10 March 2014

Liberia: Equatorial Palm Oil Faces Arson Attacks Amid Bassa Land Dispute

Buchanan — the biggest of the many affected towns in the EPO concession area

Debbah Town, District #4, Grand Bassa County - With the Equatorial Palm Oil (EPO) already facing serious retrogression over the ongoing land saga with the local communities, several hectares of its newly planted palm plantation have been attacked with fire.

Although the cause of the fire has not yet been established, the company is pointing accusing fingers at individuals who have expressed dissatisfaction over the presence of the palm company in the county and its potential expansion project.

Speaking to FrontPage Africa at Palm Bay in Grand Bassa County, the Senior Assistant Plantation Manger David Woah said there have been several fire incidents on the plantation in recent weeks and asserted that the incidents are the results of people wanting to attack the plants because they are dissatisfied. Already more than 12 hectares of 2011 planted palms have been burnt down, causing the management to lose over USD$125,000.00.

"With these fire attacks on the palms, it means we have lost a lot of money and we will have to start planting them all over again, which means it will have a negative impact on our budget," Mr. Woah disclosed.

These losses have only amplified the threats that EPO investment may face in the coming months as the land saga deepens and worsen. The management says it has countless number of seeding and pay huge sums of money to develop it, but the expansion stalemate has made it impossible to use them, leaving them vulnerable to destruction any time soon.

Last year the company declared some 150 employees redundant and the recent shutdown its factory has left those assigned there to lose their jobs. Right now the limited functions of the palm company have sliced the workforce of only 452 personnel.

The management says it has a huge investment potential once the land crisis is resolved. Nevertheless, the company continues to face resistance from the locals which recently prompted a meeting called by the president has further twisted or prolonged a resolution. EPO has accused the Sustainable Development Initiative (SDI) of in-sighting and manipulating the locals against the company, adding that SDI has failed to speak to the company in a way forward.

The Land Saga Deepens

The ongoing land dispute between the EPO and the indigenous of District Four ended in a deadlock as the potential investment plan by the oil palm company remains in limbo, a FrontPage Africa inquiry has gathered.

During an FPA investigation, it was widely noticed that locals of the 16 affected towns are adamantly unwilling to open any negotiation with the company. In a cross section interview with residents of Debbah town, a town which is notorious for its resistance against the company, insist that they will never embrace the company or its expansion initiatives.

"As for me, I will not want for them to take step because it was the arrangement on January 5, 2008 that they should remain to their concession area until otherwise other," the town youth leader, John Zeon lamented.

Zeon continued: "Since they came here in 1964, they have not done anything for us. We need roads, toilet, high school in this area, etc."

Roland Paygar, another resident said: "We know how Palm Bay looking, so we cannot agree for them and us to even sit down and talk anything." Some locals have accused the company of rejecting the employment of 'sons of the soil' to top positions, but the management claimed that it has recruited several individuals from the Bassa tribe in as much as it employed on the basis of qualification and not ethnocentrisms.

Visitors to Debbah town looking to solicit the views of the residents over this land issue risk being disperse or thrown-out by the town people once the residents become suspicious. Residents have often accused the district's representative, Hon. Robertson Siawaye and others politicians of plotting against them and siding with the company to take away their land.

Like the youth leader, many in the Debbah Town, the most populated amongst the affected towns with over 20 villages around it- have outlined the failure of the company to address its cooperate social responsibility in the past when their forefathers were forcible evicted as the background for their bitterness against the EPO. For now, the residents in Debbah Town want EPO to undo the past by initiating projects ignored in the 1960s.

The new Palm Bay owner, EPO has often claimed that it is committed to a new approach of engaging the locals and impacting their lives. The Senior Assistant Manager of EPO, David Woah told FPA the company continues to render services to the communities.

"We built roads; places that never had roads before we built roads there. For example, we've built the roads from Nnohn's town all the way to Zammie town. Beside that we have our health center here with qualified health workers with an ambulance service that cater to people beyond Compound Four," Mr. Woah explained.

EPO has embarked on the construction of hand pumps for towns in the area and recently built a road which links Debbah town and other communities including the plantation. Although, it is clear that the company is constructing some feeder roads, Debbah Town residents want the road linking Grand Bassa and Rivercess counties rehabilitated by the company.

Observers say more than 70% to 80% of the locals in the area are supportive of the company's extension project, but the few groups of people who have expressed dissatisfaction in the most uncertain terms have cast doubts in the minds of the investors and made possible negotiation difficult.

Residents of the affected communities were optimistic of a recent meeting called by President Sirleaf to discuss the land crisis. While some have already lost confidence in the government's approach, others are hopeful that their resistance will ensure that the government takes the right steps to protect the land of their ancestors.

The District Commissioner, Matthew Gibson holds the view that the way forward is through dialogue. Even though the residents' position on the matter is glaring, Commissioner Gibson is optimistic that the 'people don't have a problem with the company', as he asserts that the land dispute is being politicized.

"You know this is an election year, so some politicians want to play politics, notwithstanding we need to dialogue to solve the problem," the commissioner said.

Commissioner Gibson and his boss, Superintendent Etweeda Cooper along with other county officials have openly voiced their frustration over the procrastination of the negotiations. They have often considered the potential economic benefits the county will enjoy from the company's expansion.

Founded in 2005, Equatorial Palm Oil PLC (EPO) a crude palm oil company is publicly listed on the Alternatives Investment Market (AIM) of the London Stock Exchange in the United Kingdom. The 2008 concession agreement gives EPO 34,500 acres of land, but the management says it currently occupies 9 to 10 thousand of the total amounts in the concession agreement.

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