Liberia: Communities Remain Below the Ladder in W/A Oil Palm Industry

... SDI dialogue conference unveils

As the oil palm industry becomes attractive to West Africa because of its humid climate, and fertile soil, inhabitants of communities wherein the investment goes on remain in tears as their land is grabbed randomly thus leaving them with limited accessibility to their own land.

At a recently held regional dialogue organized by the Sustainable Development Institute (SDI) that brought together representatives of advocacy groups from Liberia, Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone and Cameroon, it was unveiled that in most of the agreements leading to getting land for oil palm plantations, community members are left unaware. Instead, they are startled by the movement of bulldozers clearing their land, and this has resulted to conflicts between investors and the communities.

It can be recalled that when oil palm investment began in Liberia during the administration of former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, there were instances of conflict plantations operated by Sime Darby in Grand Cape Mount and Bomi counties, and Golden Veroleum in Sinoe and Grand Kru counties.

Community dwellers, who rely on the land for farming and other sacred activities complain that companies were clearing their land indiscriminately without respect for protected forest and sacred destinations.

The regional dialogue held from November 27 to 28, 2019, aimed to assess the impact of the project launched on January 15 this year with the aim to Improving Communication and Understanding of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) Standard, and mechanisms and their application in Liberia and at the regional level."

In continuation, the project seeks to create platforms at the national level to train rights-based NGOs, and communities affected by oil palm plantations on how to effectively use the RSPO standards and mechanisms, and how to effectively and efficiently engage with the RSPO so that their concerns and needs are fully taken in."

Mr. Lavala addresses the opening of the SDI regional dialogue.

Lavala further said the oil palm industry in Liberia is very strategic, because it creates employment, changes the lifestyle of farming activities, and promotes urban migration as many people because of opportunities have for years seen Monrovia as the only place of opportunity for seeking job.

"But considering all of that, we realize that we have signed a lot of agreements, not too sure of how to work with our communities; and not too sure we have a quarrel next door that we have to be extremely careful with," he added.

Dr. Chris Kidd, an expert from the United Kingdom (UK), who shared his view on the oil palm industry in West Africa, noted: "There is a huge demand for investment in oil palm in West Africa, because the region has a large area of land, which attracts that. Also, Indonesia and others have gone out of land where the industry is huge."

Dr. Kidd said the RSPO was meant to bridge the gap between the communities and the companies, but oil palm companies that are not a part cannot live by its mandate and rules, and therefore it cannot resolve conflicts arising between such companies and the communities.

He said without the RSPO, it will be expedient if a national government devises a policy that will bring cohesion between companies and communities in order to prevent and avoid conflict.

Ubrei-Joe M. Mariere, Project Officer for the Nigerian based Democracy Outreach Program, and he Environmental Rights Action Friends of the Earth, described the RSPO as "Satanic," arguing that it is there for the oil palm companies, and not community sensitive as companies continue to grab land from community members without remorse.

Chairman of the Multi-Stakeholders Platform for Bomi County, Abraham B. Combay, said unlike the past when communities were not involved with the operations of investors in the oil palm industry, the coming of the RSPO has brought some improvements by enhancing the involvements of communities.

Director for Partners Initiative for Conflict Transformation in Sierra Leone, Maxwell V. Kemokai, says the problem with the Sierra Leonean oil palm industry puts local community members under the ladder as the government of the past only dealt with the investors, and the local paramount chiefs, who do not account for the transaction to the local communities.

For Nornor Bee of the This is my Backyard (TIMBY) project of SDI, said her work to liaise with communities in using an app developed to send information about human rights abuses, and other gross violations by companies has been working well.

At the end of the dialogue, the delegates came out with a declaration outlining some challenges, and ways to address them.

According to the declaration, some countries in the region are initiating reforms to increase financial flow through investment to address poor governance, and management of natural resources, including land and forests. The group observed also that despite the reforms, land acquisition by oil palm companies is often characterized by lack of respect for the rights of local communities.

The delegates in their declaration notes with emphasis that community rights should be at the center of natural resource governance and management, especially those related to land lease agreements.

It further called for expansion of a large scale mono-culture; ensure that oil palm companies respect the collective rights of customary land owners and users and operate in a way that enables communities to secure benefits from their resource; ensure access to information through robust monitoring and reporting of oil palm companies' compliance to national laws, and international standards as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, and ensure that women and other marginalized people have their rights respected, including access and equal participation in natural resource management with specific focus on land.

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