Palm oil, poverty and ‘imperialism’: A reality check from Liberia

Silas Sikor, Director of the Sustainable Development Institute
Global Witness | 10 September 2014

Palm oil, poverty and ‘imperialism’: A reality check from Liberia

by Silas Siakor

The Times recently carried an article called ‘Let poor countries cut down forests’ (04/09/14), documenting journalist Ben Webster’s interview with Sir Jonathon Porritt, former Director of Friends of the Earth and environmental adviser to the Prince of Wales. Reading it, I felt that Sir Porritt seemed to have abandoned his usual analytical rigour and fallen for the spin of the palm oil industry.

Porritt’s notion is that poor countries like mine (Liberia) are being held hostage to what he calls ‘eco-imperialists’ -  rich country environmentalists who put pressure on developing countries not to cut down their rainforests, thus keeping us poor. His Forum for the Future charity instead suggests that promoting palm oil, a primary driver of deforestation, is a possible solution to poverty.

As Director of Liberia’s Sustainable Development Institute I have seen up-close the true impact of palm oil, and I can tell you it is more often the problem, not the solution. When Liberia opened up to investment after a devastating civil war, the government struck land deals with companies without the consent of the people who lived on the land, and many communities received a pittance in return for it. In rural parts of Liberia, communities complain that their food is now scarcer than it was before the palm oil companies moved in, and that fertilisers have polluted their fishing ponds and drinking water.

So palm oil seems to be compounding, not alleviating poverty.

Sime Darby, one of the multinational palm oil companies that funds Porritt’s charity, Forum for the Future, has plans to invest billions of pounds in its Liberia operations.  In 2011, communities submitted a complaint to the industry body, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, claiming that Sime Darby had forcibly displaced people from their land, destroyed sacred sites including graves, damaged their crops and sullied their water sources.  Following an investigation the company was forced to remedy much of the damage caused.

Workers can earn just $5.51 per day on Sime Darby plantations.

According to The Time article, palm oil companies are funding Forum for the Future and I note that the reported pay of Forum for the Future’s director would cover the annual wage of over 80 nurses in Liberia.  Which under the current circumstances – a country in the throes of the world’s worst ever Ebola epidemic – would certainly come in handy.

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