifth of the country’s agricultural land.

Most of these large projects are industrial plantations for export—huge monocultures of oil palms, sugarcane for biofuels (ethanol), rubber trees, and recently also rice. Socfin is negotiating with the country’s government about another land deal covering 50 km2.

The Socfin Group

The Belgian-Luxembourgish Socfin Group maintains 164,000 hectares of industrial plantations in Africa and Asia, including 100,239 hectares of oil palms and 63,732 hectares of rubber trees. In 2012, the group produced 316,000 tons of palm oil and 52,000 tons of rubber.

The Socfin Group's network of companies is very complicated and is controlled, among others, by holding companies in Belgium, France, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Switzerland, and Guernsey.

The Socfin Group’s palm oil plantation companies



Area of oil palm plantations in hectares


Sierra Leone



Côte d’Ivoire












Democratic Republic of the Congo








Source: Socfin

The Socfin Group’s rubber plantation companies



Area of rubber plantations in hectares


Côte d’Ivoire














Socfin KCB






Source: Socfin

Studies, reports, and videos on land-grabbing in Sierra Leone in English:

- Green Scenery: List of studies
- Welthungerhilfe: Increasing Pressure for Land: Implications for Rural Livelihoods and Development Actors A Case Study in Sierra Leone
- Oakland Institute: Socfin land investment in Sierra Leone and video Agricultural investment or land grab in Sierra Leone


To: Mr. Vincent Bolloré, Chairman and CEO of the Bolloré Group; Mr. Hubert Fabri, Chairman of the Board of Socfin; Mr. Frank Kargbo, Minister of Justice and Attorney-General, Sierra Leone; Mr. Sulaiman Bah, Director of Public Prosecution, Sierra Leone

Dear sirs:

according to the environmental and human rights organization Green Scenery in Sierra Leone, five members of the Malen Land Owners Association (MALOA) were arrested and jailed in early October, 2013 (see below). They are alleged to have uprooted oil palms on a plantation of the Socfin Agricultural Company, a subsidiary of Socfin.

Green Scenery itself as well as several journalists and media outlets in France have already been sued by the Socfin and Bolloré groups for libel and damages because of critical reports on the companies’ activities in Africa.

We cannot see a legal basis for the charges and the arrests. Instead, it seems to be the goal of Socfin and its main stockholder, the French Bolloré group, to threaten and criminalize the local population and the organizations insisting that their land rights and their human rights be respected, and to force them to surrender.

The jailed members of MALOA should be released immediately, and all charges and proceedings against the local population, organizations, journalists, and media outlets should be abandoned. We call upon you to give the local people their land back, to respect human rights and the freedom of the press, and to protect nature.

Yours faithfully,

List of the six arrested MALOA members
Honorable Shaka Musa Sama, Former MP in the area and spokesperson for Maloa; Sima Mattia, Secretary General of MALOA from Kassey, arrested on Oct. 11; Kennie Blango, Financial Secretary, from Bamba; Lahai Sellu from Massao, Foday Musa from Wallah, all arrested on Oct. 7; and Musa Sellu from Massao, arrested on Oct. 8.


The issue – rainforest on our dinner tables and in our fuel tanks


At 66 million tons annually, palm oil is the most commonly produced vegetable oil. Its low world market price and properties that lend themselves to processed foods have led the food industry to use it in half of all supermarket products. Palm oil can be found in frozen pizzas, biscuits and margarine, as well as body creams, soaps, makeup, candles and detergents.

Few people realize that almost half of the palm oil imported into the EU is used as biofuel. Since 2009, the mandatory blending of biofuels into motor vehicle fuels has been a major cause of deforestation.

Oil palm plantations currently cover more than 27 million hectares of the Earth’s surface. Forests and human settlements have been destroyed and replaced by “green deserts” containing virtually no biodiversity on an area the size of New Zealand.

The impact – suffering and death in producer countries, climate havoc

The warm, humid climate of the tropics offers perfect growth conditions for oil palms. Day after day, huge tracts of rainforest in Southeast Asia, Latin America and Africa are being bulldozed or torched to make room for more plantations, releasing vast amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. As a consequence, Indonesia – the world’s largest producer of palm oil – temporarily surpassed the United States in terms of greenhouse gas emissions in 2015. With their CO2 and methane emissions, palm oil-based biofuels actually have three times the climate impact of traditional fossil fuels.

Palm oil is not only bad for the climate: As their forest habitat is cleared, endangered species such as the orangutan, Borneo elephant and Sumatran tiger are being pushed closer to extinction. Smallholders and indigenous people who have inhabited and protected the forest for generations are often brutally driven from their land. In Indonesia, more than 700 land conflicts are related to the palm oil industry. Human rights violations are everyday occurrences, even on supposedly “sustainable” and “organic” plantations.

As consumers, we are largely unaware of these broader issues, yet our daily palm oil consumption also impacts our health: refined palm oil contains large amounts of harmful fatty acid esters that are known to damage DNA and cause cancer.

The solution – a revolution on our dinner tables and in our fuel tanks

Only 70,000 orangutans still roam the forests of Southeast Asia, yet the EU’s biofuels policy is pushing them to the brink of extinction. Every new plantation on Borneo is destroying a further piece of their habitat. Stepping up the pressure on policymakers is a must if we want to save our tree-dwelling kin. Apart from that, however, there is still a lot we can do in day-to-day life.

Follow these simple tips to recognize, avoid and combat palm oil:

  1. Enjoy a home-cooked meal: Use your imagination: why not try almond-coconut-pear biscuits? Or pizza with potato and rosemary? A meal cooked from fresh ingredients beats processed foods containing palm oil every time. Oils such as sunflower, olive, rapeseed or flaxseed are ideal for cooking and baking.
  2. Read labels: As of December 2014, labeling regulations in the EU require food products to clearly indicate that they contain palm oil. However, in the case of non-food items such as cosmetics and cleaning products, a wide range of chemical names may still be used to hide the use of palm oil. A quick check of your favorite search engine will turn up palm oil-free alternatives, however.
  3. Remember that the customer is king: Ask your retailers for palm oil-free products. Write product manufacturers and ask them why they aren’t using domestic oils. Companies can be quite sensitive to issues that give their products a bad name, so inquiring with sales staff and contacting manufacturers can make a real difference. Public pressure and increased awareness of the problem have already prompted some producers to stop using palm oil.
  4. Sign petitions and write your elected representatives: Online campaigns put pressure on policymakers responsible for biofuels and palm oil imports. Have you already signed all of Rainforest Rescue’s petitions?
  5. Speak out: Protest marches and creative action on the street raise public and media awareness of the issue, which in turn steps up the pressure on policymakers.
  6. Leave your car at home: Whenever you can, walk, ride a bicycle or use public transport.
  7. Be informed and inform others: Big Business and governments would like us to believe that biofuels are good for the climate and that oil palm plantations are sustainable. Spread the word – share this information with your family and friends and encourage them to rethink their consumption habits. It’s in our hands!

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