As seen on The Guardian

Holly Watt

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Campaign group urges Golden Veroleum Liberia to renegotiate deals in which communities panic-stricken by Ebola signed over thousands of hectares of land

A Golden Veroleum Liberia (GVL) plantation in Liberia.
 A Golden Veroleum Liberia plantation in Liberia. Global Witness claims the company secured thousands of acres of land during the country’s Ebola outbreak. Photograph: Global Witness
A major palm oil company brought together scores of people in Liberia during the Ebola outbreak last year to sign over thousands of acres of land as part of a planned expansion, and also allegedly intimidated landowners and opponents of its operations, according to the campaign group Global Witness.

In a new report, Global Witness said Golden Veroleum Liberia (GVL), a subsidiary of the Singapore-listed company Golden Agri-Resources, the world’s second largest palm oil producer, signed four memorandums of understanding (MoUs) with local communities between August and November last year. The MoUs cover more than 13,350 hectares (33,000) acres of collectively held lands.

“Each of these MoUs is signed by hundreds of people, suggesting that the company was bringing together large numbers of community members at a time when people were panic-stricken and avoiding any physical contact or public gatherings,” said the report, The New Snake Oil.

One MoU was signed by 519 people in the same week last October that the 2,400th death from Ebola occurred in Liberia, Global Witness said. At that time, NGOs had little access to south-eastern Liberia.

“With people in such desperate circumstances and deprived of NGO support, it is clear that the conditions for genuine [informed consent] to be obtained did not exist during the Ebola crisis, and any MoU negotiated during this time must be renegotiated,” the report concluded.

Asked about the allegations that it brought people together during the Ebola outbreak, a GVL spokesman said the largest group assembled was 100 people, adding that this was done at the request of the local community and careful precautions were taken.

“[Golden Veroleum] was an active participant in a private sector group established to help manage the response to Ebola, educate employees and communities, and ensure continuity of operations,” the spokesman said in an emailed response. “The company remains proud of the fact that no case of Ebola was recorded among any of its employees or from within its host communities.”

GVL said it had worked with the communities for a lengthy time before Ebola broke out, and that is why the MoUs were signed during the outbreak.

Under a 2010 concession agreement, Liberia’s government agreed to lease GVL about 220,000 hectares (543,400 acres) of land over a period of 65 years to develop its palm oil operations in five south-eastern counties: Sinoe, Grand Kru, Maryland, River Cess and River Gee. Land clearance began in December 2010, halted two years later by a freeze on plantation expansion requested by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil in response to community complaints. Expansion began again in 2013 in Sinoe and Grand Kru, and several thousand hectares of land are believed to have been cleared and planted across these counties. Food insecurity is particularly prevalent in south-eastern Liberia.

“The MoUs signed during the period specified were the culmination of extended engagement with the communities which began months and years prior the start of the Ebola outbreak,” the GVL spokesman said.

The Ebola outbreak killed more than 4,800 people in Liberia and brought the country to a standstill for months. In August 2014, after the initial outbreak, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf declared a state of emergency and subsequently issued a series of restrictions, including a ban on public meetings.

Jonathan Gant, the author of the Global Witness report, said: “Golden Veroleum has negotiated some wretched deals to gain communities’ land. Vague, divisive, and clearly not negotiated, these deals grant Golden Veroleum 3,000 square kilometres of community land but grant communities little more – only six toilets – than the company was already legally obliged to provide.”

Golden Veroleum’s spokesman said the company had exceeded its legal obligations and was supporting local communities.

Gant also raised the issue of the alleged intimidation of opponents.

“The pattern of violence and intimidation of protesters in the Golden Veroleum plantation must cease immediately. If Liberians living in the plantation are to benefit from its presence, they must be free to choose for or against it, and be able to negotiate with the company. Until this happens, Golden Veroleum should stop expanding on to the peoples’ lands,” Gant said.

The GVL spokesman said the company found no evidence to support the allegations of intimidation.

GVL has been expanding its presence in Liberia in recent years, with the support of the government. It employs about 3,400 people in Liberia and has one office in the capital, Monrovia.

This is not the first time that GVL’s Liberian operations have encountered criticism.

Forest Peoples Programme, a civil society group that campaigns for the rights of indigenous people, has also accused GVL of taking land without community consent. In a report released in April, the FPP said Golden Veroleum’s company procedures regarding free, prior and informed consent were still highly inconsistent with relevant legal standards.

It also said that serious procedural flaws continued to be reflected in practice, and urged fundamental change in procedure and practice to avoid future human rights violations and to rectify past mistakes.

In response to the FPP criticisms, Golden Veroleum issued a statement: “Regrettably, the report lacks a real and current understanding of the communities of south-east Liberia, and of how the company works with them. The authors have not participated in sustained fieldwork with the communities for the past 1.5 years or more. Out-dated information is presented as current facts… The report highlights only selectively picked views and quotes, while excluding others. In particular, it omits any broad community view, which would provide a more accurate reflection of GVL’s operation and its relationships with communities.”

Palm oil, the world’s most important vegetable oil, is used in everything from margarine to biofuel. Worldwide annual production is worth an estimated $20bn.