Thousands of hectares of land in Liberia have been cleared for palm oil production.
Photo: R. Buntzel

Making land grabs more palatable

A palm oil company in Liberia is attempting to obtain rights to sell timber from forest clearances which it says would provide locals with additional income.

Environmentalists in Liberia have raised the alarm after what they see as new attempts to dodge the country’s legislation on illegal logging. Palm oil producers Golden Veroleum Liberia (GVL) seek to obtain a licence to sell timber from logging in the course of making room for new plantation sites in southeast Liberia, they claim. Harvesting timber in agricultural concessions for commercial purposes does not fall under Liberia’s forestry legislation. “If timber from palm oil concessions is allowed to be sold and imported, this will spell the end for many forests,” warns James Otto of the Sustainable Development Institute (SDI) in the country’s capital of Monrovia.

In 2005, a third of Liberia was still covered by forest, the 3.15 million hectares representing the largest remaining portion of the West African Upper Guinea Moist Forest ecosystem. Not only are these forest areas biodiversity hotspots, but the non-timber products they provide also sustain local livelihoods. When Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became Liberia’s President in 2006, she revoked the corrupt timber contracts that had been in force under warlord Charles Taylor. Much of the “blood timber” traded was used to finance Taylor’s involvement in the civil wars raging in Liberia and Sierra Leone from 1989 to 2003.

In the absence of well-established forest tenure rights for communities, illegal logging remained widespread until 2009, when Sirleaf introduced a Community Rights Law providing for the participation of local people in the sale of timber concessions. This legislation was however countervailed by logging permits for private lands, the private use permits or “pups”. The pups soon accounted for almost 70 per cent of Liberia’s logging concessions, and were not formally in breach of Sirleaf’s sustainable forestry management policy.

Logging and plantation companies acquired pups via social agreements with local communities in which the latter were promised roads, clinics, schools and the like. GVL, for example, leased around 220,000 hectares in 2010. Under pressure from various environmental organisations, the government cancelled the pups in late 2013, securing a brief reprieve for the rainforests.

However, according to the campaign group Global Witness, several thousand hectares of land have been cleared since then. The group maintains that from August to November 2014, at the height of the Ebola crisis, GVL held meetings with hundreds of people, many of them illiterate, resulting in four Memoranda of Understanding signed over around 2,600 square kilometres of land owned collectively by the local communities in southeast Liberia. “Each of these MoUs is signed by hundreds of people, suggesting that the company was bringing together large numbers of community members at a time when people were panic-stricken and avoiding any physical contact or public gatherings,” claims the group’s report, “The New Snake Oil”. It also mentions that community support groups were staying away at the time not to risk infection.

Around 41,000 people were affected by the operation, which resulted in a virtual doubling of the company’s plantation area. Global Witness maintains in its report that the desperate situation of the locals did not allow genuine informed consent and demands that the MoUs be re-negotiated. Responding to the group’s allegations, GVL states that it “remains proud of the fact that no case of Ebola was recorded among any of its employees or from within its host communities”.

Locals from Sinoe County in Southeast Liberia speak out in a Global Witness video, complaining that schools, hospitals and hand water pumps promised in the memoranda have not materialised. Instead, they maintain, GVL operations have made the water unfit to drink. The vision of employment for many contrasts starkly with the real amount of jobs throughout the plantations – GVL has a total workforce of just 3,400 in Liberia. Working hours are long, leaving no time for additional smallholding. And the 120 US dollars a month is not enough for workers’ families to live on, let alone for the fees they have to pay even if there are any schools for their children to go to. “We signed because of the poverty, and because we were hungry,” comments one of the locals.

The contracts will still be binding for the great great grandchildren of the signatories. Locals complain that they were not read to them. Documents with the Principles and Criteria of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, a global, multi-stakeholder initiative on sustainable palm oil, were not handed out, neither was the company’s Environmental and Social Impact Assessment. Many who signed were unaware of the actual size of their plots. And local government officials put pressure on public employees, warning that they would lose their jobs if they did not sign. “They want us to stay in hardship, and let poverty constrain us to say ‘yes’ to what they are saying,” another local sums things up in the video.

GVL presents its latest step as a measure to create additional income, and strongly denies the SDI accusations. The company claims that it made a request to the government’s Forest Development Authority “on behalf of one community to collect logs from an area that had already been agreed for development of palm oil”. GVL states that it “has never sought to sell timber for commercial purposes, either in Liberia or for export”.

Earlier this year, SDI successfully contested the approval of a GVL application for a logging permit. Still, despite Liberia’s committing itself to protecting its forests in agreements with the European Union and the United Nations, SDI fears that GVL’s moves are just the thin end of a wedge, and that firms reputed to be involved in large-scale illegal logging could enter the scene.

GVL is run by the US-based Verdant Fund LP, whose lead investor is in turn Golden Agri Resources, the world’s second largest palm oil plantation company. Its shareholders include the High Street Banking Company and Citibank. Among other companies operating in Liberia’s palm oil business are the UK’s Equatorial Palm Oil and the Malaysia-based multinational Sime Darby, which has huge plantations in western Liberia. According to SDI investigations, this company failed to compensate locals for farmland it is now growing oil palms on and only paid them inadequately for crops that had been destroyed. There were also complaints of Sime Darby taking over forest areas used for cultural practices for plantations.

Mike Gardner, journalist, Bonn/Germany

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