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Business

It's corporate interests over human rights, say NGOs

Shortly before Human Rights Day, NGO representatives make clear they face major difficulties in holding European companies accountable for actions in developing countries.

Pygmies in Africa

Worth less than trees? An NGO representative says companies see it that way

In the perennial battle between non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and big business, do those advocating for human rights even stand a chance? That's a fundamental question many of Germany's NGOs asked themselves Tuesday in Berlin.

Without fundamental changes in politics and society, their efforts may be little more than reactionary. Take, for example, the 400 Ugandan farming families driven from their land to make room for a Neumann Kaffee Gruppe coffee plantation. That's something which weighs on the consciousness of groups like FIAN Deutschland and MISEREOR.

And Human Rights Day will be celebrated on Friday – the same day the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded in Oslo. Many NGOs say the time for change is now.

Profits from palm oil

Guy Bertrand says he actually likes palm oil – it's used in processed food eaten around the world. But the Cameroonian in his mid-30's says his environmental NGO, FORCARFE, keeps a close eye on the activities of Socapalm, a private company which produces palm oil.

Coffee beans

Coffee beans grow where 400 Ugandan families used to farm

"In my country, an oil palm is worth more than a person," he told Deutsche Welle. "That's the truth. A tree is worth more than a human."

Socapalm, which was founded by the government of Cameroon, maintains five large domestic plantations for palm oil production.

It was privatized in 2000 under pressure from the World Bank. Today four out of five Socopalm stakeholders are European. They are investors from Luxembourg and Belgium, but most notably the Bollore Group from France.

Once the privatization was underway, the plantations began to expand and consume more land. Militias pushed ethnic Bantu and Pygmy villagers off of traditional lands they were legally entitled to. Many lost their livelihoods and the small gardens they sustained themselves with.

"The goal of the privatization was that the local population would profit from these economic structures – and that would balance out the loss of land," Bertrand said. "The promise was of jobs, jobs, jobs. But none of these promises have come to pass. Socopalm's employees – even if they don't come from Europe – come from far away."

Few jobs, little security

Those jobs generated by the privatization are offered by subcontractors on a temporary basis without social benefits or rights to strike. That's not just against International Labour Organization (ILO) norms, but also against the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) guidelines for multinational companies, Bertrand said.

A palm oil fruit

Palm oil is eaten in processed foods around the world

Socopalm's business strategy is decided in Europe, and Guy Bertrand doesn't believe the company is keeping with the ILO and OECD guidelines. So he lodged complaints against Socopalm in several European countries.

But the contact points Bertrand has lodged complaints with only examine cases – they don't have the power to impose sanctions. Furthermore, the contact point in Germany is part of a department of the Federal Ministry for Economics and Technology (BMWi).

Armin Paasch, a MISEREOR advisor on global trade and nourishment, says an inherent conflict of interest exists in Germany because one role of the BMWi is to help develop foreign trade.

Dutch system truly independent

The complaints system in the Netherlands is more impartial, according to Paasch.

"In the Netherlands there is one national contact point which is a panel of four experts from various social groups. NGOs, trade unions and others are represented. And in that case, independence is better guaranteed."

But another Europe-wide hurdle exists for NGOs trying to hold companies accountable for their actions abroad – the structures of the companies themselves.

European companies are often able to legally separate themselves from their foreign subsidiaries, rendering them nearly immune to prosecution, Paasch said.

Somailia military street patrol

European companies in Africa may use militia and police to protect their interests

Bertrand said that when those companies prepare to do business in developing countries, they often start with a plan which looks good on paper. But the actual results vary.

"Once they're here, we're treated like it's a war," he said. "They take the land and use everything at their disposal – including police and private security companies – to drive us off."

The real thorn in Bertrand's side is the flagrant disregard multinational companies have for the existing OECD guidelines. He said he would be happy if at least those standards where upheld.

"When we look at industrialized countries, what hurts us is not their wealth and our poverty," he said. "What bothers us is that we have no rights at all."

Author: Richard Fuchs/gps
Editor: Andrea Roensberg

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