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The four-stepped staircase was developed around and used in the conflict in several areas of Cameroon dating from June 2010 which set the Socapalm company and local communities against each other. It is therefore a relatively recently developed tool, within a wider conflict that has been going on for over 40 years.
Socapalm is a company in the oil-palm and rubber agro-industry. Created in the late 1960s in Cameroon, it owned the biggest public plantation in the country. In 2000, the company was privatized and became the holding Socfinal, whose main shareholder is the Bolloré group.
The residents of the lands surrounding the plantions have been the main victims of their development. In spite of the numerous promises made over the past 40 years, this privatization process has never benefited the community, nor has any compensation ever been made for the loss of their lands and heritage. When the ownership of the land was signed over to private industry, the agreement signed between Socapalm and the Government of Cameroon made commitments to the local community on behalf of the private company. 10 years down the line not one of these commitments has been honored. One point in defence of the company is that none of the commitments to the local residents were acted upon when the company was under public ownership either.
1.The basis of the conflict, and the feeling of injustice in the local communities
The creation and development of the first Socapalm plantations in the late 1960s led to the clearing of acres of forest, used up until that point by local communities for hunting and gathering. Arable lands were also requisitioned for the monoculture, taking away lands the local community cultivated. These land confiscations– a vital resource for the community – is the cause of the conflict between Socapalm and the local population. Local communities enjoyed rights over these different areas of land that are recognized in Camerounian law and for which they have never been compensated. The residents share a strong feeling of injustice over this issue, a feeling further reinforced by the legal recognition of theses rights and the numerous promises made by the government, and more recently by the company.
Besides the land conflict, the current form of land use causes a number of problems for the men and women affected by the activities of the company:
Deprivation of other resources: the destruction of the forest drove away wildlife and the pollution of rivers has made fishing impossible in some areas.
Lack of job opportunities within Socapalm for local people.
Environmental damage: air, soil and river pollution.
Insecurity: violence perpetrated in some areas on the local residents by a private security company employed by Socapalm.
These different levels of harm inflicted on local communities strengthen the general awareness of being victims of injustice.
2. The deadlocks of the conflict: Blind anger and illusions
An underlying anger prevails among the local communities neighboring the five Socapalm plantations across the country. Recent history shows us two different kind of actions used by locals in an effort to alter the status quo. They represent the two deadlocks at either side of the staircase.
In almost every plantation we can observe regular cases of the population rising up against the company.
— November 2010: some residents of Bidou 3, a village in the Kienké area, attacked with machetes employees of Socapalm who had come to take measurements for the expansion of the plantations. The previous year, a similar incident took place and was escalated by the intervention of security officers two of whom ended up with severed limbs.
— In Bikondo, North of the same plantation, a bulldozer driver has been seriously injured after being shot with arrows.
— In Mbommono, within the Dibombari plantation, some people were heard bragging about attacking a white executive (French) in 2006 and thrusting a machete in his back. He has not been seen in Cameroon since.
— In another plantation called Mbongo, in March 2010, people from several villages attacked the company offices after having been the victims of abuses by the security company Africa Security. Several offices were vandalized and houses burnt.
This list could be continued at length with other events. In each of them the intervention of law enforcement officials eventually brought the situation under control. Sometimes these incidents were followed by a visit from the local authorities (with or without the director of the plantation) to listen to the grievances of local communities, and at times making promises to maintain “neighbourly relations”.
Most often, these dialogue initiatives that follow local uprisings quickly cease after stability has been re-established.
To discourage the desire that many people have to fight their way out of this situation, leaders who work with the staircase approach found a valuable resource in traditional wisdom and proverbs. This is done with the goal of demonstrating that the violent approach will lead to deadlock.
« Le caillou lancé avec colère rate sa cible ». “The rock thrown in anger misses its target”. This is about standing up for organization and strategy rather than spontaneous uprisings that invariably follow the incidents acting as the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.
« On ne cuit pas un gros gibier avec un feu de paille ». "Big game cannot be cooked on a hay fire". With a large organization such as Socapalm, one cannot expect a significant victory after a day of anger.
The second method frequently used to address the situation is one defended by some of the traditional headmen. As with the anger deadlock there is a long list of letters to and meetings with the management, meetings for resolving conflict etc. without ever achieving any tangible outcome except vague promises and a token monetary remuneration to the attendees of these meetings.
In the district of Kienké, the traditional headman will show the 18 letters he has written to the General Manager of the plantation as well as the Préfet of the region requesting meetings. He also shows the ones written by the association of the Mabi Headmen, consisting of 7 headmen of villages near the plantation. Most of these letters remain unanswered though a few meetings have occurred, usually initiated by the company when it plans expansions (for example in December 2010, the manager went on tour in different villages around the plantation). However nothing significant has ever come out of these meetings. Moreover, these meetings are looked on with distaste by locals who see them as a sign that the headmen have been bought off by Socapalm.
In Dibombarri, a discussion forum was established in the aftermath of uprisings and monthly meetings took place. Here as well the residents of the villages concerned charged the attendees with being bought by Socapalm.
Leaders that promote collective organization also refer to proverbs to discredit the chiefs’ behavior.
— « Le coq ne négocie pas avec le cafard ». (The rooster does not negotiate with the cockroach).
— « On caresse la vache pour mieux la traire ». (The cow is stroked to better take milk from her).
— « Folle est la gazelle qui au lion se confesse ». (Crazy is the gazelle that goes to the lion to confess).
Usually, these illustrative proverbs are employed to criticize people who are naïve enough to believe that an amicable negotiation is possible in a situation of strong asymmetrical power.
3. Implementing the staircase model
To move this situation forward from stalemate, ReAct initially put into place a set of meetings with key stakeholders from all the different villages around the plantations. The first step here is achieved by engaging in individual and collective discussions on the difficulties induced by the activities of the company. These discussion can (but do not need to be) initiated by outside intervention. This role of catalyzing events is drawn from methods of community organizing as developed by Saul Alinsky.
In the Socapalm case, this function has been fulfilled by various different people:
— In the district of Kienké David N., a native of the region who emigrated to Europe in the 1980s, returned in June 2010 and went around the villages neighbouring the plantation to discuss the problems and the different ways of facing them. His participation is an asset, since he was born in the area, but is capable of proffering an outsider’s point of view as well.
— Nicolas R., organizer for ReAct, went to Cameroon to meet numerous leaders in villages neighbouring Socapalm plantations. As a white outsider his presence is mainly legitimized through sharing the nationality of the main shareholder of the company i.e. Vincent Bolloré.
— Jean E. is a resident of Mbonjo, a village beside the Dimbombarri plantation. Convinced that getting organized was a priority he quickly outgrew the role of local leader to become a regional organizer, going around different plantation districts.
This step of the work mainly consists of identifying key stakeholders, those respected for their leadership in different villages, to share feelings of injustice and agree on the inefficitivity of the two paths leading to deadlock. These meetings are key in mobilising people and initiating meetings that will initiate the organization process.
« Un seul doigt n’attrape pas le bout de viande au fond de la marmite. Un seul brin de paille ne peut pas balayer toute la cour. Mais si nous formons tous un seul bloc, alors nous serons assez forts pour revendiquer notre patrimoine ».
One finger cannot catch the piece of meat at the bottom of the pot. One straw cannot sweep up the whole courtyard. But if together we form one unit, then we will be strong enough to reclaim our heritage. Elie Nguimme, President of the national association of the Socapalm residents.
From the starting point of the intial meetings described above, collective meetings are organized at different levels -first within one village, then between neighbouring villages (such as the villages of Bikondo, Bilolo and Bissiang to the north of the Kienké plantation), for the entire plantation (around ten villages), and then at the national level.
Meetings are at the core of organizing:
— Before: Listing key stakeholders in every village, inviting them, and reminding them to attend.
— During the meeting: Organization (setting the agenda, assigning roles, and taking decisions)
— After: Keeping in contact, tracking tasks.
The main issues in ascending the organizational step in this conflict were as follows:
— 1. Ability to mobilise people to attend the meetings at different levels.
— 2. Sharing out roles during the meetings (temporary board memebers, committee coordinator, communications officer…). Power issues are always complex and sensitive. In one of the plantations mistakes regarding this led to the failure of organizing attempts in December 2010. One village was not adequately represented, and one leader placed at the head of the organisation turned out to be unreliable.
— 3. Structure, connection between the different levels. The organization is not built from the bottom up, but the rather the different levels are put into place at the same time. First a few local meetings were held, and then a national meeting in order to encourage the most motivated local leaders, and hold an event that can create the dynamics that will break the status quo. The information that there has been a ‘first national meeting’ where ‘for the first time, local leaders from four different plantations gathered’ spreads and motivates people to attend local meetings, thus breaking the pattern of fatalism prevalent over the last 40 years.
Standing on the first two steps of organization, local residents neighboring to the plantations hold actions aimed at making the Socapalm management more responsive and accountable.
In the Kienké plantation where the process of organization started, actions where held in the neighboring villages when the company started it’s expansion. These actions were inspired by the dynamics of meetings and nascent organization. However, they were not anchored within a wider strategy and some of them were reminscent of the earlier outbursts of anger. Blockading bulldozers in January 2011 in Bikondo, or the obstruction of surveyors in Bidou 3 occurred without the coordination necessary to create a shift in the balance of power. However, the combination of the organizational process and the rise in direct action led the management of Socapalm to react.
The first national actions resulting from the organizational process were focussed on leaflet distribution. The flyer contained a text signed by the residents of four different plantations with the objective of informing the population, but also the management, that the set-up was changing and that local residents were no longer isolated in their struggle. This step of action was developed to serve the dual purpose of informing the local communities and also as a veiled threat towards the management of Socapalm, as leaflets were posted in all of the plantations management’s mailboxes, as well the Head Office of the company in Douala.
Next a national day of action was launched after an inter-plantation meeting, as a first attempt to bring the organistion to the same level as the national management of Socapalm and to establish the General Manager as the main target and interlocuter in the dispute. A blockade of the Socapalm employment offices occurred in Dibombarri, whilst a gathering disturbed the main entrance of the factories in the Kienké and Mbongo plantations. What is significant here is more the symbolic impact of simultaneous actions than the actual disruption caused. However, betrayal within the organization and attempts to sabotage this plan detracted from their efficiency and scope.
Action is in reaction. The aim of the actions is to drive the management of the Socapalm to react. The last step of the staircase, negotiation, is the objective of the current organization among local plantations communities.
Even if this process has not been reached at the national scale yet, it has been launched in some of the plantations as a result of the actions that were organized.
— In Dibombarri a first step has been taken towards the objective of arranging for compensation and a fairer sharing of benefits. This first target is simple and easily acheived: the company has to pay for the village water resevoir. A first meeting had already been held between village representatives and the management, though without much success. After the actions causing disturbance to the plantation a new meeting was arranged, and the management finally agreed provide half the money necessary. “It’s a small victory, but a first victory that inspires others”, explains Jean E., leader-organizer in Mbonjo, Dibombarri.
— In the Kienké area, an official negotiation has yet been established, but an implicit dialog is ongoing, with a process of concessions impacting the balance of power. The issue of water pollution caused by the company and providing access to drinking water for residents was highlighted every time the Préfet or the Manager visited the villages. In the aftermath of the awareness raising actions organized between December and February, the company met the traditional headmen again to inform of their willingness to drill and install water conveyances in villages around the plantation. After a few months it was done.
— In the different plantations it is not yet possible to talk about negotiations in the true sense of the word on account of the nature of conflict between the Socapalm and local communities. Snatches of negotiation and first concessions seem however to have come about as a response to the ongoing organization process and direct actions. These compromises from the company could well signal the start of a more fundamental change in the balance of power between Socapalm and local communities. However, the organization is still fragile at the local level, and at the drafting stage at the national level. The unevenness of power dynamics prevailing before the start of climbing the staircase have just started to shift after one year. The outcomes are promising and confirm the relevance of this tool, but the relevance and the degree of efficiency will only be borne out in the long term.