12 February 2013

Liberia: Turning a Strong Foe Into a Friend

Almost two years ago, residents in Grand Cape Mount County had an outlook of grim times and gloomy perceptions about Sime Darby Plantation Liberia (SDPL). No one who had walked through the plantation or even gone to the Gbah market, which is just inside the plantation, will believe that things would ever become better.But things have changed for the better!

Elderly people, the youths and women in the towns and villages around the plantation, which were later considered Project Affected Communities (PAC), were told by certain groups that Sime Darby had come to make them homeless and would take all their land.

Suddenly, the local population began to stage a non-cooperative stance against the company.This was around August 2011.

Protests were staged, ranging from blocking the roads,attacking earthmoving equipment operators and even seizing their keys.Burning tires on the bridge, taking to the airwaves and using the pages of the newspapers meant a full-fledged campaign had begun against SDPL. One would say every form of disruptionagainst SDPL's operation was employed by the local people and groups that supported them.

A team of elders guided by a renowned lawyer wrote and complained to the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), the body that promotes sustainable palm oil and sets the industry standard. In their complaint, the local communities accused SDPL of doing little or nothing to address the issue of livelihood and food security, employment as well as water and sanitation; with special emphasis on their right to the land.

Like any responsible company, SDPL was willing to listen to the plights of the people with a hope of addressing most of the burning issues. Several meetings and dialogue were held between all parties, including the government, civil society groupings, the affected towns and the management of SDPL. The meetings and dialogueswere the turning point in ending the challenges faced by Sime Darby in Liberia.

It was not too long, following the end of series of dialogues with the communities that Sime Darby increased its engagements in Grand Cape Mount County. Building over 35 hand pumps, constructing roads that linked 17 towns and villages within the PAC, some of which have not had roads before, installing rain gutters (poly tanks) in towns and villages, undertaking a football tournament for the youths, and most of all, employing one person from each household within the PAC. Today, the PAC enjoys about 738 permanent employees from 17 towns and villages within Sime Darby's work force which is a little over 3700 people.

Abraham Kromah, the Co-Chairman for the PAC who is in charge of operations, admits that though all is not well yet, he sees a great prospect for the company moving forward in his county.Kromah, a University student and a well respected figure in his community, was one of those who had strongly opposed Sime Darby in the past.

"To say the truth, Sime Darby is now trying to make us feel a part of this project. From the beginning we thought we were not going to benefit anything from the company," Kromah, a tough-talking youth said during the launch of a tournament in the PAC last year.

In December 2012, SDPL initiated a process of giving one bag of 50kg of parboiled rice to each elderly person aged 60 and above as well as members of the communities who are disabled. The rice is given on the first of each new month and would last until May 2013 at which time the company along with the local population would have began intensive agriculture program as a source of sustainable livelihood.

The dark and gloomy era, as an observer puts it, has disappeared. Calm has returned to Grand Cape Mount between the local people and the multi-national diversified Oil Palm giant, Sime Darby.

On the first day of the rice distribution to the communities by Sime Darby, the Chairman of the project Affected Communities (PAC), Mr. Mustapha Foboi,who has been the team leader for the local people during the series of meetings with SDPL,was all smiles as he looked across the mountain of rice piled up for his people. More than 366 elderly and disabled people were poised to receive their rice. Elderly and disabled people trooped to the different distribution centers identified in the different towns and villages within the PAC.

Testimonies of most of the elderly people who received the rice seemed to create confidence that SDPL was turning the wheels. For instance, MaimahTuray of Senii, a town almost 25 kilometers away from the main road, said she believes if Sime Darby continues to reach out to them as it is now doing, they will join the campaign of giving the company more land.

"We don't have any problem with Sime Darby once they doing the things we ask for. We will even start to look for more land for them to plant the palm."

At a routine meeting with the PAC leadership on January 18, 2013 in Gbah ,the PAC Chairman Mr. Foboi ,like many of his kinsmen expressed delight that SDPL was fulfilling its commitments, which he said is helping to better the living condition of the local people.

Foboi saidthe company's new Social Team was doing a great job by sticking to the commitment and fulfilling some of them in a relatively short period of time.

"I hope more can be done for the PAC so that the company can continue to win the confidence of the local population, Foboi said.

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