La Cote Ivoire and its international corporate partners in crime – Nestlé, Cargill, Barry Callebaut, Mars, Olam, Hershey and Mondelēz, have a chocolate problem with disturbing allegations of child trafficking, child labor and slavery. The country is, however, unhappy for being famous as the world’s largest cocoa producer and involved in a delicate Hindi-Mandarin roulettes courtship of the Asian giants, juggling to be among the top five manganese producers of the world.
Caught up and entangled in this brinkmanship of wooing Asia’s top nuclear powers is the small village of Similimi which sits in the northeastern region of La Cote Ivoire bordering Ghana and Burkina Faso. Similimi is a swidden agriculture community whose residents have traditionally subsisted on the income from cashew trees, as well as the produce from other fruit trees and their vegetable gardens.
Similimi’s water supply comes entirely from two local rivers, the Djêlè and the Koloï, which were crystal clear and drinkable and the source of protein, where both the women and men conducted traditional fishing activities. This was where you got the latest and hottest gossips – the highly rated oral tabloid and their community-owned and driven social media platforms – their own Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Women and girls, and sometimes young men would on specific dates gathered in their numbers to do their laundries, discuss the local news, conclude business and bridal arrangements, make political decisions and forged alliances. The difference is that you got this information in real-time.
The communities are mostly animists and practice traditional rites through worship of their god called “Gbok Naga” which was resident on sacred hill on which the population would perform rituals. Annual hunting periods were preceded by a great ritual ceremony to the gods and this sacred place was guided by spiritual god (witch doctor) and every member of the community had trees in their fields under which they worshiped for blessings and good harvest. There was a special place where they would sacrifice goats, sheep and chickens to the ancestors.
Similimi was not your so-called middle-income community, but the people thrived on their land and natural resources to meet basic needs. Incomes from their farms and other livelihood activities could cover the cost of tuition for their children. Some parents were even able to send their children to school as far as the capital city, Abidjan and some parents were even able to cover college tuitions for their kids. The villagers experience domestic stability, relative prosperity and women were engaged into income-generating livelihood activities that complimented what incomes their husband brought into the family.
However, in 2007, the relative peace, stability and quiet enjoyed by this cheerful town would soon get disrupted. They were visited by foreign guests, escorted by top government officials from Abidjan. The Bondoukou Manganèse S.A. (BMSA), an Indian-owned manganese mining company, was introduced with promises of prosperity reverberating. But lurking behind the veneer of that promises were the ‘Hercules heels’ of Similimi. The prosperity promised would soon turn into poverty and the nightmare.
In a couple of months after the government official sealed the deal with BMSA, Similimi began to experience massive explosions, noise, and ground tremors as the company conducted dynamite explosions often and without prior information or knowledge to the communities to extract the manganese ore from the earth. The explosions cause tiring and deafening noises and foul smokes, cause cracks in the walls and sometimes total collapse of the buildings, forcing inhabitants to vacate in fear for their lives.
The communities experienced extreme emotional, social and psychological distress, disrupting their quality of live and livelihood. The tremors also affected the farmlands and crops uprooting trees and dumping dust and soil adversely affecting their productivity. Even the natural habitats were not spared as the exploitation had destructive effects on plantations, forests, rivers, and places of worship.
The once revered Djêlè and the Koloï rivers, the ‘social media center’ of the community was transformed into sterile mud puddle streams wrecked by constant erosions from the mining – making the water unsuitable for drinking and the farmland barren. “When it rains, the mud that runs off the barren land left by the company spills into the waters.
“We all know the water we consume is not clean, but we have no choice because we cannot afford to buy drinking water in the city, ” complained a villager. Another villager said “My family and I use the water from the river for our needs…my children and I developed stomach aches… the doctor tells us that it’s because of the water we drink”
What was even more shocking and traumatizing was when the Similimi communities learned and realized that their sacred hill, where their god, ‘Gbok Naga’ was resident had been demolished, making it impossible for them to perform their spiritual rites. They complained that their gods are angry because they hardly offer prayers again.
Another villager said, “The hill on which the mining operation is taking place is the sacred hunting ground where the hunting periods were preceded by a great ritual ceremony to the gods. In fact, the witch doctor who guarded these places was so affected by the destruction that he died a few months later.”
The prosperity promised by BMSA and the Government of La Cote D’ Ivoire turned into misery. One villager complained “I have six (6) children who are in school, since the company took over my land, I can no longer pay their school fees. One of my daughters studying in Abidjan called me to say she was expelled … there are also problems between my wife and me because I can no longer support her and my children.”
A female member of the community said, “The loss of our farmlands has even more serious consequences for women than for men because in our custom, the woman must also participate in the household expenses. The woman is responsible for the maintenance of the house, education, health and well-being of the family. “By losing my land, I lose my economic independence and I become dependent on my husband,” she lamented.
The Similimi communities through their chief, Adou Kouame, a peasant farmer and a community land rights defender, Kouman Kobenan Kra Michael, decided to mobilize their people into action to stop the carnage. They wrote letters after letters of complaints to both local and national government agencies and officials but were ignored repeatedly. They reached out to the BMSA company executives, to request compensation and relocation and to stop the destruction of their land, livelihood, religious areas and natural resources but they were mocked, disparaged and escorted off the company “property” by the private security officers of the company.
Not discouraged, chief, Adou Kouame along with Kouman Kobenan Kra Michael continued to mobilize their people while at the same time praying for help to come. They continued to organize and resist locally and on several occasions were arrested and detained. The level of attacks and reprisals including criminalization and stigmatization were relentlessly pursued by the state.
Chief, Adou Kouame and Kouman Kobenan Kra Michael are the newly emerging progressive leaders across most of West Africa. They are at the frontline in remote rural towns and villages as well as sprawling urban slums and squatter communities protecting their peoples and the planet from the scourge of privatization, exploitation, exclusions and commodification.
As Adou Kouame and Kouman Kobenan Kra Michael are involved in a ‘David and Goliath battle’ against BMSA to stop the destruction of their homelands in La Cote D’ Ivoire, similarly, in Liberia, Mustapha Foboi, a grassroots frontline defender took on the world’s largest oil palm corporation, Sime Darby and the Government of Liberia to halt the destruction of his ancestral lands and West Africa’s largest tropical forest, while in Sierra Leone, Aminata K. Fabba is facing off with SOCFIN, one of Europe’s largest agriculture conglomerate attempting to transform her ancestral land into an oil palm wasteland. In Guinea, Kpakilé Gnadawolo Kolié, a local community leader and his people in Zoghota, fought for more than eight years to demand justice for a nighttime massacre deliberately carried out by the Guinean army.
Back in Sierra Leone, Madam Kumba King, Tankoro Queen Mother along with her landholding community members have filed complaints against the Government of Sierra Leone before the ECOWAS Court of Justice and simultaneously the Koidu Limited (KL) – formerly known as Koidu Holdings Ltd. (KHL), a diamond mining enterprise before domestic courts in Sierra leone. While in Liberia, 22 indigenous communities lead by Abraham Kamara, a land right defender, dislodged from their habitat by the operations of the Salala Rubber Corporation (SRC) complained to the Compliance Advisor Ombudsman (CAO), the independent watchdog and accountability mechanism for the International Finance Corporation (IFC) and the World Bank Group.
In Nigeria, Pastor Evaristus Nicholas lead the campaign on behalf of his Aggah community from Rivers State, to file a complaint against the Italian energy company, ENI S.p.A with Italy’s grievance mechanism, OECD National Contact Point, complaining of the shocking impacts of flooding on their health, property, livelihoods and the environment. Still in Nigeria, farmers and fishermen who have battled the Royal Dutch Shell for years won a major victory after more than 12 years of litigation requesting Shell to clean up its oil spills in the Niger Delta contaminated land and groundwater there.
Adou Kouame and Kouman Kobenan Kra Michael along with their colleagues across West Africa are what we now referred to as Frontline Grassroots Environmental, Land and Human Rights Defenders at the frontline battling the environmental injustice, destructive development and social and economic inequalities.
Many of these leaders are unknown and do not even regard themselves as rights defenders. They are unknown outside their communities. They are our Climate Crisis First Responder and the FIRE WALL preventing massive deforestation, species extinction, biodiversity loss and an avalanche of human rights violation.
Caught between their country’s delicate courtship of China and India, in the name of attracting foreign direct investment, like their colleagues from across West Africa, Adou Kouame and Kouman Kobenan Kra Michael have made their mark in the face of odds to challenge the negative consequences of a Manganese mining operation. Their joint testimony at the Makeni Peoples Summit shows a unique case of how shared vision, moral conviction and fortitude can build strength in rising up against inconsiderate forces of corporate arsenal in the extractive sector.
Their first-ever major national and international intervention was during their attendance and participation at the Peoples Summit held in Makeni, Sierra Leone in early 2019 organized by the Mano River Union Civil Society Natural Resources Rights and Governance Platform( MRU CSO Platform), an initiative conceived by 2019, Goldman Prize Winner, Alfred Brownell, lead Campaigner for Green Advocates based in Liberia and currently Visiting Faculty Scholar at Yale Law School, Abu Brimah, Executive Director of the Network Movement for Justice and Development, Barrister Chima Williams, Acting Director, Friends of the Earth Nigeria, Michel Yoboue, current Chair of the Steering Committee of the MRU CSO Platform amongst others.
During the Peoples summit, both Adou Kouame and Kouman Kra Michael made a startling revelation about environmental pollution. Even though the mine is estimated to have the potential of 4.2 million tons of Manganese, covering an area of 150 Kilometers and an alleged investment of 30 million dollars, this contrasts with the dismal conditions of the locals. The health hazard that this mining activity continues to feed off is not helped by the suspicious posture of the government. In this circumstance, the people have clearly been abandoned to fight for their own survival.
Some would say, it is strange that a village chief and a peasant farmer could resist the charms of gifts that such companies are predisposed to giving out to compromise local leadership into becoming pliant to their whims and caprices in plundering the land in the name of promoting development. But this is where chief Adou Kouame and his team of battled hardened activists and defenders lead by Kouman Kra Michael have distinguished themselves as people-centered local leaders with grassroots frontline human rights progressive, alignments – the new and emerging and hopeful leadership across West Africa.
Chief Adou Kouame and Kouman Kra Michael during the Peoples Summit explained that in spite of the cancerous air that their fourteen communities are exposed to, the locals have no access to health care facilities. They have to travel for miles to access a clinic. Education incentive is nonexistent from the government and corporate angle. So, the chief explains, “we had to contribute and build our own school for children to learn.”
As it obtains in other mining communities, there have been mass evictions of people from their traditional and customary land. These are clearly not decisions that the locals gave their prior and informed consent to. In the rejections to such projects, force has been used to cower them into submission. This involves physical assaults and imprisonment, Chief Adou Kouame has disclosed.
The pathetic aspect of their narrative is the fact that women have to descend and climb slippery hills in fetching potable water to drink and use for domestic chores. Even pregnant women are exposed to the ordeal of going downhill and risk falling on marshy paths to have water to drink.
Such is the height of corporate callousness and indifference to the plight of communities that they are exploiting. The irksome reality is bound to stir actions of dissent. The Chief along with his team of local activists has been able to organize and mobilize his people into a local solidarity and protest movement against the Manganese mine. It is in the conviction that we have a moral and legal right to fight for our life tied to the land of forefathers…”
Chief Adou’s notion of life tied to land is a metaphor that can be understood when you consider the fact that their cash trees, cocoa farms; and sacred sites were demolished to allow the company to operate. The chief says their communities are still clamoring for compensation to no avail.
And so, on January 29, 2021, assisted by the Mano River Union Civil Society Natural Resources Rights and Governance Platform, The Advocates for Community Alternatives and the Public Interest Lawyers Initiative for West Africa, the inhabitants of Similimi lodged a complaint before the ECOWAS Court of Justice against the Republic of Côte d’Ivoire for having facilitated the pollution of their environment, the grabbing of their traditional lands, and the destruction of their places of worship. The action relates to the impacts of the mining of Manganese by the company Bondoukou Manganèse.
According to Chief Adou, when they organize meetings to raise consciousness among their people about the human rights violations the Government of Ivory Coast organizes massive security operations to harass, intimidate, file frivolous criminal charges, arrest and carry out detentions. “But we will continue the fight until someone hears us and comes to our rescue”, the chief sounded somber.
It is important to note, however, that the persistent frivolous criminal charges, arrest, harassments, detentions and even murder of frontline grassroots defenders is not unique to Cote D’ Ivoire alone.
This is a troubling trend across West Africa and most of the world. Based on a baseline assessment commissioned by Green Advocates of the situation of defenders in the region, the MRU CSO Platform is organizing a West African Virtual Defenders Conference between March 29 to 31 2021. Chief Adou Kouame and Kouman Kra Michael along with other frontline grassroots defenders from sixteen (15) West African countries would be in attendance sharing their experiences. Professor Mary Lawlor, United Nations Special Rapporteur for Human Rights Defenders and Professor David Boyd, the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Human Rights and the Environment would make opening remarks and lead a special Panel to discuss how their mandates are protecting defenders.
This article is written by the Secretariat of the Mano River Union Civil Society Natural Resources Rights and Governance Platform (MRU SCO Platform), to give visibility to the untold stories of frontline grassroot human rights defenders across West Africa. The MRU CSO Platform is a network of environmental and human rights defenders; indigenous, urban slums and squatter communities; communities affected by the operations of multinational corporations; bloggers, labor unions and poor informal entrepreneurs on the frontline of corporate investments in West Africa. Its membership is drawn from nine of the fifteen countries in West Africa. Namely: Liberia, Sierra Leone, La Cote D’Ivoire, Guinea, Ghana, Mali, Nigeria, Niger and Senegal.