Liberia: Maryland Oil Palm Plantation Accused of land-grab, Rights Violations


— SDI’s damning investigation unearths MOPP's alleged shady deeds in Maryland County

The Maryland Oil Palm Plantation (MOPP), one of the largest palm oil companies in the country, has been accused of a wide range of land-grabbing allegations, violating human rights, and exploiting labor in Sodoken district, Maryland County.

Local communities, including Barraken and Hudukudi, accused the company of not respecting their customary land rights, intimidating and acting in ways that encourage conflicts among residents.

In a damning investigative report released over the weekend by Sustainable Development Institute (SDI), MOPP is accused of forcing locals off their lands, labor exploitation, destruction of tropical forest, and polluting local populations’ water sources among others.

“MOPP operated on former Decoris plantation land, but when that was not enough they also moved into former Libsuco plantations and community land,” the report says. “MOPP cleared forests, sacred places and cultivation sites or bush. The area between Barraken and Hudukudi was previously forest, not plantation.”

The report also indicated that “near Old Sodoken, Pedebo and Kaken communities claim that forest and farmland was cleared.”

“My family's land they took was a forest. We used to farm there and practice our culture there too. They cleared everything and today we do not have food. We have to buy rice from the market and other places. MOPP destroyed five of our ancestral graves while they were clearing our lands,” a farmer from the Gbolobo clan is quoted as saying.

The report, titled: “Social and Environmental Impacts of Maryland Oil Palm Plantation in Liberia” was an outcome of a May 2022 SDI, and Friends of the Earth Liberia team investigation that consisted of 23 Key Informant Interviews and 10 focus group discussions in seven communities in and around the MOPP plantation.

The interviewees were farmers, company contractors, MOPP staff, local authorities, women and youth leaders, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Inspector, the Civil Society Head, and the Gender Coordinator of Maryland County. The team also took photographs and GPS locations of areas of deforestation, pollution, and conflict.

Communities in the concession area claimed that the MOPP took their land without their consent, a violation of the free and prior consent and that the company has not compensated them for the land or only with very low payments for community farm crops that were destroyed in the process of developing the plantations such as cassava or cash crops like rubber trees.

One farmer said: “MOPP cut my rubber trees and never paid for them. We were ten people altogether that were demanding our money. MOPP in November 2010 jailed ten of us. And up to now, we have not received our payment.”

Local authorities were involved in convincing communities to give up their land. They argued that the government had given it to MOPP, stating: “You cannot refuse because the president gave the land to MOPP.” This was perceived as a threat by the communities. A political representative also failed to act after community complaints, thereby effectively facilitating the land grab.

Communities do not have a formal Memorandum of Understanding or any other agreement that shows they have given consent for their customary land to be leased to the plantation, a violation of the Free Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) conventional standards.

“In Gbolobo five families have a tribal deed certificate for their land but MOPP took their land and cleared it,” the report says.

Owned 100% by SIFCA, a leading Ivorian Agribusiness group, MOPP is one of the four large-scale industrial palm oil plantations in Liberia.  In August 2011, the government and SIFCA signed an agreement involving the rehabilitation of 8,800 hectares for industrial palm oil plantations as well as 6,400 hectares of outgrower plantations in an area formerly owned by Decoris Oil Palm Company prior to the civil war and occupied at the time by local farmers.

Community Development Fund documents show that by 2018 MOPP developed 7714 hectares of plantations, and went beyond that to also plant on the abandoned Libsuco sugar cane plantation and community customary lands.

The agreement is for 25 years with an extension of ten years if all obligations are fulfilled. The management of the company has since been plagued with allegations of employment fraud, including hiring illegal aliens and 'gross and consistent abuse of Liberian workers', and violating the Liberian Labor Laws.

Scores of protesters peacefully marched and demonstrated for a week in February of 2013 against employment practices of the company, including pay disparity, lack of social services, rendering workers homeless, and dismissal of pregnant employees.

The demonstrations followed failed engagements between the company and their employees, and culminated in four arrests. Previous protests (2011) left many arrested and one dead, with no satisfactory outcome.

Saturday Wilson, a resident of Gewloken, was among those arrested for protesting against the encroachment of their customary lands by the company. He continues to resist giving up his family farmland; facing consistent harassment and intimidation as a result.

“I’m being threatened again and again for the small piece of land owned by my family on which I planted palm,” Wilson is quoted as telling SDI investigators last year. “MOPP still wants to use the LLA agents and the court to take it away from me.”

He indicated that he is still being pursued. “They are still after me. I cannot move freely in my own community again. The presence of armed police is seen everywhere every day,” he said. “My family members and friends are advising me to turn over the piece of land which I have to sustain my family. If I do that, how will I survive? I’m scared.”

MOPP, according to the report, does not recognize land claims from people in Hudukudi who are former workers of the Libsuco plantation that were resettled after the company ceased operations.

The company also does not leave buffer zones around water bodies and plants inside the wetlands, which goes against the Environment Protection and Management Law of 2002. “They planted palms in all the swamps around here. And when the palm started growing, they used to apply fertilizers and it really used to affect our water,” the report quotes a paramount chief as saying.

However, The SDI report, corroborated with findings of earlier research done by the Forest Peoples Programme (FPP) and Social Entrepreneurs for Sustainable Development – SESDev in 2015 which found that the old Decoris plantation had several negative impacts on communities: Lack of respect for land tenure rights or follow Free Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) standards, including resettlement without reparation and destruction of farms and old towns without (sufficient) compensation or restitution.

Since the plantation was abandoned, communities reclaimed their land and resumed farming on land previously developed by Decoris, but the Communities then lost their farms again when MOPP came in.

“On the rudimentary map with the lease agreement, villages are identified as ‘village de squatters’, which is a clear indication of how MOPP disrespects communities and their land rights.

When MOPP started rehabilitation of the old plantations, it destroyed secondary forest regrowth and diminished biodiversity. Communities had no choice regarding the arrival of MOPP,” the FPP / SESDev pointed out.

The encroachments of concessionaires on customary lands and the violation of locals’ right’s are becoming a global concern as big investors, with the help of host governments, are taking advantage of local populations.

Wilmar, a Singapore-based palm oil giant, that owns 27.06% of SIFCA and almost half of SIFCA’s refinery (Sania) in Ivory Coast, is a member of the Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) but resigned as a High Carbon Stock Approach (HCSA) member in 2020.