Urgent reforms needed to protect citizens and regulate plantation companies
A Press ReleaseBy Global Witness
Oil Palm Companies, Preesident Sirleaf, Gol Officials Harass Poor Communities To Give Away Their Brokerage Rights (Land)
Liberians are reported to have been beaten, threatened, and arrested for taking a stand against one of the world’s biggest palm oil plantations as it sweeps across the southeast of the country, a new Global Witness exposé reveals.
As Liberia emerges as a new frontier market for the world’s cheapest, most popular vegetable oil, The New Snake Oildetails how state officials are said to be helping the palm oil company Golden Veroleum (GVL) harass communities into signing away their land and crush dissent. The report also documents the huge foreign investment, state-sanctioned violence, and regulatory black holes that are making this possible.
Global Witness reveals how GVL accelerated its operations at the peak of Liberia’s 2014 Ebola outbreak. The company held meetings with hundreds of people and encouraged illiterate citizens to sign away their land rights when community support groups were staying home for risk of contagion. At this time GVL almost doubled the size of its plantation. (1)
This behavior hasn’t discouraged the world’s major banks from offering their services. Standard Chartered, HSBC, and Citibank alone hold shares in GVL’s parent company – Golden Agri-Resources (GAR) – worth nearly US$ 1.5 billion. (2)
The case of GVL risks becoming the first chapter of a longer narrative of dispossession and abuse. Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has made agriculture a central pillar of the country’s development strategy, making repeated – yet so far unfulfilled – public assurances that palm oil will lift poverty in rural areas. In response to early protests at GVL’s plantation she called those who spoke out against the company “unpatriotic” as they risked discouraging future investors. (3)
Global Witness is calling on Liberia’s government to investigate acts of violence, pass a law recognizing that rural communities own their land, and regulate the country’s agriculture sector to bring an end to the impunity enjoyed by plantation companies.
GVL has bought the rights to convert 2,600 km2 of southeast Liberia into an oil palm estate – an area the size of London and Barcelona combined. Its contract is valid for up to 98 years, affecting some 41,000 people. This is the first time its parent company GAR has expanded outside its home country Indonesia, where it has an appalling track record for human rights abuses, land grabbing, and environmental devastation. (4)
“Liberia is rolling out the red carpet to a company that has swindled communities, forcibly grabbed land and chain-sawed its way through rainforests in Asia,” said Global Witness campaign leader Jonathan Gant. “With the company’s first foray into Africa, at the peak of the continent’s deadliest Ebola epidemic, it is has manipulated villagers into signing away the lands they depend on. This will affect at least five generations of families who will likely never see their land returned to them.”
Public meetings where landowners were encouraged to hand over their land to GVL were watched over by powerful local officials, and in at least one case armed police. Global Witness also documents several accounts of violent assaults and arbitrary arrests of those who voiced their concerns, events in which the company claims it played no part.
The benefits offered by GVL to communities in return have been negligible. Those willing to work for the company are promised access to free medical support and schools. (5) For non-employees, the most tangible negotiated benefits Global Witness could find evidence of were six toilets. Suspicious payments by GVL to local elites suggest that they are getting a better deal. (6) The full responses of GVL and GAR to the evidence contained in The New Snake Oil can be found on the Global Witness website. (7)
“Palm oil risks becoming Liberia’s snake oil. Just as con men in the United States sold fake snake oil as medicine, pretending it had magical healing qualities, palm oil developers are selling Liberians what may turn out to be false promises of a better future. They are tricking communities into giving up the land they rely on for food and livelihoods and giving them very little, if anything, in return,” said Gant.
Ten percent of Liberia is now earmarked for agricultural plantations – an area three times the size Beijing. This rapid expansion is taking place in a legal vacuum. There are no laws in Liberia to govern how agriculture companies should be awarded contracts, how they should operate, or how they will be held to account.
“It is unacceptable to view the well-being of tens of thousands of people as inferior to an investment contract,” said Gant. “Development is not development if it involves robbing the country’s poorest citizens of their land. If Liberians are to benefit from palm oil they must be free to choose for or against it, and have the information and support they need to negotiate on their own terms. Until that time, the government should stop Golden Veroleum from expanding onto new land, and set a precedent for the other foreign companies poised to cash in on Liberia’s vast natural wealth.”