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Surveillance forces journalists to think and act like spies



Once upon a time, a journalist never gave up a confidential source. When someone comes forward, anonymously, to inform the public, it’s better to risk time incarcerated than give them up. This ethical responsibility was also a practical and professional necessity. If you promise anonymity, you’re obliged to deliver. If you can’t keep your word, who will trust you in the future? Sources go elsewhere and stories pass you by.

Grizzled correspondents might recall this time with nostalgia. For many young journalists, it’s more like historical fiction–a time when reporters could choose not to give up a source, gruff editors chain-smoked cigars, and you could spot a press hack by the telltale notebook and card in the brim of a hat.

The experience of a new generation of news writers tells a different story. Whether you choose to yield a source’s name is secondary. Can you even protect your source to begin with? Call records, email archives, phone tapping, cell-site location information, smart transit passes, roving bugs, and surveillance cameras–our world defaults to being watched. You can perhaps achieve privacy for a few fleeting moments, but, even then, only with a great deal of effort.

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Attacks on the Press book cover

Yet this is journalism’s brave new world. In the United States, the National Security Agency, otherwise known as the NSA, seeks to listen to every electronic communication sent or received. In the U.K., the Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ, has succeeded in intercepting and storing every peep that passes over the wires. Commercial spy software FinFisher (also called FinSpy) monitors citizens in at least 20 other countries, according to a report by The Citizen Lab, a research group based at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto in Ontario, Canada. Global Information Society Watch’s global report details the state of communications surveillance in plenty more. Even Canada’s spy agency may be watching Canadians illegally, though the GISWatch report could not say so conclusively.

If journalists can protect the identity of their sources at all, it’s only with the application of incredible expertise and practice, along with expensive tools. Journalists now compete with spooks and spies, and the spooks have the home-field advantage.

Shadowy worlds of subterfuge and surveillance should not be a journalist’s habitat. The time journalists spend learning to play Spy-vs.-Spy could be better spent honing their craft. Every hour spent wrangling complex security tools could be an hour spent researching and writing. All the staff on a newsroom’s security team could be writers and editors instead. Each geeky gizmo and air-gapped computer (a computer that is never connected to a network) could be another camera or microphone, or the cost could be spent on payroll. All the extra labor and logistics dedicated to evading espionage is a loss.

This poses sometimes-steep financial costs on newsrooms. If journalists and media organizations are to protect themselves, they must buy more tools and adopt practices that limit their efficiency. Robust security practices are complex and time-consuming, imposing logistical costs. The psychological toll of constant surveillance leads to exhaustion and burnout. Few journalists do their best work when they know that government thugs could break down the door at any moment–as they did at the home of independent New Zealand reporter Nicky Hager in October 2014, according to The Intercept.

Many have worked to slow the swing of the pendulum from privacy to panopticon, increasing development of anti-surveillance tools and advice for journalists. The response to widespread knowledge of the long arm of the surveillance state has been gradual but impressive. Developers have increased work on surveillanceresistance projects and anonymous tip lines. Experts have put together numerousdigital security guides and training programs, all intended to help reporters from falling under the focused gaze of government surveillance.

Perhaps the flagship of this proliferation is SecureDrop, a secure and anonymous submission system for journalists. First pioneered by the former hacker and current digital security journalist Kevin Poulsen and the late programmer and political activist Aaron Swartz under the moniker DeadDrop, SecureDrop is intended to allow potential sources or whistleblowers to get in touch with journalists without leaving any dangerous records of their identity.

SecureDrop combines several pieces of security and privacy software into an integrated system, ensuring that only the journalists can read anonymous tips. Messages are protected with PGP, the tried-and-true gold standard for this task. Sources’ anonymity is provided by Tor, the anonymity network that underpins private communications for everyone from the U.S. Navy and CIA to large businesses and survivors of domestic abuse. The result is safely encrypted messages and no metadata trail. With SecureDrop, journalists don’t just choosenot to reveal a source’s identity. Unless sources choose to reveal their identity, the reporters could not unmask sources even if they tried.

Initially just an idea and some prototype code, SecureDrop was mostly theoretical until early 2013. The first major deployment was at The New Yorker. The project was soon adopted by the nonprofit Freedom of the Press Foundation, which was founded with the specific mission of facilitating journalism that governments oppose. FPF, as the foundation is known, soon took over SecureDrop’s development and maintenance, as well as outreach and fundingMore than a dozen other news organizations and prominent journalists have now deployed SecureDrop. With an ongoing crowdfunding campaign, FPF plans to bring it to many more.

SecureDrop works hard to evade even targeted attacks and surveillance. Making use of cutting-edge technology and contemporary security best practices, SecureDrop separates different tasks onto different computers. Each machine only performs part of the puzzle, so it’s very difficult to compromise the whole system at once.

This makes SecureDrop quite expensive to deploy. FPF estimates that a single SecureDrop installation would set a newsroom back around $3,000, which is a lot to ask for a tool designed to protect the most important of tips from the most advanced of snoops.

Other organizations have developed and distributed best practices and training materials. Universities have deepened their research into the threats journalists face. The Citizen Lab, already discussed in this piece, is dedicated to deep research about how technology and security affect human rights and is the source of some of the most detailed and comprehensive technical reports of recent years. If you want to know about the threats facing journalists and human rights groups, Citizen Lab is the place to go.

Yet, as deep as Citizen Lab’s work goes, it is as likely to induce security nihilism as it is to produce savvy security practices. An August 2014 report tells of terrifying new tools for state attacks on the media. Called “network injection appliances,” these devices insert malicious software into otherwise innocuous traffic. Used right, one can modify an online video, adding malware that takes over a journalist’s computer. If a journalist is using a service such as YouTube or Vimeo, session cookies allow the journalist to be targeted precisely. This makes these attacks very difficult to detect and prevent.

With this new technology, journalists don’t have to make a mistake to be compromised. Gone are the phishing days of opening a malicious attachment or clicking a suspicious link. There’s no trap to notice and avoid. Just browsing the Web puts one at risk, and avoiding online video is an impractical ask of a journalist conducting research. Network injection appliances have likely already been deployed in Oman and Turkmenistan, according to Citizen Lab, and because they’re commercially developed by private companies, the price of these devices will only continue to drop as their capabilities expand.

Another Citizen Lab paper paints a disturbing picture of government cyberattacks. Journalists, among the principal victims of this sort of technological espionage, face state-level threats while lacking the funds and expertise to protect themselves. Attacks on computer systems can reach across borders into seemingly safe locations, allowing attackers to disrupt communications and impairing journalists’ ability to do their core work. Sometimes attacks are simply a nuisance or a resource drain; at other times they present major risks to individuals’ safety.

It’s all but impossible for journalists to learn the strategies of the state and appropriate countermeasures on a shoestring budget. Websites and service providers are often better positioned to protect journalists from these attacks. Securing the everyday tools of the trade works much better than does demanding that journalists jump through arcane hoops to stay safe. Simple measures can go a long way. Just enabling secure HTTPS rather than insecure HTTP can make a huge difference. The New York Times has called on all news sites to adopt this very measure by the end of 2015.

As noted security expert The Grugq puts it: “We can secure the things people actually do, or we can tell them to do things differently. Only one of these has any chance of working.”

Since we first saw Edward Snowden’s face, in 2013, computer-security guides for journalists have multiplied, but using computers safely is hard when a government is trying to get the drop on you. Many guides only scratch the surface, detailing basic–but important–steps. Turning on automatic software updates or using password managers and two-factor authentication for online accounts make a big difference. These first steps make journalists slightly harder to attack.

In fact, simple practices probably have a greater impact than do more complex ones. Esoteric security strategies are a lot of work and sometimes only inconvenience a savvy attacker. Simple measures completely stymie simple attacks and force advanced attackers to change their tactics. A sophisticated attacker will never use an advanced technique when a simple one will do. More sophisticated attempts require more work, cost more, and are more prone to detection. Changing the game by forcing attackers to use scarce resources helps everyone stay safe.

Other guides delve deeply into advanced principles of operational security. Abbreviated “OPSEC,” the term is military jargon for measures taken to keep critical information out of hostile hands. If the phrase sounds more at home in a spy thriller than in a journalism manual, that’s a hint at the problems posed by press surveillance. Mainstream journalists and press organizations openly acknowledge their need to learn spies’ tactics and techniques to stay a step ahead.

The adoption of military tactics and an espionage mindset has a substantial downside. The Grugq explains: “OPSEC comes at a cost, and a significant part of that cost is efficiency. Maintaining a strong security posture … for long periods of time is very stressful, even for professionally trained espionage officers.”

Yet even in apparently free democratic societies, compromising a free press is the day-to-day work of the security services.
Intelligence services sometimes target journalists for surveillance, even when the missions of the agencies involved are ostensibly centered around foreign intelligence. Iranian spies orchestrate elaborate campaigns to bamboozle journalists; they even pose as journalists when targeting think tanks and lawmakers, Wired has reported. The FBI has also admitted using the latter tactic and actually defended it publicly when criticized. In the U.K., security services have abandoned restraint when it comes to surveillance of journalists and civil society, Ryan Gallagher wrote in The Intercept, summarizing: “An investigative journalist working on a case or story involving state secrets could be targeted on the basis that they are perceived to be working against the vaguely defined national security interests of the government.”


Some journalists have risen to this challenge. After meeting with Snowden, Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald realized that traditional newspapers and media groups were not well suited to this world of watchers. They needed a new sort of organization–one ready to play spy games with professional spies from the very start.

They founded the First Look Media group with help from fellow investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill and funding from eBay mogul Pierre Omidyar. First Look’s flagship online magazine, The Intercept, is dedicated to exposing the abuses of the surveillance state. Choosing such powerful foes meant that The Intercept had to stay one step ahead from the start.

Micah Lee is The Intercept‘s resident security expert. Formerly a staff technologist at technology civil rights group the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Lee was on The Intercept team from the beginning. He designed and implemented the security measures that Greenwald, Poitras, and Scahill–and now a team of 20–use to stay safe. When asked about the infrastructure needed to protect the publication, he frankly admitted: “When we think it’ll make us safer, we normally just buy another computer or device. We’re willing to spend money on these things when there’s a clear security benefit.”

Lee was referring to security practices typically only needed when one is facing adversaries with the sophistication of governments. Protecting important information on separate air-gapped computers is a common practice at The Intercept. Lee and other technologists are fond of a security principle called “defense in depth,” an approach that assumes that some security measures will fail and calls for systems that remain secure even when that happens. In the planning for defense in depth, a process should become insecure not when onesecurity measure fails but instead when dozens do.

Systems built this way demand more hardware than do those where security is more brittle. Several computers ensure that the compromise of one will leave the others safe. Smartcards protect cryptographic keys even when other things go wrong. All of this tech costs money and requires experienced technologists like Lee to design and operate.

In keeping with this level of prudent paranoia, Lee and his colleagues often eschew regular smartphones in favor of the CryptoPhone. These $3,500 devices, made by German manufacturer GSMK, don’t just provide encrypted calls; they’re heavily customized and locked-down Android devices loaded with a whole host of custom software. They even try to detect anomalies in cellular networks that might be indicative of an attack or targeted surveillance.

These practices and this technology are the best that media organizations can buy. It’s a far cry from the James Bond-esque gadgetry that one might see at MI6 or the CIA, but, used correctly, it can keep the spooks at bay long enough for you to meet with sources and write the stories that need to be written.

Staff at The Intercept use PGP for email encryption by default. Lee estimates that more than 80 percent of the emails he sent in the last six months were encrypted in this way. For most people who aren’t security experts, PGP is a niche tool with a notoriously steep learning curve. Getting started requires hours of training and practice to wrap one’s head around complex and unintuitive principles of public-key cryptography. The process takes even longer if one doesn’t have an experienced guide.

Between building sustainable long-term security strategies and jetting around protecting the magazine’s VIP writers, Lee quickly ran out of the time needed to show each new hire how to use PGP. But he noticed that he wasn’t always needed: “Folks learn PGP the same way they do any other tricky technical thing–they Google it, or they ask their nerd friends, and sometimes they get bad advice,” he said. At The Intercept, new hires were learning PGP from folks already there–journalists and editors as well as technologists.

The Intercept had developed what Lee calls a “security culture,” an operational security term that has its roots in activism. In a “security culture,” a community adopts customs and norms that protect its members. It’s a wholesale adoption of operational security practices into the everyday work and activities of the group. The Intercept team considers security a core value, so people there are willing to work together to protect one another, even when that’s outside their usual work.

“Of course, having Erinn in New York helps, too,” Lee joked, referring to Erinn Clark, the most recent member of First Look’s security team. Clark came to First Look from the Tor Project, the nonprofit group responsible for developing Tor. Another security virtuoso, Clark is more than familiar not only with the nitty-gritty of security tools but also with the adoption of secure practices across an organization. In technology circles, the Tor Project is famous both for the exotic ways in which states have tried to infiltrate and attack it and for the extreme security measures its members have adopted to protect themselves.

Leading the incredible heavy hitters of First Look’s security team is Morgan “Mayhem” Marquis-Boire. A security superstar, Marquis-Boire worked on Google’s security incident-response team, and he is a senior researcher at The Citizen Lab. This incredible brain trust isn’t just there to keep just First Look safe. Once First Look’s basic security needs are met, the group plans to branch out. “We want the security team to start developing tools and hardware and doing bigger research.” Lee said. The team members plan to use their skills and expertise to help other organizations that can’t afford their own elite security teams.

The challenge is always resources. First Look has a billionaire on call to pay for the latest technology and fancy technologists. This is a rarity. Other journalists may face a stark choice between hard-hitting stories and staying safe.

What does information security look like at publications that don’t have First Look’s billionaire funding? FPF regularly sends technical experts to help newsrooms install, set up, and upgrade SecureDrop. Every time they set foot in a newsroom, FPF techs find themselves flooded with security questions from reporters and editors. Questions aren’t just about SecureDrop or FPF; news teams want to know about everything from the ins and out of other tools, such as OTRand Tails, to the sort of advanced operational security measures that can help them keep their heads above water when spies come snooping.
Runa A. Sandvik, a member of FPF’s technical team, said, “Even if you wanted to use these tools and had all the patience to learn them, there’s still so much conflicting information–it’s very confusing, very intimidating.” And though few media organizations have the ability to hire technologists to work with their reporting staffs, Sandvik notes that the situation for journalists not affiliated with a major organization is even bleaker: “If you have a technologist, someone to help you, that’s one thing. If you’re freelance and not overly technical, I don’t know how you’re going to work this stuff out.” She added, “Many feel overwhelmed; they don’t know who to ask for help.”

Just having a technologist to help with analysis and security may not be enough. The newsroom has to commit to understanding the issues and taking good advice. Barton Gellman, who currently writes for The Washington Post, was one of the recipients of the document cache Snowden assembled, and he knew that he didn’t have the technical skills to work on the documents alone. He brought prominent security researcher Ashkan Soltani (now chief technologist for the Federal Trade Commission) on board to help. Soltani bolstered Gellman’s security practices and helped Gellman analyze and understand the more technical material in the collection.

To make matters worse, intelligence agencies encourage confusion and misunderstanding when it comes to secure tools and practices. They try to associate a need for privacy with wrongdoing. This association makes it even harder for journalists to protect themselves and their sources. Persuading sources to protect themselves is harder when the tools of safety are associated with suspicion. In some cases, making secure tools seem suspicious actively endangers sources who live in less tolerant environs, such as dissidents in mainland China who use Tor. This doublethink is a strange flip side to the surveillance state: First, watch everyone, always, then vilify any attempt to recover some privacy. This is especially disruptive to journalists and their ability to serve as watchdogs.

Even without state propaganda and unforced errors, covert action takes a substantial toll on the press’s ability to hold leaders accountable. Espionage targeting journalists and their sources impairs the healthy function of the states where it occurs. And these practices are not just a feature of regimes known to be restrictive or autocratic.

In 2013, David Miranda was detained for most of a day while making a connection between flights at Heathrow Airport in London. Miranda was changing planes on a journey from Germany to Brazil on which he was transporting documents and video footage between Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras. British police held him under measures designed to combat terrorism. Their reasoning? Miranda was promoting a “political or ideological cause.”

In July 2013, surveillance agency GCHQ destroyed computers at the Guardiannewspaper in London. The security agency had already threatened the newspaper’s editors, demanding that the Guardian stop reporting on government surveillance. A security service literally knocked on the doors of a prominent and critical newspaper in Western Europe. They ground a computer into pieces with the use of power tools. All of this was done in a vain attempt to prevent the publication of more articles on a topic that discomfited the government.

These are the tools the state has at its disposal to discourage dissent. It is understandable that, for some, the risk of challenging this authority is simply too great. When these are the consequences of hard-hitting reporting, sticking to “safe” topics and innocuous pieces is a reasonable response.

But even for those who choose to continue the hard work of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable, evading the panopticon comes at a tremendous cost. There are the costs incurred in avoiding simple tools in favor of secure ones. The costs of using extra hardware to protect sensitive materials. The costs of hiring elite security teams instead of extra editors. The costs of worrying that you’ve made a mistake in your security measures. The costs of wondering whether your hotel room will be undisturbed when you get back. The costs of hoping that today isn’t the day that a government agent knocks at the door and asks to destroy your work, or worse.

When journalists must compete with spies and surveillance, even when they win, society loses.

DISCLOSURE: The author previously worked at the Tor Project, the non-profit organization responsible for developing and maintaining the Tor software and network

Tom Lowenthal is CPJ’s resident expert in operational security and surveillance self-defense. He is also a freelance journalist on security and tech policy matters.

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Special Projects

China takes new foreign investment top spot from US



China has overtaken the US as the world’s top destination for new foreign direct investment, according to UN figures released on Sunday.

New investments into America from overseas companies fell by almost half last year, leading to the loss of its number one status.

In contrast, UN figures show direct investment into Chinese firms climbed 4%, putting it number one globally.

The top ranking shows China’s growing influence on the world economic stage.

China had $163bn (£119bn) in inflows last year, compared to $134bn attracted by the US, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) said in its report

In 2019, the US received $251bn in new foreign direct investment while China received $140bn.

While China may be number one for new foreign investment, the US still dominates when it comes to total foreign investments.

This reflects the decades it has spent as the most attractive location for foreign businesses looking to expand overseas.

But experts say the figures underline China’s move toward the centre of the global economy which has long been dominated by the US, the world’s biggest economy.

China, currently involved in a trade war with the US, has been predicted to leapfrog it to the number one position by 2028, according to the UK-based Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR).

Trump slump

Foreign investment in the US peaked in 2016 at $472bn, when foreign investment in China was $134 billion.

Since then, investment in China has continued to rise, while in the US it has fallen each year since 2017.

The Trump administration encouraged American companies to leave China and re-establish operations in the US.

It also warned Chinese companies and investors that they would face new scrutiny when investing in America, based on national security grounds

While the US economy has been struggling since the Covid-19 outbreak last year, China’s economy has picked up speed.

China’s economic growth, measured in gross domestic product (GDP), grew 2.3% in 2020, official data showed this month.

This makes China the only major economy in the world to avoid a contraction last year. Many economists have been surprised with the speed of its recovery, especially as it navigated tense relations with the US.

Overall, global foreign direct investment (FDI) dropped dramatically in 2020, falling by 42%, according to the UNCTAD report. FDI normally involves one company taking control of an overseas one, typically through a merger or acquisition.

The UK saw a fall of more than 100% in new foreign direct investment last year from $45bn in 2019 down to -$1.3bn.

 Original Source: BBC

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Dwindling number of Africans own land.



A smallholder working on her field in Uganda.

Research has shown that inequality in access to land is increasing across the African continent. Experts are calling for more rules and controls on the sale of land to counteract poverty.

A lucrative building boom for some people on Kenya’s coastal regions is causing great suffering for many fisherfolk.

In Tudor, the northern coastal strip in the Kenyan city of Mombasa, apartment buildings and hotels are going up at a dizzying rate.

“Big companies are building there and roads are being extended. All the landing sites for fisher boats have disappeared,” said Phelix Lore, director of the human rights organization Haki Center.

“It affects livelihoods because, when fishermen are not able to land, they have no have a place to put their fish and even sell them.”

Widening gap in land ownership 

The Haki Center helps fishing communities that have lost public landing sites to private construction projects. The activists want community members to have more rights to own land.

“Land grabbing has been a big problem in Kenya for years,” Lore told DW.

Fewer and fewer people around the world own land. The growing gap in land ownership and access is hitting smallholder farmers, women and indigenous and rural communities hardest, according to the Global Land Inequality Report by the International Land Coalition (ILC), which includes organizations like Oxfam and German Agro Action.

The study, published at the end of 2020, compares land inequality in 17 countries using traditional census data and tenure, land quality and other indicators.

It concludes that the concentration of land benefiting only a few owners and intensification of production have increased in almost all regions of the world since 1980.

The report points to a growing interest of companies in investing in agricultural land, which it says is the main cause for land inequality. According to the researchers, the richest 10% of the rural population control over 60% of land assets, while the poorest 50% own just over 3%.

“Growing inequality in access to land is a driver of hunger and poverty. Earth belongs to all of us. Land must not be an object of speculation,” Marion Aberle, senior policy advisor at German Agro Action, told DW. Governments and investors are under an obligation, she said.

More community rights

The example of the Kono District in the West African country of Sierra Leone shows that those responsible often do not care.

Large mining companies there exploit the soil by seeking diamonds and gold.

The Koidu Holdings mine was the first company to invest in the lucrative business after the end of the civil war in 2002. It is owned by Israeli Beny Steinmetz — currently on trial in Geneva on corruption charges in mining deals.

“The company and its boss have had a difficult relationship with the community in the mining area ever since they arrived,” Berns Lebbie, coordinator at Initiative Land for Life Sierra Leone told DW.

The company has caused much hardship for the local population, who have to contend with dust haze, water shortages and economic deprivation.

“When an investment company takes over a piece of land and barricades the roads, so that farmers, fishermen and others lose access, people expect that alternative livelihood sources be provided,” said Lebbie.

“They want adequate wage labor for the young, or maybe microfinance support to the women or direct financial compensation. Without this kind of support, grievance and resentment will prevail, which can lead to violent reactions.”

Land ownership is becoming more opaque

With the rise of corporate and financial investment, land ownership and control is becoming ever more opaque, said Ward Anseeuw, an analyst at ILC and co-author of the report.

“In many African countries land is state property. Communities only manage it. They do that with the help of land committees.”

But oftentimes, the collective ideal does not work. For example, when a local leader has only his own interests in mind, or when there are no democratic structures to impose respect for the rules. According to Anseeuw, land collectives are to be welcomed, but it must be ensured that they represent all members.

Improving the situation 

More guidelines would increase transparency, Anseeuw said. “This would set rules for minimum and maximum sizes, but also for prices, for transactions, etc.,” he told DW.

Governments, investors and the private sector should be held more accountable, as demanded by the World Bank and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Investors and governments have to be pressured to make their projects and financing public, said Anseeuw.

Civil society and academic institutions have an important role to play, the expert said. They should increase oversight on land sales and use. At the same time, they should be granted the right to block land transactions or to first refusal.

“Land taxes could also be imposed. They exist for urban centers in many countries, but not in rural areas. Such regulations are important instruments in a more globalized world,” Anseeuw said. They allow for more control over corporations and financial players in the agrarian sector. There is a problem though: “We are dealing with very powerful players.”


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Sexual exploitation and violence against women at the root of the industrial plantation model



European colonizers relied on large-scale monoculture plantations to impose their rule on peoples and territories across the global South. Their enforced plantation model – planting one single specie typically on the most fertile and flat land with sufficient water sources available – continues to this day. This seizure of vast amounts of land and dispossession of local populations was -and still is- kept in place by oppression. Uneven power relations routinely discriminate against indigenous peoples and traditional communities, and, in particular, women.

The violence inherent in the colonial plantation model does not spare systems of reproduction of life. That is, systems of collective organization, food sovereignty, community care, cultural and language diversity, ancestral knowledge, among many other aspects. The parts of these systems of reproduction that cannot be commercialized are usually made invisible. They are thus not recognized as work. The associated tasks usually rest on women’s shoulders. Thus, plantation companies’ violence also targets women in their role as pillar of community cohesion. Patriarchal oppression is inseparable from the industrial plantation model, a model that remains at the base of how plantations companies generate profits. (1)

Women confronting the industrial oil palm plantations that are managed by the Luxemburgian-Belgian SOCFIN Company in Sierra Leone told WRM that, “the company takes advantage of women’s labour in so many ways… When the company has already taken over the land, women are most times left with no option but to work for the company. Because they cannot go back to their farms and do their normal activities; they cannot stand up for their families; they cannot take care of their children; they cannot even take care of themselves or put food on the table. They cannot grow food as usual for their own use, so they now depend on buying it from the markets. They are left with no option but to seek a job in these plantations, with this company.

And they are not well paid. The companies are very well aware that women have no other alternative, so they decide how much to pay them, and even how to treat them. Women have to walk from very far away places every day to work, and then return back, on very long walks, exposing themselves to violence. 

Their children, most of them, are also going wayward. Because if you cannot take care of your children—especially girls—when they need you most, they will go for anything a man can give them to survive.  So the challenges are so much.”

Women confronting the palm oil company PalmCi in Ivory Coast told WRM that,

“Oil palm companies overexploit women. I can assure you that women are very useful for them; they are outstanding workers for the companies. Harvesting fruit all day without resting, day after day for years.

When the Malaysians visit the plantations, these women have to hide and avoid being seen by them. Why do they hide them if the work they do is legal? Other women are forced to cover their baby’s mouth with their hand to muffle their cries and avoid being detected. The companies overexploit women for profit. That is what is happening.”

And women confronting the Socapalm oil palm company in Cameroon, a company that is also part of the Socfin Group, told WRM that,

“Women from different villages in the area have to walk far to come to this very small plot of land. It is the only place we could find to set up our small garden plots. Look, the potatoes are very small. The oil palm plantation is right over there, too close. Nothing grows well because the plantations are right there. As you can see, that is all the land there is [for us to use]. Look at how we are suffering. This little field cannot produce enough for our families. The land produces very little because we have to plant on the same plot every year. We lack land to grow our food. Socapalm has taken our land.  Socapalm has taken it all.”

Once companies set up and operate their industrial plantations, sexual violence and oppression against women and girls considerably increases. Rape, physical and psychological abuse, harassment, persecution, work in exchange for sex, beatings, intimidation, violated pregnancies, presence of armed guards in and around people’s homes and in communities, low wages, deplorable conditions and long working days, unpaid work, constant use of toxic products without protection, impacts on women’s reproductive and sexual health, lost access to land, water, livelihoods and sustenance—which translates into harder, more intense and more prolonged domestic and communal work—are but some of the impacts of industrial plantations that are often not named but just called “differentiated impacts”. (2)

The perpetrators of these horrific and constant violations against women’s bodies, lives and minds almost always get away without punishment.

The women from Sierra Leone added that,

“Violence against women goes on without much intervention from our local authority or the police. If you are against the company, nobody will listen to you. 

Women have been arrested. They have been molested and beaten – for crimes most of them will deny – and been taken to the police to face charges. Nobody seems to care about what is happening to us. Nobody wants to know or take any action against the perpetrators. There are a lot of challenges that we face with these plantations. Sometimes there are accidents. If you are harmed doing work, or faced with any other challenge, you will be fired without them even considering taking care of you. You will be left to spend your own last dime.

As it is now, the community itself is observing a curfew. Because after 12 midnight, you will not see any woman outside. Everybody knows it will be safer for you to stay indoors.

And to crown it all, there is this fear that has been spread amongst us, since the last incident where we lost two people in our community. It was very brutal. When the police and the army came in, it was very brutal. They made a lot of forceful arrests, including me. I was arrested very late at night. I was asleep, my door was forcefully opened, and I was brought out, beaten, and taken to be detained”

In this regard, the women from Ivory Coast also said that,

“Women are victims of physical and other abuses. Women are beaten and unjustly accused as a pretense to demand favors from them. There is also sexual abuse but this is kept under wraps. They are told: “I saw you in our plantation stealing fruits, ‘You take care of me and I’ll take care of you’,” is what they say, meaning, ‘I’ll let you go with the fruit if you have sex with me.’ This abuse is indeed growing because the plantations are still there and the rapists are also still there.

Are the perpetrators punished? You must be joking; who will punish them? They will claim that you entered private property and deserve what you got. They will ask whether you have a “long arm” as we say here, whether you have a powerful person in your family or know an influential member of the government who can support your complaint. Nobody has been punished for these crimes, despite the broken arms and the traumatized children and women. These crimes go unpunished because might makes right.”

It is also in the interest of the companies and their financial backers (regional and Northern countries’ development banks, the World Bank, financial consultants, etc.) that the domination of a patriarchal model, in particular the violence and abuse against women that is part and parcel of this industrial plantation model, stay invisible for consumers, and thus, without consequences for those who perpetrate that violence.

Yet, against all odds, women are at the forefront of the resistance and the defence of life.

The women from Sierra Leone told us that,

“We have been doing our best over the years in staging or organizing protests; we have been moving from one community to another, sensitizing other women in different communities—not to give in to the agreements being done on our behalf. We have been requesting inclusion in every aspect of land deals in our community. We have been making sure that we remind our authorities that we do not want anything from Socfin. That we want our lands back.

In this context, on November 25th, International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, the Informal Alliance against Industrial Oil Palm Plantations came together to denounce the violence and sexual abuse that thousands of women living in and around industrial oil palm plantations face in their daily lives, particularly in West and Central African countries. The video stands in solidarity with all the women who organize to resist these plantations and who are left alone to suffer this violence and abuse in silence.

You can see the video in English, French, Spanish and Portuguese here.

** All the names for this article have been kept anonymous for security reasons.

(1) Plantation patriarchy and structural violence: Women workers in Sri Lanka

(2) WRM Bulletin 236, Women and Plantations: When violence becomes invisible, 2018; breaking the Silence: Harassment, sexual violence and abuse against women in and around industrial oil palm and rubber plantations.

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