The New Dawn (Monrovia)

25 June 2014

Liberia: Equatorial Palm Oil Faces Continued Protest

The UK-listed company, Equatorial Palm Oil or EPO, which is threatening to seize land owned by Liberians in defiance of intervention by President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, is expected to receive a visitation today, Wednesday from affected communities.

According to a press release, delegates from Jogbahn Clan, together with representatives of Liberians and international NGOs, will deliver a petition with over 90,000 signatures, reminding EPO that it does not have community consent to expand onto their lands, and that doing so could escalate violence.

The release said EPO's past operations in Liberia have triggered allegations of conflict and human rights abuses, but the company has maintained that its expansion is legal.

"EPO's recent expansion efforts are a brazen example of a company defying international law, government orders and the rights of communities," said Silas Kpanan'Ayoung Siakor, campaigner at the Sustainable Development Institute. "EPO has no claim to this land; it is owned by the communities who live on it."

The release quotes residents of Jogbahn Clan in Grand Bassa County as saying that EPO has begun demarcating blocks of land in preparation for clearing, while the company's private security guards are alleged threatening residents.

"We demand that EPO stops inciting conflict by preparing to clear our land," commented Jogbahn Elder Joseph Chio Johnson, stressing, "EPO must stop threatening our people and accept that our no means no."

The release said these actions defy the March commitment by President Ellen Johnson- Sirleaf that EPO could not expand into Joghban Clan without permission.

It further stressed that the right of Liberian communities, including Joghban Clan to give or withhold consent to projects that could have an impact on their land and resources is also provided under international human rights law, as well as the Principles and Criteria of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) of which EPO is a member. The Joghban people have refused to give such consent.

According to the release, EPO has a very poor track record in Grand Bassa County, noting that last September, officers from EPO security team and the Liberian Police reportedly worked together to assault and beat Joghban community members who were peacefully protesting the company's operations.

It added that those arrested were soon released after it was determined by Grand Bassa County Attorney that there was no justification for continued detention and of those arrested and that no government investigation report regarding this incident has been made public.

The release pointed out that EPO denied any involvement in the violence, saying that it had been "falsely accused", and does not "condone or encourage such described behavior," and "never instructed or directed any of its staff or PSU officers to intimidate Jogbahn community members in September or at any time."

The release however continued that EPO admitted to Global Witness that it provided logistical support to the Liberian police who are accused of intimidating villagers on the plantation. The company further stated that it "respects the Liberian community rights and land, and has followed the law and procedures laid out", had taken "strict steps" to ensure that it only plants oil palm on its concession land and legally-acquired community land, and is "a responsible company and committed to sustainable oil palm development."

According to the release, EPO's concessions in Liberia totaled 8,900 km2 of land, which the company believes gives it the legal right to use the land to develop a palm oil concession. The company is listed on the London-based AIM stock market, and is now majority owned by Malaysian palm oil giant Kuala Lumpur Kepong Bhd (KLK).

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