Communities make their voices heard in palm oil discussions

Communities make their voices heard in palm oil discussions

Communities in Liberia have spoken to palm oil sector representatives about ongoing land tenure issues and participation of peoples in future plans for their customary lands.

Sixteen representatives from across Liberia attended the 2nd Annual Tropical Forest Alliance 2020 (TFA) National Dialogue to talk about the future of both their lands and large-scale agricultural developments in the country.

The communities are being affected by work being carried out by Liberia’s four main Palm Oil companies: Equatorial Palm Oil (EPO), Sime Darby (SD), Golden Veroleum Liberia (GVL) and Maryland Oil Palm Plantation (MOPP).

The representatives travelled to Monrovia to be part of a series of trainings in preparation for their involvement in the 2020 National Dialogue, held from 1-4 August. 

The trainings focused on Free, Prior, and Informed Consent (FPIC), and the High Conservation Values (HCV) and High Carbon Stock (HCS) toolkits, which focus on the themes of rights, biodiversity and carbon respectively. The themes are increasingly regulating the activities of the palm oil sector globally, and mechanisms surrounding them have the potential to enable local communities to better manage their lands and resources.

If, however, they are not fully explained to local communities and implemented in a participatory manner, they could become additional imposed layers of land-use planning that further marginalise communities from the effective and sustainable management of their lands and resources.

The Tropical Forest Alliance 2020 is a global public-private partnership, designed to remove deforestation from the palm oil, beef, soya, and pulp and paper sectors.  In Liberia it focuses on the palm oil sector and has previously worked with the government, private sector and civil society to produce a series of nine guiding principles designed to regulate the sector in Liberia. 

Local communities had not been present at the first annual national dialogue and this year was the first chance they had to directly influence the future of the palm oil sector in Liberia.

At the culmination of the four days, the 16 representatives prepared a letter which they presented to the Liberian Forest Development Authority (FDA) and which set out their concerns and future hopes.

While pleased to have been invited to the 2nd Annual National Dialogue, the representatives were concerned by the worrying lack of integration of customary land tenure in the HCS, HCV toolkits and TFA 2020 guiding principles. They made it clear that unless ongoing land tenure issues around customary ownership were resolved and secured, the ability of the palm oil sector to provide a conflict free and therefore sustainable future for Liberia and the communities upon whose land it would operate was in doubt. They advised that:

  • existing land tenure claims should be resolved before any engagement from the sector and that all customary rights should be respected and protected by all parties;
  • the inclusion of land rights holders was critical to the TFA 2020 process (and the tools like HCS and HCV that it contained) and the palm oil sector more broadly;
  • customary land owners needed greater information on all aspects of the palm oil sector including the details of concession agreements, FPIC, HCS, HCV, TFA 2020, RSPO and their rights under national and international law; 
  • communities should be able to participate at all stages, including mapping, surveying, monitoring and evaluation, etc; 
  • the imposition of new categories of land designation involved in HCS and HCV land planning would further increase pressure on their farm lands and force displacement and scarcity of resources; and
  • as a point of urgency, the roles and responsibilities of all parties involved in HCS, HCV and TFA 2020 in Liberia must be explained to communities, and in particular the agencies responsible for implementation, and any monitoring and grievance mechanisms.

The community representatives made clear in their letter to the FDA that unless local communities are given sufficient information to inform their decision making and better opportunities to take leading roles in the palm oil sector, the development opportunities that the oil palm sector promises for Liberia runs the risk of being available only to a privileged few and not those who need it most, and who have rights to those opportunities as the customary owners of the lands upon which the palm oil sector is based.

  By Chris Kidd, Forest Peoples Programme