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Response to Mongabay article, “Communities accuse Socfin and Earthworm Foundation of greenwash in West Africa”
Response to Mongabay article, “Communities accuse Socfin and Earthworm Foundation of greenwash in West Africa”
News Jun 23, 2023

Response to Mongabay article, “Communities accuse Socfin and Earthworm Foundation of greenwash in West Africa”, June 21, 2023

As a mission-driven non-profit working to protect forests and empower communities, Earthworm values the important work done by Mongabay to report on issues affecting our planet's and society's health.

We are avid readers of Mongabay news and rely on it to inform our work and hold our members and clients to account for implementing their responsible sourcing policies.

Therefore, we were shocked to read many unfounded accusations against us and factual errors in the recent article, "Communities accuse Socfin and Earthworm Foundation of greenwash in West Africa." We have written to the editors to ask them to correct the factual errors and are responding to the accusations here.

The importance of working with companies to protect people and the environment

Earthworm’s mission is to help companies be a force for good for people and nature. We, therefore, appreciate the important role of NGOs and civil society organisations in raising issues of corporate links with deforestation, land grabbing, and human rights abuses to the public. These voices are important to hold companies accountable for their policies, international standards, and customer expectations.

In our work, we help companies address and resolve the issues raised by stakeholders and improve their systems to prevent re-occurrence.

The most important thing for us is that change happens, and positive impacts are delivered for workers, communities, and the environment. We believe that working with companies to deliver that change is a powerful way to achieve our vision.

To meet this challenge, we feel it is important for the company to work with a trusted yet critical partner. As the article states, in this type of work, we are not fully independent – we are paid by the companies for the work that we do to assess the problem and advise them on what changes they need to make to achieve resolution. As a non-profit foundation, however, we are not accountable to clients or shareholders but to our mission. If a company with whom we work is engaging in behaviour that does not align with our mission or is not making sufficient progress to resolve serious issues, we will not hesitate to end our relationship.

Earthworm’s work with Socfin to date

The article implies that since Earthworm has been working with Socfin, there has not been much change on the ground. This is simply not true.

Socfin has built up its community liaison teams across its African operations and developed stakeholder engagement strategies, including management of complaints and requests, community development, and communication. Earthworm staff and local specialists have trained Socfin staff on participatory mapping, accident investigation, and gender-aware programme development. A grievance mechanism has been established across all operations. The company has made significant investments in worker housing as well as social infrastructure such as schools and water pumps for nearby communities.

Of course, the company still has work to do to implement its Responsible Sourcing Policy fully. Monitoring of subcontractors remains an issue, progress on resolving land conflicts has been too slow, and the company needs to keep moving towards more open dialogue with civil society organisations.

After more than two decades of work in this field, we have learned that change never comes at the speed we would like as a mission-driven organisation.

Nonetheless, we are continuing to work with Socfin because we have seen real improvements for workers, communities, and the environment.

Communities have not rejected our investigation

We reached out to several of the organisations cited in the Mongabay article as part of our preparation for our investigation.

We were able to engage with some of them before they decided to withdraw from the process. While we were disappointed by this decision, ultimately, Socfin’s relationship is with the affected communities, and each community was given the opportunity to participate or not in the investigation.

As described below, we were able to visit many affected communities in both Liberia and Cameroon and speak with community members about the allegations. Many community members provided us with valuable information that, in some cases, supported and in some cases refuted the allegations. It is completely incorrect to say that all the communities rejected our investigation.

It is also not the case that our contact with stakeholders was ‘last-minute’. We started reaching out to local community organisations two weeks before the field visit to Liberia and more than a month before the visit to Cameroon.

For the Cameroon investigation at Socapalm Dibombari, we contacted the customary leaders of all of the affected communities around the concession in order to share our public statement explaining the work and our relationship to Socfin, a summary of the Free, Prior, Informed Consent (FPIC) principles that is the framework for all our local engagement. We also provided the names and contact details of all the members of the research team of five, comprising three men and two women. This led to responses from all the communities, eventually leading to the organisation of meetings with local leaders and community representatives from six of the seven villages targeted.

During those meetings, groups of men and women from those communities agreed to answer questions related to the allegations that had been set out in NGO and press reports. Men and women were interviewed separately and concurrently. There were also separate individual interviews with key informants from the community and company. The information thus gathered was compared with documentation provided by all parties, and findings were confirmed via triangulation of all these sources, including a detailed review of maps, company paperwork and other records.

For the Liberia investigation at Salala Rubber Corporation (SRC), we contacted key civil society organisations to explain our relationship to Socfin and the investigative work we were undertaking. We asked them to list the specific grievances they would like us to investigate and share any evidence they already had. In addition, we met three CSO leaders in person in Monrovia, who helped us identify which communities to visit and specific individuals to interview. We shared the names and contact details of the field investigation team, comprised of 1 man and 3 women, with CSOs with whom we were in contact.

During the visit to affected communities, information was provided in writing and also verbally in the local language about who we were and the purpose of our visit.

Communities were given the opportunity to ask questions and decide if they would like to participate. Local community leaders, including the chiefs, women, elders and youth, agreed to be interviewed about the allegations raised in NGO reports and press articles.

We spent five days visiting communities and worker camps surrounding and inside plantation areas, where we heard concerns and looked at the evidence through community/town meetings, focus group discussions, individual interviews and direct observation.

We visited a total of four worker camps and 13 towns, of which three declined to share information due to an ongoing court case against SRC and the Government of Liberia. As part of our research, we conducted interviews with 60 women through focus groups or individual interviews.

A summary of the findings from our field visits will be made to all parties involved and will be published on our website. This should be ready by the end of July.

Conclusion

The challenges we face in our work with Socfin are significant.

The issues with communities often stem from historical land acquisition practices and increasing demand for farmland and will not be solved overnight.

We believe that Socfin, which is under new leadership, is committed to addressing the specific challenges they face while respecting human rights and protecting nature. If our ongoing grievance investigations fail to bring about substantial change for workers and communities, we will reassess our collaboration with Socfin.

We remain open to dialogue with all stakeholders and will ensure transparency and progress in this important matter. We appreciate Mongabay's dedication to reporting on environmental concerns and value the opportunity to address the inaccuracies and provide clarity on our work.

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