CIVICUS speaks to a Liberian activist about the invasions by multinational companies into community and indigenous lands. Rural communities are at the receiving end of human rights violations perpetuated against these companies and the police while the state appears to be turning a blind eye to their plight. The activist prefers to remain anonymous to protect their identity.
1. Can you describe the state of land rights, resource rights and indigenous rights in Liberia?
Communities and land rights activists in Liberia struggle to protect land and natural resources from multinational companies who are given access to land and natural resources by the government without taking into consideration the needs and views of Liberians. In exploiting land and natural resources, these multinational corporations violate the rights of communities, exploit children and their actions have an adverse effect on the environment. Recently, the Liberian government discussed land ownership and rights through a land authority and land rights Act and promised to include more local voices such as those of women and children. However, the laws remain unenforced even though resources that are being taken by big companies are supposed to empower all communities in Liberia. A major challenge is that these multinationals have agreements with the government without taking into account the views and concerns of communities whose livelihood will be affected by the exploitation of these resources.
2. What do you view as the core issues related to Golden Veroleum’s work in Liberia?
The survival and livelihood of Liberia’s rural communities is attributed to their access to the rainforests and to land for cultivation. Upon the arrival in 2010 of Golden Veroleum Liberia (GVL), a oil palm developer, rural farmers’ lands have been taken from them, often times by force. GVL has continued their expansion and let nothing get in their way; not farmers, not virgin rainforests teeming with wildlife, not even their promises made to help the local communities and assist them in developing education and other necessities. GVL has continued their operations but has returned nothing to the Liberian communities from whom they took the land.
Many of the communities and farmers have disagreed with GVL but have been met with threats and bribery by officials in positions of power. When the members of the communities chose to take a stand and express concerns over the actions of GVL, they have been arrested and beaten. GVL has employed a heavily armed and armored police unit called the Police Support Unit which they have invited to indefinitely stay to protect GVL’s interests and plantations. The workers that work for GVL are underpaid – in most cases US$10 a day and a rice supply which GVL’s forces have been confiscating in village raids. GVL has forced communities out of their land and some members of communities have gone into hiding to avoid reprisals.
3. How are communities of rural farmers affected by GVL’s palm oil production?
The land of these rural farmers has been confiscated, oftentimes by force, and has been poisoned with the chemicals used inside of palm plantations. GVL supposedly assumes that all local farmers will be obliged to work for them, facing underpayment and no access to the land on which they used to live. Some farmers have refused and simply left to live in the rainforest, yet GVL’s continued expansion threatens the delicate balance of the rainforest in which they live. Others have been beaten and imprisoned and remain there with no hope of ever leaving due to the corruption of GVL’s employed police unit.
4. In addition to concerns by farmers, can you expand on what your concerns are about the palm oil expansion by GVL?
My concerns are that the pleas of these farmers have remained unheard and overlooked by the Liberian government because of the economic benefit the government is receiving for this development. The conditions into which they force these communities, along with the ruthless means used to place them in such peril is very worrying and speaks a lot about the corruption that remains unexposed within the palm oil industry. I am concerned at what the future will bring, with little advancement in development for the communities. Farmers are detained and several are unaccounted for and GVL colludes with the government to gain access to land without consent of local communities.
5. In your opinion, why is this issue not being covered in the mainstream media?
Much of the story has been covered up or kept quiet by corrupt local officials and GVL. However, we hope that as civil society continues to highlight these issues, the matter will get the attention it deserves. Palm oil is used widely for domestic and industrial purposes — from cleaning products to culinary purposes and manufacturing — yet the methods of producing palm oil are not made public. Even major brand names using this oil have not spoken about which companies they source it from and by what means. If this was publicised by the mainstream media there would be a breach of trust between consumers and providers.
6. How has the government of Liberia responded to opposition to the oil plantation and why has it responded in this manner?
In the aftermath of Liberia’s war, the government expected investors to boost the economy and were quick to accept companies that produce palm oil. Liberians were initially happy about the arrival of multinational companies as they promised to create jobs and build schools. However, when the multinationals started violating the rights of communities, the government did not respond. In fact, we know that GVL has been bribing government officials who now ignore the actions of GVL and silence the voices of communities.
7. What can international civil society do to provide support and solidarity to activists in Liberia on this matter?
I would suggest we call on the UN Human Rights Council and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to include Liberia consistently on their agenda. It would also be important for international human rights institutions and mechanisms to work with the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, a voluntary association of the palm oil industry, to ensure GVL stops its operations until it has fulfilled promises made to communities. Finally, we hope local and international media outlets can do more to highlight the human rights violations, human-trafficking, child slavery and illegal deforestation which are common in the palm oil industry. This will persuade customers to demand that their providers ensure that products are produced in line with ethical and human rights standards. Providers unwilling to meet these demands should be exposed to prevent further damage to communities and their lands, in countries such as Liberia.
• Liberia is rated as “Repressed” by the CIVICUS Monitor.