The African Peoples Tribunal (APT) that took place this year, after its first edition in November 2020, was developed by Friends of the Earth Africa, Milieudefensie (Friends of the Earth Netherlands), Friends of the Earth International, and Rainforest Action Network.
This time, the APT took 10 cases, from 10 countries where Friends of the Earth has member groups, grassroots or allied organizations: Cameroon, Gabon, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Mozambique, Nigeria, Liberia, Tanzania, Sierra Leone and Uganda.
The cases provide strong evidence on the socio-environmental and gender impacts caused by agribusiness; in particular, violations of industrial plantations such as sugar cane, oil palm and eucalyptus, in territories and communities of the aforementioned countries.
To twist the corporate impunity used by transnational companies to move forward, the APT allows “to give a voice to local communities that suffer abuses and violations of their human and collective rights by corporate power and that, otherwise, would not be heard by the authorities,” explained Rita Uwaka (coordinator of the Forest and Biodiversity Program, FoE Africa) during the presentation of the findings of the tribunal, carried out through a webinar, on December 17.
In addition to giving visibility to the communities which are directly affected by industrial plantations, the APT allows for those accountable to be identified “with name and face,” added Uwaka.
Among the accused companies are the Investment Company for Tropical Agriculture (SIAT) in Ivory Coast; the Cameroonian Society of Palm Groves (SOCAPALM) in Cameroon; OLAM in Gabon, and Ghana Oil Palm Development Company, among others.
There was also exposure regarding the accountability that governments have had and still have in these violations of the collective rights of peoples by promoting the private interests of corporations over the common good, without regulating the activities of transnational companies in the territories.
After analyzing the presented cases, the popular tribunal, made up of expert activists, issued a verdict with recommendations to transnational companies, governments, donors, civil society organizations, international organizations and all decision-makers, urging them to respect people’s decisions, especially those of local communities that have been affected by agribusiness.
The verdict begins like this:
“Land belongs to people and communities, and they are managed in ways that meet their needs while maintaining a balance with nature. While promoters and financers of agro-commodity plantations treat trees as commodities and as carbon sinks, forest dependent communities see trees and forest as supporting their culture and food production, having intrinsic values, spiritual significance and as spaces that define their identity.”
The ruling also details various violations of rights registered in the 10 cases presented. In general terms, there is a systematic repression and use of security forces against the peoples affected by agribusiness projects. Regarding land grabbing, the members of the tribunal point out that there is evidence of how transnational companies “monopolize land with the complicity of governments and their respective Agriculture ministries, which facilitate the entry of companies into communities, allowing the complete destruction of crops or their transformation to palm plantations (or other monocultures).”
One of the most noted issues is how communities see how their territories end up in the hands of transnational companies, without these projects being previously subjected to free and informed consultations, provided for in ILO Convention 169.
These ten cases recorded threats, denial of labor rights and the right to protest, arrests, imprisonments and murders. The testimonies of various women who appeared as witnesses in the complaints show they have suffered situations of gender-based violence, intimidation, abuse, harassment, in the framework of the setup of industrial plantations.
Regarding violations of labor rights, the tribunal recorded events of this type in all cases. The ruling also denounces how the security of the communities is in danger due to the dispossession of territories, forced displacements, militarization and other forms of violence that involve the facilities of these agribusinesses.
These projects have as a consequence socioeconomic imbalances, environmental damage, corruption, corporate capture of the State and greenwashing campaigns. However, they generate resistance movements in organized communities.
Finally, the tribunal issued a series of recommendations addressed to governments and corporations, among which the following stand out: that free, prior and informed consultations be carried out, respecting ILO Convention 169; that the right to free association and assembly of the communities that resist the installation of industrial projects and plantations be respected; that the freedom of speech of these communities be respected; that governments implement mechanisms to review the agreements that allowed the implementation of industrial plantations and that they reject new bilateral or multilateral free trade agreements that violate human rights; that governments get involved in the negotiations held in Geneva to achieve the approval of a Binding Treaty to protect the peoples who suffer violations of their human and collective rights by transnational companies.
“This is not about one or ten cases: it is a structural problem. We have to strategically think of responses to prevent and improve the lives of affected people,” said Danielle van Oijen, a member of Milieudefensie, during the webinar where the APT findings were presented.
For FoE Africa, it is important to continue this process to map power relations that cause human rights violations, and to put a name and a face to funding bodies and their ties.
Another objective of the APT, in addition to pointing out the accountability governments have when they do not regulate the activity of transnational corporations, is to promote this regulation through the approval of a Binding Treaty on Transnational Corporations and Human Rights of the UN and “exert pressure on governments to provide access to justice and protection for communities,” explained Rita Uwaka.
Isaac Rojas, co-coordinator of the Friends of the Earth International Forest and Biodiversity Program, said the evidence presented to the African Peoples Tribunal represents a new input to highlight at the international level “how corporate power is advancing” and why “this model and these companies do not benefit us.”
“These cases transcend the geographical location and serve not only to demonstrate how the agribusiness model and its socio-environmental impacts work, but to show that this is not an alternative, that they do not provide more employment in countries that need it, and that the quality of life and rights of the communities do not improve; in addition to the fact that, in many cases, communities cannot remain on their traditional lands.”
“Although the impacts occur in specific countries,” Rojas continued, “the cases represent a pattern repeated in other regions of the world, such as Latin America and Asia, and many times they are the same companies creating these impacts.”
Given this, Rita Uwaka stressed that “there can be no significant progress if we do not link these cases with international solidarity, with broader processes of international struggle against corporate power.”
In this sense, Friends of the Earth Africa and Friends of the Earth International emphasized that they will closely monitor the situation of the affected communities surveyed for the APT and that they will generate the greatest number of instances of dialogue with parliamentary representatives, governors and company managers, in order to send them the collected documentation and put an end to indifference to violations of rights by corporations.
As positive results, they detailed that a Human Rights Commission was formed in Liberia; they have also held meetings with executives from Blackrock, a company with numerous oil businesses on the African continent; and that the collaboration between groups of Friends of the Earth Africa and Europe has been strengthened.
In addition, Danielle van Oijen, from FoE Netherlands, said that they are currently working on three simultaneous lines: 1) prevention, to avoid the repetition of socio-environmental damage in plantations, through national campaigns to create anti-deforestation legislation; 2) litigation strategies to present damage claims against companies and indemnify the victims, and 3) dissemination campaigns to warn about the misuse of land by corporations and ensure that communities can access their native forests and take care of them through community management.