Community representatives from across Liberia assembled in Bopolu City in Gbarpolu County on 27 – 29 November, to discuss the impacts of palm oil agricultural concession developments taking place in Liberia on land already used and owned (customarily or otherwise) by communities. Over 150 community delegates from the counties of Grand Cape Mount, Bomi, Gbarpolu and Sinoe attended the meeting jointly organised by the Sustainable Development Institute (SDI), the Save My Future Foundation (SAMFU) and the Social Entrepreneurs for Sustainable Development (SESDev).
The outcome of the meeting was a strongly worded declaration, drafted and agreed by the community representatives, demanding proper respect for the rights, lives and livelihoods of communities affected by existing and future oil palm developments in Liberia.
Although expansion of existing operations is planned in Grand Cape Mount and Bomi (by Sime Darby) and Sinoe (by Golden Veroleum), development has yet to take place in Gbarpolu where Sime Darby plans to clear and plant up to 50,000 ha of land. The concession areas of both companies also extend into five other counties in Liberia. The companies have signed contracts for concession areas of 220,000 ha each, however complaints have been submitted to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) in respect of the current operations of both Sime Darby and Golden Veroleum. By basing the meeting in Bopolu City, communities from the Gbarpolu area were able to hear first-hand the experiences of communities whose land has already been cleared and planted with oil palm without their free, prior and informed consent (FPIC). International delegates from Nigeria, Indonesia, Sierra Leone and The Gambia also shared their experiences of large scale oil palm development with communities and the advocacy strategies they had used in response.
Forest Peoples Programme have completed two recent studies on oil palm in Liberia: one documenting the degree to which the initial Sime Darby concession development in Grand Cape Mount respected the right to free, prior and informed consent and a second providing an in-depth human rights analysis of the concession contracts of both Sime Darby and Golden Veroleum. FPP were invited to the Bopulu meeting to give a presentation on its human rights analysis of the concession contracts and outline the international law implications.
Key rights issues in the contracts identified by FPP’s study include the following:
1) The contracts create leases over large areas of land currently owned, occupied and used by communities, without the requirement for information sharing, consultation or the community’s FPIC.
2) The companies have a contractual right to request resettlement of communities, without communities having a say or adequate safeguards to protect them from involuntary displacement/forced eviction. The Golden Veroleum contract states that resettlement is to be effected ‘in such a manner that eliminates or minimises the existence of enclaves between Developed Areas’.
3) The companies are contractually entitled to conduct a wide range of activities on community land without any prior community notification, consultation or consent. They can build infrastructure; control community access to roads; cut timber; use sand, stones, rock, clay and gravel; and drain wet-land and swamp areas important for seasonal cultivation by communities, gathering crayfish and other uses.
4) The contracts give both companies broad security powers without safeguards to prevent abuse. These include the powers to apprehend and detain, and to search and exclude/evict, on the vaguely defined grounds of ‘economic, operational or security reasons’.
5) The contracts contain little or no proper benefit-sharing for local communities, although communities are bearing all the cost and harm from loss of land and resources, and associated socio-economic and cultural impacts.
6) Finally, a number of contractual provisions such as the low rental price, numerous tax breaks and deductions, and value-added measures that can easily be kicked into the long grass by the companies if they so chose, suggest that the contracts are arguably a bad deal for all Liberians as well as local communities.
In their final declaration the community delegates stated: “We are the rightful owners of the land where our communities have made our farms, raised our children, and practiced our traditions”. They also declared that “Despite not having been given the opportunity to grant our consent to the contracts, it is we who will experience the effects of oil palm plantations in Liberia”, and made a number of clear and comprehensive demands for all future palm oil development in Liberia. These included demands requiring respect for the right to free, prior and informed consent and control by the community over whether and how plantations proceed on their lands.
· Statement and Declaration by Affected Community members from Sime Darby and Golden Veroleum Concessions – Three Day Conference in Bopolu City, Gbarpolu County: http://tinyurl.com/cn7s7xg
· Letter of complaint to RSPO from members and inhabitants of affected local communities within the proposed Sime Darby 220,000 ha oil palm concession in Liberia, October 2011: http://www.forestpeoples.org/sites/fpp/files/publication/2011/10/sime-darby-complaint-liberia-affected-communities-oct-2011.pdf
· Letter of complaint to RSPO from indigenous Butaw Kru tribes and inhabitants from several local communities within the proposed Golden Veroleum 220,000 ha oil palm concession in Liberia, October 2012: http://tinyurl.com/c5tqo5o
· Free, Prior and Informed Consent in the Palm Oil Sector - Sime Darby oil palm and rubber plantation in Grand Cape Mount county, Liberia by Tom Lomax, Justin Kenrick and Alfred Brownell: http://www.forestpeoples.org/sites/fpp/files/publication/2012/11/liberiasimedarbyfpic_0.pdf
· Human rights-based analysis of the agricultural concession agreements between Sime Darby and Golden Veroleum and the Government of Liberia, Tom Lomax, Forest Peoples Programme: http://www.forestpeoples.org/sites/fpp/files/publication/2012/12/liberiacontractanalysisfinaldec2012_0.pdf