24 January 2014

Liberia: Sime Darby Optimistic About Progress

Malaysian oil palm giant, Sime Darby Plantation, seems to be positive about its operations in the western Liberia region, despite being behind time with its land acquisition process.

According to records, the company which took over the Guthrie Rubber Plantation as one of its subsidiaries, following a merger between three companies in 2007, to include Sime Darby and Guthrie, should have had a planted area of 30, 000 hectares in Liberia, but to date it is at little over 10, 000 hectares.

The company blamed the setback in its operations on lack of government involvement in the past; however, it is optimistic to develop, considering the level of willingness the government is showing in working with the company.

One of the Executives of the company who is optimistic about their smooth progression is Mr. Carl Dagenhart, Head of Communications of the Plantation Company's Africa and Europe offices.

"Its all about how difficult it is to do the Free Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) process, which involves us and involves communities; but, of course, the government has to be also part of the process, witness and make sure that things are going the right direction. So I have to say that recently we have seen a lot of support from the government. Should we have that level of support from the beginning, I think we would be at 30, 000 hectares at this point. We are very encouraged and very optimistic that from now on, the pace of our land acquisition will be much faster and that we will avoid the initial trouble and problems that we had in 2010 and 2011," Mr. Dagenhart said.

He made the statement in an interview with this paper Tuesday, January 22, 2014 when the Chairman of the National Investment Commission (NIC), Mr. Michael S. Wotorson and his delegation, along with representatives of the World Bank toured the Plantation's premises in Bomi and Grand Cape Mount Counties.

Mr. Dagenhart described the tour as fruitful, adding "In a true spirit, Sime Darby does that to showcase its development, ranging from nursery, planted areas and Centralized Housing Complexes to schools and clinics."

"In this case we are showing the agriculture project which is very important for the local communities. These are intensive farming plough where they chose what to plant (corn, rice or vegetables) and our technicians provide technical advice to do the farming."

The Sime Darby official said the issue of food security has been addressed to a larger extent, given that the agriculture project has been able to achieve its objective.

"We are very happy to provide the opportunity to whoever is interested in seeing our operations, because we want to educate as many people as possible about what's involved, what's at stake, how its done, what are the obstacles and most importantly to show that there is already a significant and visible economic development taken place in this area," said Mr. Dagenhart.

"If we don't follow our own strict rules, if we don't follow the Roundtable on Sustainable Oil Palm (RSPO) rules or the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rules, that wouldn't be good and we could be running into risk, but we do follow the rules."

He said Sime Darby through its Standing Operating Procedures (SOP's) and Social Team have managed to be at peace with local communities through working with a tailored local condition, involving the FPIC processes with the locals in a way social and environmental damages are avoided if not minimized. For his part, the Director of Concessions and Public Private Partnership at the NIC, Mr. Melvin Sheriff said the government will work with the locals and the company in projecting the company's expansion plans.

Sime Darby, is a developer of oil palm and rubber estates in Western Liberia (Bomi and Grand Cape Mount Counties), hoping to move into Gbarpolu and Bong Counties, where it may fully develop 220, 000 hectares of green fields.

However, the company has been faced with problems of not developing progressively; falling back on its expansion plans, despite already investing little over 100million in the economy.

According to records, the company should have been at 30, 000 hectares planted areas, after three years of operating in Liberia, but to date it stands little over 10, 000 hectares planted areas. At the close of the tour along with representatives from the World Bank, the NIC representative Sheriff said "the company is not expanding due to the lack of availability of land. Government on its part is working closely with the communities."

"The government's understanding is that local community members have been complaining that they weren't part of the negotiations process, and that's why today we have the [Free Prior Informed Consent] FPIC process". "Her Excellency has setup what you call a land stakeholders committee to actually go into talking to the communities and that the communities are aware of these concessions and also that the land they are giving out, they have stake in those land, in terms of smallholders."

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