28 January 2013

Liberia: SCFF Seeks Calm in Butaw - Calls for Balance in Land Protests & Investment Loss

There continues to be a whirlwind of agitation sweeping the coastal district of Butaw over the biggest investment Sinoe County has ever known since the civil conflict. In what is now proving to be a poorly thought out arrangement, the Indonesian company, Golden Veroleum acquired hundreds of hectares of enviable land space then voluntarily awarded by segments of the population of Butaw. But when bulldozers and a caravan of other yellow machines set their blades at work and turned the greens of the land into bare earths, the citizens awoke from their stupor and began lamenting cheats and coercion. The flames of disagreement are bellowing and a local civil society organization based in the troubled county is getting to work and urging both sides to exercise calm and caution. The Analyst reports.

The group conglomerating under the banner the Consortium of Civil Society says it has embarked upon efforts to bring stakeholders to the table to discuss and find amicable solution to the raging protests and disagreement amongst citizens of Butaw against Golden Veroleum's investment in the District.

In a statement issued in Monrovia, the group which comprises religious institutions and community-based organizations of Sinoe County has called for calm since the issue of millions of United States investment is clashing with the legitimate right of entitlement of the citizens of Butaw.

Against the backdrop, the group has applauded the decision of The Forest Trust (TFT) which has quickly responded to the Butaw situation in Butaw believed to have had the potential to cause economic despondency for the citizens as well as environmental degradation for the natural habitats.

The Forest Trust is a UK based professional international non-governmental organization in the business of ensuring that oil palm production and trade are done in line with national and international policies, laws and regulations. We therefore see its independent investigation in the country as one that will be free from influence by anyone who may believe that by repeatedly reporting past complaints on national and international media would sway TFT's report in his favor.

The consortium therefore sees TFT presence in the country as one that will bring about best practices and full applications of political economy – all policies, laws and regulations, on the part of GVL, and at the same time, bring about mutual benefits for the people and lasting economic reward for the county and country.

It can be recalled that due to numerous complaints against Golden Veroleum Liberia (GVL) by local communities, national and international organizations to the Roundtable on sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a stoppage order was placed on GVL operations in Sinoe on 13th December 2012. This action was followed by yet another complaint against GVL by the Forest Peoples Programme and FERN re-emphasizing previous complaints.

These complaints and the stoppage order came to the attention of several organizations on 24th December 2012 who formed themselves into a consortium and immediately on the same date wrote an appeal letter to UN Panel of Experts of Liberia, Secretariat & Complaints Panel of RSPO, Golden Agri Resources, The Forest Trust, Golden Veroleum International office asking them to relax the stoppage order and come to Liberia in Butaw to conduct investigation as a way to help out the situations. Following consultations within the international community, we received a positive response that GVL operations in Sinoe will continue and that a team was expected in Liberia for the investigations or assessment.

This decision placed the Consortium into a better position to carry out preliminary findings in order to understand where the lapses are so that they can be squarely corrected. The Consortium, following the relaxation of the stoppage order, met with all stakeholders including the local authority, police, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), GVL top management, citizens of Butaw, the Sinoe Legislative Caucus, and the Vice President of the Republic of Liberia. All are attempts to settle down and find a peaceful and legal settlement.

The consortium says it sees Cllr. Alfred Brownell's many stories, complaints and advocacy as one they considered a mechanism that is aimed at ensuring best practice and compliance to all forms of policies, laws and regulations and international standards in the world of oil palm industry. On the other hand, we are a bit confused over his unwillingness, probably due to his schedule, to honor request from the consortium to have a joint meeting to discuss issues including the communities complaints and GVL lapses and a way forward especially with the presence and involvement of The Forest Trust.

The Consortium of Sinoe Organizations also sees this as a major challenge for the Government of Liberia as most of the complaints from local  community dwellers, Green Advocate, Forest Peoples Programme (FPP), FERN and Rights & Resources Initiative (RRI) are against the government.

It was predicated upon this that the consortium petitioned the Government and among many stated issues recommended that an independent committee be constituted to conduct investigation into all allegations because there were complaints against its functionaries - the local authority, police, and county attorney. Moreover, apart from Government's role to protect investors, it has the responsibility to ensure best practice and to act swiftly to any and all complaints.

The consortium is confident that the issue of GVL in Butaw will be peacefully settled as they are getting signals from eminent Butaw citizens, some of whom are working closely with Cllr. Alfred Brownell  who were a bit despondent from the onset of our involvement thinking that we were merely pleading for GVL and ignoring their plight.

In pursuance of a peaceful settlement of the GVL-Butaw Saga through dialogue, discussions, and negotiations, why hoping that TFT Assessment Report will conform to our plead to have GVL still on and ensure best practices and respect for local communities, the consortium is planning to hold a meeting with Butaw citizens in Monrovia as a continuous process to a peaceful settlement with the presence of TFT should it still be in the country.

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