Resisting Sime Darby: Oil palm development slammed at Gbarpolu conference
Published: 02 Dec 2012
Posted in:  Liberia | Sime Darby
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Front Page Africa | 2 December 2012

by Al-Varney Rogers

Citizens at a conference in Bopolu expressed strong opposition to planned oil-palm development by Sime Darby in Gbarpolu County, while residents of an area where the development have already started expressing mixed views on the Malaysia-based company’s operations.

“They took my land. They planted palm. The palms surround me,” said Grand Cape Mount farmer Abdul Suma, a 65-year-old father of four children who live with him and his wife.

Suma explained that Sime Darby cleared the land he used for growing rice and gave him only a US$10 bag of rice in return. The farmer says he supports his family now by making charcoal for sale.

During a meeting Saturday, more than 200 hundred people from communities within concession areas leased to Sime Darby and US-owned Golden Veroleum issued a declaration at the end of the conference.

“We are the rightful owners of the land,” the 28-point declaration said.

“We rely on the land that was given to foreign companies in the contracts to grow our food, hunt, drink water, build our homes, heal our sick, celebrate our culture, and make our livelihoods.”

Community consent must be obtained by companies before developing any area, and the communities must be able to decide how much forest will be preserved, the declaration said.

Amounts of payment for destroyed crops must be determined through negotiation with communities, not imposed by the companies, said the declaration, which also demanded companies preserve sacred bush areas, graveyards and recreational spaces, and provide social benefits to all community members, not just employees.

No consultation was done with affected communities by government before signing the agreement with Simem  Darby, said Sanford Massaquoi, 52, vice-principal of Bopolu Central High School.

Because of what citizens have seen where Sime Darby is already operating they are not going to allow the company to start work in Gbarpolu County, where part of the concession lies, Massaquoi said. Under the concession agreement, his county is to provide a majority of the land leased to Sime Darby in a total of four counties, Massaquoi said.

“We are to give 51 per cent of the land for Sime Darby plantations,” Massaquoi said. “How much will there be left for agriculture activities?

“Our people are used to farming and when the land is taken from them and they are not employed it will become a burden to family members.”

The agreement, which is vague in many areas,  appears to give Sime Darby the right to sell timber and precious stones from the concession area, Massaquoi asserted.

British human-rights lawyer Tom Lomax told delegates at the conference that the agreements between the Liberian government and Sime Darby and Golden Veroleum violate Article 7 of the Liberian Constitution and international laws.
“If the intent of this company is to create jobs then the timber and diamonds from these areas can provide employment,” Massaquoi added.

Isaac McCarnley, a 23-year-old father of two from Bomi County who works for Sime Darby said he accepted a US$5-per-day job as a surveyor because no other companies are operating in the area.

But after income tax, medical fees and  payment for rice is  deducted from his wages by the company, there is little money to take home, McCarnley said.

Esther Saye, 39, welcomed the coming of Sime Darby because her US$5-per-day job in a company tree nursery enabled her to provide daily bread for her family.

“I used to sell small small things (provisions) before the Sime Darby arrival but now things are better because when the month ends I get my money in bulk,” she said, adding that she works from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.

British human-rights lawyer Tom Lomax told delegates at the conference that the agreements between the Liberian government and Sime Darby and Golden Veroleum violate Article 7 of the Liberian Constitution and international laws.

The Constitution is clear on the requirement for community participation in such concessions but the government ignored that provision, Lomax said.

[B]‘Displacement is illegal’, lawyer says[/B]

Communities should know they have a collective property right and adds displacement is illegal under almost any circumstances, Lomax said. Any community within an area where a concession is coming has the right to say no to some or all of the concession, Lomax added.

Also, communities have the right to get legal advice before getting into a land lease, but this wasn’t done with regard to the oil palm concessions, Lomax said. Under the agreement, after the lease ends, the land goes back to the government not the people.

“The government is treating the land like government land and not community land,” Lomax told delegates. “Is that respecting your property rights?”

In a country were subsistence agriculture is vital, companies are taking the land for oil palm which will be exported - a bad deal for all Liberians, said Lomax. The oil palm concessions are part of the Liberian government’s attempt to attract foreign investment to create jobs, bring development and increase the government revenues.’

According to a New York Times opinion piece in January citing Liberian newspaper reports, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf told villagers during a visit to Grand Cape Mount that the Constitution gives sole right to the government for negotiating with foreign investors, and locals’ opposition to Sime Darby would lead all such investors to shut their businesses and Liberia would “go back to the old days.”

Sime Darby spokesman Carl Dagenhart admitted the company made mistakes early on concerning land rights and environmental issues, but said the problems were resolved and  the company was in the process of consulting communities, who would be able to decide where future company operations in its concession area would take place.

A mapping project will see communities, with help from local and international NGOs, stake out areas of cultural, economic and religious importance, which will be off-limits to development, Dagenhart said.

Communities can be certain of reaping considerable benefits from Sime Darby’s investment in Liberia, Dagenhart said. “Access to schools, medical facilities, housing for employees, infrastructure/roads, direct and indirect employment opportunities, scholarships,” Dagenhart said. “We want and need a happy community. We want to avoid conflict. It is costly.”

The conference was organized by the Sustainable Development Institute, Save my Future Foundation and Social Entrepreneurs for Development.