GVL Rejects Global Witness Claim

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Golden Veroleum Liberia (GVL) has rejected the latest Global Witness’ Report claiming that a study undertaken by Sync Consult Limited, a Ghanaian economic consultancy, and focused on the Golden Veroleum Liberia (GVL) oil palm plantation in South-East Liberia, covering 2,600km2, has negatively affected the livelihoods of over 41,000 people.

GVL also refuted further claims that the company rapidly expanded during the Ebola crisis of 2014 and is pressing for logging permits, and is paying for Liberia’s armed police for protection.

In one of its latest reports, Global Witness said while large agriculture plantations are now growing rapidly in the country, thousands of rural Liberians are being asked to hand over the land that they rely on for their food and livelihoods to multinational companies.

Global Witness said with plantation contracts lasting as long as 98 years, the lives of at least five generations of rural Liberians will be irrevocably changed and this resulted into a contract investigation by Sync Consult which found out that far more people may lose as a result of the GVL plantation than will win.

“And they may lose a great deal. Approximately 14,000 people live in the area covered by the study, and these community members depend upon their land for farming, hunting, and building supplies.”

Sync Consult valued these assets as being worth US$ 11.1 million per year. This income is at considerable risk of being lost if community lands are converted into an oil palm plantation.

“The other side of the balance sheet doesn’t look nearly as impressive. The study found that the main benefits of the GVL concession would be experienced only by the company’s workers, of whom only 1,650 – 12% of the community – are actually employed by GVL. Sync Consult calculated that values brought by GVL to these workers, and to a much lesser extent the larger community, would be approximately US$ 3.8 million per year.”

Global Witness reported a resident in Sinoe County, quoted by Sync Consult in 2015, who said, “Personally, I do not believe that working with GVL alone can bring about the kind of change and development we want to see in our community. Our land is fertile and very good for swamp farming. So rather than depend on [Golden Veroleum] for a meager salary and a 50 kg bag of rice every month which is not sustainable, we need capacity building.”

Global Witness said when the report’s findings were presented to GVL in September 2016; GVL declined to provide a substantive response but stated it believed the findings were flawed, although provided little detail as to what such flaws may be. GVL did contend that it continues to believe its plantation would improve the lives of affected community members.

Global Witness admitted that the results of this study are not, however, altogether surprising because oil palm plantations in Malaysia and Indonesia have a track record of forest destruction and forcible evictions of local communities. “They also do not have a good record of helping local communities improve their livelihoods.”

They cited a 2015 study commissioned by leading community economics organization Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI), which surveyed the benefits and drawbacks of Indonesian palm oil plantations. “Such plantations,” RRI found, “have led to increased inequality and have been far less economically productive than other land uses.”

Summarizing such plantations’ impacts on local landowners, the RRI study concluded that: “The biggest losers in this process were locals who lost their lands and livelihoods but have not been incorporated in the new economy on advantageous terms. Indigenous peoples, subsistence farmers, and women were the most vulnerable groups.”

Global Witness suggested that the Liberian government need to take immediate action. “As pointed out by Sync Consult, and backed up by RRI, alternative agriculture schemes such as production by smallholders instead of a centralized plantation generate more benefits for local communities.

“On the back of a landmark 2014 agreement with Norway, the Liberian government is promoting community-focused management schemes in the forest sector, and in September 2016 Global Witness published a brief outlining the next steps the government can take to ensure communities benefit from their forests.”

Global Witness further suggested that the Liberian government promote community-focused management of the agriculture sector, ensuring that smallholders are central to any new plantations, and pressing existing companies such as GVL (and the equally large Sime Darby) to switch to smallholder schemes. “The government should also immediately approve the country’s Land Rights Law, which has been sitting dormant in the Liberian legislature since early 2015 and would recognize that rural people, not companies, own the land.”

Global Witness’s reported indicated that to date the Government of Liberia and its international donor partners have shown little interest in regulating the country’s many plantations persuaded that they will drive development. “As the Sync Consult study demonstrates, this assumption may not be correct, and that for local people giving up their land forever, Liberia’s new plantations are an economic drain, and not a driver of development. Armed with this data, we hope a change is possible.”

However, a GVL press statement Wednesday, expressed disappointment over the Global Witness and Sync Consult’s “erroneous claims in their reports published on October 19, 2016. On multiple occasions since 2015 GVL has invited Global Witness to come and see on the ground the work we are doing to develop the business.” The release said, “Although they have not responded we still do encourage them to meet with us in Liberia and understand what is happening directly.”

The Global Witness’s assertions, which also pointed specifically to the Tarjuowon community’s religious sites and towns, GVL said “are incomplete and not representative of the facts on the ground. GVL 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.”

On the presence of police officers at GVL, the release said, “The temporary presence of the police is to protect employees and personnel following a violent attack in May 2015. 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,” GVL said. “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 organization 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.”

Golden Veroleum Liberia has built schools, clinics and roads in areas its operating communities, as its corporate social responsibilities to improve the livelihood of the people.

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