Monrovia — Hundreds of villagers and town residents of Liberia's Grand Cape Mount Country have attracted nationwide attention in their bid to recover what they say is land seized from them and turned over to a Malaysian agro-industrial concern.
A petition sent to President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's office in January by the aggrieved people's political representatives demanded the return of their land.
"This is unbearable," Mary Freeman, 42, of Sinje Town said. "Our government must care for us and don't allow these people to kill us silently. What have we done to go through all of these sufferings? This land belongs to us. We were born here and we give birth to our children here too. This is the only place we know."
Malaysian company Sime Darby Plantations was granted a permit on 21 April 2010 to cultivate 10,000 hectares of palm oil in Bomi and Grand Cape Mount counties. Now, the company has applied for an additional 15,000 hectares for palm oil cultivation in Garwular and Gola Konneh districts, in the Grand Cape Mount County, and another 20,000 hectares in Gbarpolu County.
The attorney representing the aggrieved parties of Cape Mount County, Alfred Brownel, has asked the Environmental Protection Agency to reject these additional requests. He vowed his rights group, Green Advocates, would continue to support those who had lost their land.
"These things must stop," he said. "Our people deserve the right to survive. They shouldn't be denied their land. We will not stop until their lives are transformed and the situation changed."
Critics say the concession is a land grab. When unresolved, land disputes could plunge the country into "serious chaos", said Jerry Lomah, president of Lomah National Law Firm in Monrovia.
"The government must set up an active land commission to keep eyes on these issues," Lomah added.
Liberia has a history of land conflicts, especially since the end of the civil war in 2003. In the northeastern town of Ganta there is a long-running conflict over land between the Mandingo and Mano people. Lomah said a land commission could speed up resolution of such disputes and the Sime Darby case.
A seemingly receptive two-term president reacted immediately to the Grand Cape Mount County concerns by visiting the area and meeting residents of Kon Town, Garwula District. She admitted the government should have gone about the negotiations differently.
"Everybody made mistakes on this one," she told villagers, "but the thing to do is to correct the mistakes. Now, something could have been done better when it comes to Sime Darby. More consultations and more talks with the people should have taken place."
She told them that before the government signs an agreement, the legislature conducts public hearings so that views and objections can be raised before an agreement is concluded. However, the residents said they were unaware of any such hearings.
Johnson Sirleaf said the government would now correct this oversight and seek the views of county residents.
"I've come to start the process," she said. "I came with the ministers of justice, internal affairs, labour, and agriculture because all of them have [a] part to play in the process."
However, she also told residents of Grand Cape Mount County that when government, including legislators, signed documents with foreign companies or countries, these could not be changed. She said the constitution gave government the authority to sign agreements on behalf of the country, and people should not be directing their frustrations at Sime Darby.
"So, if your government made a mistake, that's your government. You have to come back to it so we can settle it," she said.
She said the citizens' concerns, especially those about jobs and land-grabbing, would be addressed. She said government would ensure locals were given preference when it came to employment with Sime Darby in Grand Cape Mount County.
The president has set up a committee, co-chaired by officials from the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Justice, to look into the citizens' complaints in an effort to resolve the dispute with Sime Darby.
Most of those who lost their land have relocated to nearby villages and towns unaffected by the concession. Most are unskilled labourers.
Sime Darby responds
Meanwhile, Sime Darby has denied seizing land. It said it paid fairly for the land and that it had not used force to evict anyone, as landholders had earlier contended.
Sime Darby Board Chairman Tun Hitam said the company had been serious about being part of the community in Grand Cape Mount County since it came to Liberia in 2010. The firm said it expected to invest US$3.1 billion in its Liberian estates by 2025.
In addition, so far, it has rebuilt and refurnished 15 primary schools, and paid teachers the government rate. Sime Darby said it had also refurbished three new school buses, bought one ambulance and expanded hospital wards in its estates.
Sime Darby plantation senior vice-president of the agribusiness division, Helmy Basha, said the firm had already established four plots of nurseries that would generate 780,000 oil palm seedlings. These would kick-start the first planting of 5,200 hectares at Grand Cape Mount County. He said that by 2025, the firm would have planted up to 170,000 hectares with oil palms in the counties of Grand Cape Mount, Bomi, Bong and Gbarpolu.
"For the next 15 years, we're scheduled to invest in infrastructure like roads, bridges, electricity and piped water. We'll also put up the mills," he said.
Basha said Sime Darby would undertake social and environmental impact assessments before the start of any development. For example, it would maintain riparian buffer zones between water bodies and planted areas.
By 2015, the group would start to put up 15 mills - one for every 10,000 hectares. They would extract crude palm oil, be fuelled by biomass, and be self-sustaining, he said.
The firm expects its business in Liberia to be fully-operational by 2035; 35,000 jobs would be created.
"There will also be spillover impacts in uplifting the livelihoods of surrounding communities of the estates," Basha said.
Liberians use palm oil to prepare meals. "If Sime Darby supplies some of the oil to the Liberian market, it will reduce the price of palm oil locally," said Monrovia businesswoman Sarah Sando.
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]