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Global Witness, GVL in war of words

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Global environmental watchdog Global Witness or GW says palm oil giant Golden Veroleum (GVL) has bulldozed religious sites in southeast Liberia and has paid police armed with assault rifles to protect its plantations in a new reportcalled The Temple and the Gun.

Global Witness

But the oil palm giant in a release has described the report as erroneous claims. “It is disappointed to see Global Witness (GW) and Sync Consult make erroneous claims in their reports published on October 19, 2016,” GVL said.

The company said on multiple occasions since 2015, it has invited Global Witness to come and see on the ground the work it is doing to develop the business. “Although they have not responded we still do encourage them to meet with us in Liberia and understand what is happening directly,” GVL said.

But GW said its report has come fifteen months after the campaigns group published allegations that Liberians had been beaten, threatened and arrested for taking a stand against GVL, which accelerated its expansion at the height of Liberia’s Ebola outbreak.

“GVL has bought the rights to convert 2,600 km2 of Liberia into an oil palm estate – an area the size of London and Barcelona combined. The company’s contract is valid for up to 98 years, currently affecting some 41,000 people,” the report narrated. 

It said these fresh revelations coincide with the publication of the first ever economic analysis of palm oil development in Liberia, which suggests that continued expansion under the current model could do the country more harm than good. The study, by economists at Sync Consult, found that converting community land into plantations left those impacted an average of three times worse off. 

Global Witness said it has been calling for Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf to rethink the country’s approach to agriculture, which she has made a cornerstone of the country’s development strategy based on the belief that it will lift poverty in rural areas. Ten percent of Liberia is already earmarked for plantations, but expansion has happened in a legal vacuum – there are still no laws governing how agriculture companies should operate or be held to account. 

“Our investigations show that Golden Veroleum is at it again in Liberia – intimidating communities through the threat of force. This time the company has also destroyed what’s most sacred to the people who have traditionally owned this land – a place they go to worship,” said Jonathan Gant at Global Witness. “Without laws and penalties to keep agricultural companies in check they will continue to get away with trampling over the rights and traditions of landowners across Liberia.”

The reportalleges how GVL has cordoned off two sites that are sacred to the Blogbo people of Sinoe County. Palotro Hill, where women would pray for fertility, has been flattened to make way for a mill for processing palm oil. Tucked behind the construction site, the sacred Sleni River is now also off-limits and is at risk of contamination from waste water. When asked to comment, GVL did not deny it had desecrated these religious sites. Instead, the company states that it has not infringed upon the rights of the Blogbo people and points to a decision by the industry certification body the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.

However, locals interviewed say that GVL was never given permission to desecrate these sites. “These developments are taking place amid an atmosphere of fear and intimidation, with armed Liberian police installed to protect the company’s plantation. The Emergency Response Unit (ERU) was first dispatched to the GVL plantation in May 2015 to pacify protests over staff’s working conditions. Its officers are still there, invited to stay by GVL to provide protection, and are being housed and fed by the company. As of November 2015, the ERU was also being paid by GVL, although when asked recently whether this is still the case the company declined to answer. They are armed with American-made M4 military rifles – some of the only guns left in an otherwise demilitarised country exhausted by 14 years of civil war.

Sync Consult’s analysis of GVL’s impact shows how the benefits to communities of the land they have traditionally owned, farmed and hunted on is four times greater than the value that GVL claims it will provide in salaries and social services once it converts the land into plantations. The economists also revealed how only a handful of people stand to gain from GVL – principally the company’s comparatively small staff and their families. Presented with these findings GVL did not give a substantive response, instead providing only general criticisms of the study’s methodology.

“This economic forecast paints a gloomy picture of the future of palm oil in Liberia, which threatens to deepen poverty and suffering across the country rather than lifting it,” said Jonathan Gant. “The government should be thinking very seriously about alternative development models – ones which strengthen the rural poor’s rights to the land they rely on rather than robbing them of it for generations.”

However, GVL said assertions relating to the Tarjuowon community are incomplete and not representative of the facts on the ground. GVL claimed it obtained community consent by conducting a full FPIC (Free Prior Informed Consent) process in 2013 and no claims of the referenced locations being religious sites were made during this process. It is also notable that these claims are refuted by the majority of the Kulu clan membership, of which the Blogbo form a part.

In its point by point denial, GVL said the temporary presence of the police is to protect employees and personnel following a violent attack in May 2015. Excerpts of the GVL release: “The police serve in a reactive role and it is unclear how this police presence could intimidate a community that lives over 30 kilometres away. GVL pays Daily Subsistence Allowances (DSAs) in line with Government of Liberia (GOL) guidelines. Under the President’s directive, GOL deployed the unit to be based on the farm pending construction of a community police station in Butaw, which we understand is now underway.

“GVL welcomes and calls for sound economic and social research based on thorough fact-finding and proper analysis. However, the report GW has commissioned from Ghanaian Sync Consult is regrettably fundamentally flawed in its facts and its analysis. For example the consultant has fundamentally misunderstood the relationships between area, employment and the economics of oil palm. The report claims that GVL will develop the full 33,000 hectares of an area of investigation, although we will only develop 4,000 ha within this zone. Similarly they claim the employment for a 33,000 ha development would require only 1,650 employees. In the oil palm business, this scale would require a minimum of 5,500 employees. There are many other errors. Regrettably, GVL was not given an opportunity to contribute substantively to the report, as we would have been able to point out these flaws. We will comment in detail on this in our full response. 

In line with best practice, GVL will now address the assertions made in both reports and publish our findings. We note however that the reports contain assertions made by the same organisation in 2015 and which we refuted at the time. This does underline our opinion that only by constructive dialogue will progress be made. 

GVL is fully committed to building a sustainable business in Liberia including the infrastructure that underpins that development such as roads and healthcare facilities and to support the economic development of host communities. It will take many years before oil palm is produced at scale in Liberia and many more years before the investor companies may see a return on their significant investments. As with all projects, there are a number of challenges to first be overcome. As a company we do not claim to have all the answers and we have therefore committed significant time and investment to working with the many community representatives, local NGOs and sustainability advisers to benefit from their experience.”

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