Global Witness and Save My Future Foundation (SAMFU) today welcome the commitment by the Liberian President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, to make any expansion by the British palm oil company Equatorial Palm Oil (EPO) onto Jogbahn Clan land dependent on the approval of the communities affected.(1)
EPO has been accused by the communities of taking their land and clearing it without their consent.(2) In September 2013, community members were apparently beaten and detained by EPO security staff and the Liberian police on their way to lodge a complaint about the expansion to the authorities.(3) The company denied that it acted without community consultation or outside Liberian law.(4) The commitment by the President marks a significant victory in the battle for customary land rights to be respected.
"While Liberia desperately needs investment it cannot afford to do business with companies which trample over vulnerable people. By this decision, the President has shown that she intends to put her people first." says Natalie Ashworth, Global Witness. "The commitment by President Sirleaf to protect some of Liberia's poorest people is laudable."
British company, EPO, has two palm oil concessions in Liberia covering a total of 89,000 hectares. The company, which is listed on the Alternative Investment Market (AIM) of the London Stock Exchange, took steps in late 2012 and throughout 2013 to expand its operations in Grand Bassa County onto land customarily held by the Jogbahn community.
The expansion of the company's operations would have destroyed the forests, farms and wetlands upon which the Jogbahn people rely for their livelihoods and food. In a response to a letter by Global Witness the company stated that it respects "the Liberian community rights and land." [sic] (4)
Communities reported to Global Witness that over the course of 2013 they were subjected to increasingly severe intimidation by EPO security staff. The intimidation escalated in September 2013 when 17 community members were reportedly beaten and arrested by EPO security staff and officers from the elite Liberian Police Support Unit (PSU). (5)
In a letter to Global Witness the company stated that "they were not involved" in the incident, had been "falsely accused" and they "never instructed or directed any of its staff or PSU officer to intimidate Jogbahn community members... at any time."(4)
The governments County Attorney confirmed that there was evidence that people had been accosted, however the Grand Bassa police commander denied that his forces had beaten any Jogbahn community people. (6) The Liberian Government has yet to make a public statement about the findings of any investigation it has made into the allegations of abuse by PSU officers.
"Customary land rights are yet to be fully recognized and protected by the Liberian government. Land remains an explosive issue in Liberia," said Andrew Tokpa of SAMFU. "Any taking of peoples' land by EPO or intimidation of community members by EPO staff could have led to conflict without this bold intervention by the President. Hopefully this signals a move by the Liberian government for greater respect of communities' land rights."
For more information contact:
Natalie Ashworth, Senior Campaigner at Global Witness: +44 7715076547, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Andrew Tokpah. Program Officer, Save My Future Foundation: +231 8865 52618; email@example.com.
Notes to editors:
(1) The President held a meeting with communities from the Jogbahn Clan on the 5 March 2014 where she committed to supporting communities in protecting their land from further expansion by the company.
(2) Communities submitted a complaint to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) on the 18 September 2013 which alleged that the company had already cleared some of their customary land and planted oil palm on the cleared land without their consent.
(3) On 20 December 2013, Global Witness, Friends of the Earth, FERN, Save my Future Foundation (SAMFU), Social Entrepreneurs for Sustainable Development (SesDev), and Sustainable Development Institute (SDI) detailed the abuse by the company in the press release, "UK's Equatorial Palm Oil accused of human rights abuses in Liberia," 20 December 2013.
(4) EPO, "Letter to Global Witness," 17 December 2013. EPO's full response can be found on Global Witness' website at: www.globalwitness.org/Liberia/EPO
(5) The PSU were formed to respond to rioting and violent crime. UN Security Council, "Ninth progress report of the Secretary-General on the United Nations Mission in Liberia," S/2005/764, December 7, 2005, http://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol =S/2005/764, p. 7, para. 30.
(6) Meeting between Global Witness and the Buchanan County Attorney and the General Commander of the Liberian National Police in Buchanan, both on 9 December 2013.