The management of Sime Darby Liberia has responded to an article published by Frontpage Africa in its online edition of 2 December 2012 in which the company said it inserted "certain false claims and inaccuracies."
"Sime Darby Berhad would like to correct certain false claims and inaccuracies contained in the story," the management said in its response, and went on by giving detailed information on how it came to being.
"In 2009, the Government of Liberia granted Sime Darby a concession to develop 220,000 hectares of land as it sought to rebuild its economy," it said, noting that while it is proud to be a long-term investor and part of this nation-building process, the agreement does not mean "we will develop all of the concession area."
According to the company "It allows us to engage the communities under the Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) process and if the populace objects, we will not develop the land. Sime Darby will respect the wishes of the communities in Gbarpolu if this is the case."
In its response, the management said the article was based on a conference in Bopolu City on 27-29 November, which was co-organized by the Sustainable Development Institute (SDI), a non-government organization (NGO), adding "It is worth pointing out that Sime Darby was not invited to the conference. We have, however, been engaging with various stakeholders - including NGOs and SDI - ever since the launch of our first estate in May 2011."
"The article claims that Sime Darby took land from the communities, quoting 65-year old Abdul Suma, a farmer from Grand Cape Mount."
However, the management said such was not true, and noted "Sime Darby does not grab land and it is our policy to conduct FPIC before any work is done."
"Sime Darby respects the local laws of Liberia and the traditions and practices of its people. It has dealt openly with the Government of Liberia throughout. At the beginning, there was some confusion around designation of land, which led to objections by some local communities."
"As a result, Sime Darby ceased operations, engaged in wide-ranging consultation, and offered appropriate compensation in affected areas. The consultation and communication with stakeholders are ongoing."
According the company, this is an ongoing process that has not been easy, but it is continuing to work closely with the local communities to improve the situation for the benefit of all involved.
"This is how we are learning from our maiden foray into Africa and we believe improvements can be made with willingness and good faith on all sides."
For example, the company said "we now have gone a step further to engage communities in the participatory mapping process."
"This involves the community, with help from local and international NGOs, making maps and marking boundaries for all sites that are of cultural, economic, religious and other significance to them. These boundaries and sites will be off limit to us. We have also decided for larger than usual buffer zones of up to 2 km to ensure that food crops and other traditional farming can still be done."
"We recognize that long term food security is vital and that issues have arisen in the past, so we are buying sheep for the project affected communities (PACS) to breed. To address immediate needs, we have started to provide one free 50kg bag of rice per month to those above 60 years old and the disabled in the next 5 months. We also help PACs to use swamps for intensive rice or cassava farming. We have even hired another 700 permanent workers from PACs to make sure that each household has at least one person permanently employed at Sime Darby."
"The article also suggests that Sime Darby create jobs using the timber and diamond within the concession areas. Sime Darby is not involved in the timber or precious stones business and we already employ 3,700 people, which is 8 times more than needed based on the land we have developed so far. Our permanent workers also enjoy wages that are higher than local industry standards at a minimum of US$5.51 a day. On top of that, they are given 100kg of subsidized rice. All PAC residents also enjoy free medical services at clinics built by Sime Darby."
Apart from medical facilities, Sime Darby believes in providing education under our corporate social responsibility initiatives. We had a ground breaking ceremony for a secondary school (12 classrooms) just outside of Senii Town, which Sime Darby will build and operate on its own expense to provide education to children in 6 towns that are too remote from public and Sime Darby's existing 16 schools. These children have never been to school and they will get one hot meal per day, too. The school should open in April 2013.
Land issues in Liberia have not been straightforward, but Sime Darby is now leading the way in ensuring that its practices (especially around FPIC) mean that the needs of local communities remain paramount. Its actions have been endorsed by independent NGOs such as Green Advocates and community leaders.