UK-based company Equatorial Palm Oil (EPO) is accused of involvement in the arbitrary arrest and assault of Liberian community members who claim that they were resisting EPO's efforts to take their land. Investigations by a coalition of international and Liberian NGOs (1) reveal allegations that EPO security personnel and members of the elite Liberian Police Support Unit (PSU) (2) assaulted and arrested unarmed civilians who were objecting to the expansion of EPO's plantation onto community customary-owned land in September 2013. The company denies these allegations, stating that it is "a responsible company and committed to sustainable oil palm development."(3) However, EPO admitted to Global Witness that it provided logistical support to the Liberian police who are accused of intimidating villagers on the plantation.(4)
"These communities appear to have had their land taken and cleared without their consent, and when they object it looks like they've been beaten up and arrested. The Liberian Government and EPO must both immediately carry out investigations into these allegations and ensure that those responsible are held to account and prosecuted," said Natalie Ashworth of Global Witness. "The Liberian Government needs to start standing up for its people and environment." In a letter to Global Witness, EPO promised to take appropriate action against staff if given sufficient evidence. (3)
EPO, which is listed on the Alternatives Investment Market (AIM) of the London Stock Exchange, holds
two palm oil concessions in Liberia covering a total of 89,000 hectares. In recent months, it has taken steps to expand its operations in Liberia's Grand Bassa County to plant palm oil trees on com-munity customarily owned land, which would be contrary to protections in international human rights law and EPO's commitments to the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), an industry body.(5) This expansion threatens to destroy the farms, forests and wetlands that the local Jogbahn Clan rely on for their food and livelihood, and regard as their spiritual home. In a response to Global Witness on 17 December the company stated that they "respect the Liberian community rights and land, and have followed the law and procedures laid-out and agreed internationally." The company further stat-ed that they have "taken strict steps" to ensure that they only plant oil palm on their concession land and legally-acquired community land. (3)
According to Jogbahn community members, their failure to cooperate with EPO's plans to expand onto community land triggered increasingly severe intimidation by company security staff and PSU officers. (6) This includes driving through villages at night flashing their emergency lights which alleg-edly led to women and children fleeing to the bush. In a letter to Global Witness, the company re-sponded that it has been "falsely accused" and does not "condone or encourage such described be-haviour," and have "never instructed or directed any of its staff or PSU officers to intimidate Jogbahn community members in September or at any time."(3)
On September 18, community members were reportedly accosted and some were beaten by EPO and PSU forces as they walked to the county capital, Buchanan, to lodge a protest with authorities. Seventeen people are understood to have been arrested, but were promptly released after the gov-ernment's County Attorney found there were no grounds for their detention. (7) The County Attorney confirmed that people had been accosted, but Grand Bassa's police commander denies that his forc-es attacked any community members.(8) EPO representatives deny any knowledge of the incident, and said that no complaint had been made directly to them about the behaviour of the EPO security or abuse by the police. EPO further stated that they had asked for the police to be removed from the survey but the request was refused.(9) EPO sent a detailed response to Global Witness and its letter is published in full on the organisation's website here: www.globalwitness.org/Liberia/EPO (3)
"These abuses bring back memories of the Charles Taylor era," says Andrew Tokpa of the Liberian NGO Save My Future Foundation (SAMFU). "There's a real risk of a bigger conflict if Equatorial Palm Oil tramples on the rights of Liberia's rural communities. If the company won't stop, the Liberian Government must act to stop it."
On September 18, the Sustainable Development Institute (SDI), a Liberian NGO, filed a complaint against EPO with the RSPO (10) on behalf of 363 households from the affected community. This alleges that the company has cleared and planted on community land and is seeking to expand the plantation further without the free, prior and informed consent of those who live on the land. (11) The company responded to RSPO that it holds "a valid concession agreement signed and endorsed by the Government of Liberia," and that its operations are within the law and RSPO rules. (10)
These allegations of assault and land grabbing should cause alarm amongst EPO's investors. Malaysian palm oil giant Kuala Lumpur Kepong Bhd (KLK) recently became the majority shareholder of the company although it was not a shareholder at the time of the alleged violence. Negotiations for KLK to buy out the rest of EPO are ongoing. Communities have requested that the RSPO complaint be extended to KLK as the new majority shareholder. (12)
"As the majority shareholder and possible new owner, KLK must make investigating the human rights abuse and land grabbing allegations its number one priority," says Silas Kpanan'Ayoung Siakor of SDI. "Conflict over land played a key role in Liberia's civil wars, it's critical to our country's future stability that community rights are respected. Allowing unscrupulous companies to do as they please will be disastrous for the environment and for development."