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In the Forests of Liberia the Promise of Palm Oil Sows Anger and Doubt

In the Forests of Liberia the Promise of Palm Oil Sows Anger and Doubt

Originally posted in The Ecologist.

In the forests of southeastern Liberia, frustrations are mounting with the vibrations of power saws and bulldozers. Far from the capital in Monrovia, villagers depend on the rich forests for their food and water, livelihoods, and culture. Liberia’s nearly 100-year history of granting concessions to foreign investors has largely targeted communities’ traditional lands with the hopes of driving economic growth. In Sinoe County, many residents say their experiences with Golden Veroleum (GVL), a palm oil company that arrived in 2010, have been disappointing and detrimental to their way of life.

In many instances, communities say their land was taken without their consent. Following years of complaints to international organizations — including the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), the industry’s leading certification body — these communities remain on the frontlines of a development model that puts people’s wellbeing in the hands of private companies and foreign investors.

Since GVL’s arrival in Liberia, the company has faced unceasing controversy. Along the rugged roads you hear stories of armed police threatening villagers to sign agreements with the company, drinking water sources spoiled by industrial machinery, and livelihoods lost behind plantation fences. Mile after mile reveals vanishing forests.
Weathered stumps jut from the earth amidst felled trees, serve as the final reminders of what was recently thick forest. The barren landscape here signals what is to come: communities’ lifelines to their land and culture traded for an uncertain future driven by industrial agriculture.
Amidst the ever-growing plantations, there is one sight to be seen: neatly arranged rows of palm in every direction. These plantations are part of GVL’s concession agreement with the Government of Liberia. The agreement covers 350,000 hectares — more than two percent of the country’s land mass — for 65 years.
“The day the Memorandum of Understanding was signed with GVL we saw three pickup trucks full of armed police putting guns on our people. GVL forced our people to sign that MOU. When our people see armed police, they are confused. Here’s a man who can’t even read or write, and he is forced to put his fingerprints to sign the MOU.” — Ricky Kanswea, Nimupoh, Sinoe County
Since GVL and its primary investor Golden Agri-Resources arrived in Liberia, the companies have faced consistent charges of human rights violations and environmental destruction. A February 2018 RSPO Complaints Panel decision affirmed communities’ longstanding grievances. The decision found that GVL violated RSPO Principles and Criteria by coercing and intimidating community members into signing agreements, continuing to develop on disputed lands, and destroying community sacred sites.
“They built their mill on our sacred hill. We said this place is our sacred hill. They said it wasn’t. But what do they know? We are in our town. This is our sacred hill.” — Kaffa Samneh, Jacksonville, Sinoe County
A bright yellow bulldozer sits dormant in GVL’s plantation. Villagers frequently complain that GVL has failed to meet is promises of employment, while workers from neighboring Ivory Coast are seen operating the machines.
Many still hold out hope that GVL will keep its promises of building handpumps, schools and clinics. But after the better part of a decade, others are skeptical about what the company will provide for the people who depend on the land and forests for their sustenance. Some are beginning to question a development model that relies on private companies to provide basic services.
“When they came to operate on my land, they never asked me. They just jumped on my land and started working. When I asked them, who gave you this land, they said it was government land. So we were forced to leave the place.” — Romeo M. Chea, Jacksonville, Sinoe County
Following the 2017 election of President George Weah, Liberians are filled with both hope and concern for the future. The new president has promised a pro-poor agenda, while declaring the country “open for business.” But the Liberian Legislature has yet to pass the Land Rights Act — a draft law that would recognize communities’ ownership rights over their traditional lands, providing them equal footing with companies and investors. As national organizations mobilize for the passage of a strong Land Rights Act, vested interests are seeking to push forward a watered down version that would maintain business-as-usual. Land insecurity is widely seen as one of the main causes of the country’s 14-year civil war.
[“The place where my parents borne me — that is my land. That is the place they left for me. This land is for every one of us. Aren’t I the one working here? Let the company come talk to us. I will say come and take that piece of land, but leave this piece for me, this is where I will make my farm. But that’s not what they want to do.” — Beatrice Flahn, Jacksonville, Sinoe County
In rural Sinoe County growing disillusionment with Golden Veroleum’s palm oil plantations signify a demand for a new path towards progress. Will Liberia’s forests continue to be handed over to foreign companies and investors? Or will Liberians begin to reap the full benefits from the land they have called home for generations?
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