GVL_Observer Interview

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Today, and for more than 20 years, Liberia is being deforested by slash-and-burn agriculture, driven by rural poverty. By offering employment, affective smallholder programs and making degraded land productive, Golden Veroleum hopes to slow down and even stop Liberian deforestation. We sat down with Virgil Magee, Golden Veroleum’s Communications Head, to discuss what is next for the company, its people, the local communities surrounding its rural operations and the current Ebola outbreak.

DAILY OBSERVER:  Thanks for doing this interview?

MAGEE: Thank you, it’s a pleasure to speak with you and to talk about the company and our activities in the community.

DAILY OBSERVER: Where is GVL right now with regard to the current situation in the country?

MAGEE: We are in a strong position, and getting stronger day-by-day. We had some issues a couple of years ago, of which I think most people would be aware. However, since we have reorganized internally to adapt to several things. First, we needed to work on our internal communication and ensure that all of us were on the same page. This was paramount for us and directly related to the second issue of external communication. One things we failed to accomplish in coming to Liberia was the fact that our external Liberian stakeholders were not properly informed of what we wanted top accomplish. For the past year or so, this has consumed most of our external effort. We stood up a Community Affairs and Social Sustainability department to focus only on this issue, and I am pleased to say that it seem to be paying off for not only us, but also for the people who will directly benefit from the employment and development in the areas where local communities decide to invite us in.

DAILY OBSERVER: With regard to the Ebola crisis, what has the company done to aid Liberia?

MAGEE: Very good question, and I can tell you that back in the early part of the year (2014), we took a long hard look at the potential devastation this virus may have on our operation and from the very start prepared to prepare. Our biggest stakeholders are the people who work in the company, their families and the communities near of around our areas of development. In getting out the message to people we had to target the various stakeholder groups differently. First, internally we have been updating of staff with our internal alert system, we have ensured that those traveling receive an informational handout on Ebola prevention if they are flying in or out of the country.

In Sinoe and Grand Kru, we have distributed buckets with faucets, chlorine, hand sanitizers, water, rice and other items as needed and requested by the regional controllers in those areas, and in some cases by the communities. Additionally, we have shown films on the dangers of the disease, in the local dialects, installed thousands of posters in various locations around our operations, work with the local community radio stations to get our message out and have even gone door-to-door preaching Ebola awareness and prevention. I was in Sinoe a few weeks ago and had meetings at all of our farms there with the Liberian workers and staff, I wanted to speak with them directly and answer any and all questions they may have had on Ebola or other issues.

DAILY OBSERVER: Do you think the right things have been done to curb Ebola in this country and the region?

MAGEE: I won’t comment on what has been going on in other countries, as neither GVL nor myself are involved there. I also won’t comment on the efforts of others because I may not have all the information needed to give an informed answer. But I will say that everything is seen clearly in hindsight. So looking back on anything it is easy to point out mistakes, but I can tell you it is always harder to implement something than to just say something is wrong. I do think the frontline healthcare workers deserve special recognition for their efforts, they have been the ones protecting us and they deserve that recognition.

DAILY OBSERVER: Do you think the country’s Ebola message is right?

MAGEE: I think it is adequate and I think it is good. I think people believe the virus is real; people are not shaking hands, avoiding bodily contact and washing hands before entering just about every place. All of those are goods things. But now we are in the stage where complacency is creeping in and that could be dangerous. I would add also that the current messaging of “Ebola Must Go,” is a true and powerful statement and that some of the international partners have really helped Liberia. But the fight is not quite over yet.

DAILY OBSERVER: Why did you only speak with the Liberians?

MAGEE: Another good question, the reason I decided to do that was, not so much because of Ebola, but there were some other things I wanted to discuss with them. I wanted to get a feel for what they felt about the company, the community and just general things on their minds. To that end, I asked that only our Liberian associates be present. I asked all non-Liberians to leave, because I wanted them to feel free to open up to me. And I promised them that whatever was discussed was purely between them and myself, and that I would get with other managers and help to resolve whatever issues they brought up if possible. I wanted to guarantee them the utmost sense of confidentiality.

DAILY OBSERVER: Have you been working with other in your anti-Ebola coordination efforts?

MAGEE: Yes, we most certainly have. This is a deadly disease and one that has without a doubt affected every county in the country and every person in the country and beyond. This is something that we certainly cannot do alone and have top work with others. Our director, David Rothschild has been basically leading the effort for the company and others have been supporting with equally important roles. GVL, with other companies, formed the Ebola Private Sector Mobilization Group, to coordinate efforts that have not been coordinated before. In the group there are dozens, who have already given so much individually to the effort. But by working together we hope to amplify the affect. ArcelorMittal has been chairing the group, and they have done a wonderful job of getting us together.

DAILY OBSERVER: And what is the goal of such a group?

MAGEE: We have an eight-pronged platform, which include; Remaining in the region and taking part in the long-term economic and social recovery. Second, ensuring employees, families and communities are aware of the disease and are taking the best precautions to avoid infection and stigma. Third, sharing experiences and resources, including trained personnel and practices, to assist governments and partners to mobilize quickly to control the spread of the disease. Forth, offering loan or gift-appropriate assets and resources essential to the deployment of an integrated response by donors, militaries, host governments, NGOs and community-based organizations. Fifth, making available information about needs of various organizations and first responders, so that they may be connected with corporate giving. Sixth, learning from the outbreak and working together to support a strong healthcare system in affected areas. Seventh, raising international awareness and advocating for a larger global coordinated response. And finally, advocating for open trade and humanitarian corridors by air, land and sea, because we need to ensure that people and supplies can flow freely into and out of Liberia.

DAILY OBSERVER: Have you been working with county medical authorities?

MAGEE: We have been working with them in both Sinoe and Grand Kru through the various task forces, and by sharing information. We have made certain donations to their cause, which go fully toward the Ebola fight.

DAILY OBSERVER: There have been some rumors that Golden Veroleum will shut down its operations in Liberia because of the spread of Ebola. Is there any truth to this?

MAGEE: Nothing can be further form the truth. We are committed to a very long-term relationship with Liberia and see ourselves as part of the greater Liberian community. We have right now approximately 3,500 Liberian who work for the company and over time that number will grow to many times that. That is not to say that Ebola has not affected our operations, it has. We have had to incorporate Ebola education into our normal operations, make hand washing mandatory, along with temperature checks. But it is all for the greater good and for the protection of our people and for our partner communities.

Since the outbreak we have committed to several things, 1) not to layoff our employees, 2) do what we can to protect them, 3) partner with public and private institutions, 4) coordinate and push information (to all those fighting to eradicate the disease). It’s also important for me to note that when we suspect our any of our workers have been exposed to the virus that they isolate themselves at home and we will pay them their normal salaries for a period of 21 days. So all of this in short; No, GVL will not and is not planning to close its operation in Liberia and second, our employees have job security because we are committed to ensuring a successful investment, and a successful investment means economic stability for our people and our communities.

At some point we will be shifting to a post-Ebola strategy and continue our growth, but first things first. Ebola will not be here forever, this we know.  We also know that Liberia has survived worse and it will survive this and we are looking forward to a strong, healthy and Ebola-free Liberia.

DAILY OBSERVER: How soon do you plan on employing the 40,000 people you mentioned in the past?

MAGEE:  For us right now that depends on how soon this Ebola issue is resolved, while our operations go on as normal we are affected in the sense that we are dedicating a great deal of time and resources to help the counties were we operate get beyond it. Normally, we have a process which we follow in which we consult with local communities on where and when to develop, how many people will be employed from the local communities and what type of development will be undertaken. For us, everything depends on the communities, as our negotiations and consultations with them take time, sometimes a large amount of time. So this is not a quick and fast process, one community negotiation can take years. But the thing to remember is that the communities have to want our type of development, only then can we move forward.

DAILY OBSERVER: What do you mean when you say the communities have to want your type of development?

MAGEE: We have to be invited by the communities who want development and only by communities within our concession areas that are outlined in our concession agreement with the Liberian government. So, the first step, communities send us an invitation in writing. Second step, our community affairs teams sit and discuss all the relevant information with that community. And to overly simplify, then community decides yes or no to our development, which is outlined on a time schedule within a draft memorandum of understanding with the community. The community at any point has the right to say yes or no.

DAILY OBSERVER: When will you have your smallholder program up and running?

MAGEE: The smallholder oil palm as a concept is new to Liberia.  GVL, together with other stakeholders, is developing a framework for this. Meanwhile, gross areas have been set aside for community oil palm as well as farmlands and other enclaves as reported to RSPO. We carried out community oil palm model studies during 2014, and have presented a proposed model adapted to Liberian conditions based on the largely successful Indonesian model. The model has been developed with focus communities in Butaw, in Sinoe County, and presented in the Smallholder Acceleration and REDD+ Program conference in Monrovia in June 2014 to stakeholders and to interested civil society for feedback. Details of the model are expected to be further developed and piloted starting from early 2015. We welcome and expect close participation by the Government and NGO’s.

DAILY OBSERVER: In the past you have had allegations of land grabbing, these allegations seemed to have disappeared.  Why is that?

MAGEE: Much of that was before I came to the company, so I believe it was based on mistakes that were made. The biggest of those mistakes was not professionally communicating with those who needed information. At the time there was no communication department in the company and this perhaps lead to rumors and innuendo and this was my number one task upon arrival. If you think back to last year when I arrived I invited as many journalists in town as possible for an informal press conference and a meet and greet session with me where I introduced myself and gave my version of how I saw our communications flow would or should be. I don’t believe this was done before, but then again, I was not so much concerned about what happened before me. I was more concerned about the way forward. Since then we have sent out infinitely more information to the press, we have increased our community briefings, we have installed community bulletin boards in the local communities, we have had major upgrades to our website twice, we have increased our meetings with the Liberian diaspora here in Monrovia, we have increased our communication with the diaspora abroad as far away as Europe and the United States, we have put in place a suggestion program for our employees, and have initiated an internal newsletter to keep them informed.

We strongly respond to things that we see are false and try to be as transparent as we can. On the latest version of our website anyone can view or download our full concession agreement, some policies, memorandums of understanding, external reports, and even our latest welcome guide for those who have been recently hired by the company. In addition to all of these, we have created a large footprint in social media. I remember when I came some people told me that Liberians did not use social media much, since then I have found that not to be the case, as our presence on Facebook alone has exceeded 14,000 followers, most of whom are from Liberia. So in the social media space we have an opportunity to tell our story direct to the people who are interested in what we are doing. We know that this will not be enough alone, but with all the items I mentioned previously along with social and a few other ideas we are working on, we are hoping to increase the level of knowledge and awareness in how we are helping and developing.

DAILY OBSERVER: What have you done in terms of Corporate Social Responsibility?

MAGEE:  We are working on a great new website, which will outline our CSR scope and some of the things we have done.  It’s right now in development and I hope it will be launched very soon. But to more directly answer your question, we have reconditioned several hundred miles of roads in the counties were our farms are. Of course, this was not only done as part of a CSR effort, but also because we need the roads in order to operate. But this is just one item that is mutually beneficial for both us the communities. We have refurbished or constructed hand pumps in the communities, built a school in Butaw district in Sinoe County, built several medical clinics and have supported government run clinics in certain areas as well. This past summer for the Independence Day celebration we provided football uniforms for the teams from Sinoe and Grand Kru Counties, we have also ensured that our workers get 50 kg rice per month in addition to their salaries. This past summer we donated money for two surgical campaigns in Sinoe and Grand Kru, for those who could not afford medical care. Things like that mean a lot to us.

DAILY OBSERVER: Most people don’t know that you operate a school, what can you tell us about this?

MAGEE: Yes, our school opened last year and currently has about 600 students. Unfortunately right now because of the Ebola outbreak we have had to stop having classes. But that won’t be forever; when the outbreak has been curtailed classes will resume. Our plan is to have a school at our major sites in the country. What this means is that there will be a GVL School System, operating under the laws of Liberia. In some cases where a school is not feasible we will support the local government-run schools. This past autumn we actually had our first graduating class. As we grow, we will grow the school system as well. We are looking at the inclusion of high schools in our educational system in the future. Also, some people may not know that we have offered scholarships over the past several years as well. Every year we donate up to 100,000 U.S. dollars to our scholarship fund, which is administered by the Ministry of Agriculture. So far, there have been more than 1,500 scholarships awarded for students studying agriculture and agricultural-related fields. Priority for these scholarships is given to local students hailing from the counties in which we operate. We also offer vocational training, for example: certificates in heavy equipment operation and transferable skills in mechanical and construction trades and adult literacy.

DAILY OBSERVER: As a company, what is your highest priority?

MAGEE: Right now our highest priority is the health, safety and welfare of our people and partner communities; we are committed to them for the near and long-term. And we will not rule out anything when it comes to ensuring their safety and health. So in short, we want to rid our development areas of Ebola. Of course this is also to say that we wish to have a successful investment by working with communities to develop land, and of course, build all the things that go along with that. Things such as building schools and clinics and roads.

DAILY OBSERVER: Do you think this plan will work for Liberia?

MAGEE: Let’s look at what we know. Liberia is one of the world's poorest countries with an average per capita income of around one U.S. dollar a day. New industry can and will make it prosperous again. Now there is a strong movement from community groups keen to develop their land and develop it with oil palm. However, any development must be sustainable. The biggest issue thrown up by large-scale oil palm cultivation is associated with the loss of virgin forest. Industry efforts to bring deforestation under control have come through the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), which was set up in 2001 to establish clear ethical and ecological standards for producing palm oil. However, this does not go far enough for us [GVL], we have a far tougher Forest Conservation Policy, which was developed in collaboration with international NGOs, including Greenpeace. What we also know is that in order for countries to become prosperous large-scale employment has to take place. In the U.S. this happened with mining and the construction of the railroads, which employed thousands if not hundreds of thousands of people. In Liberia we don’t need to think about railroads, because that was a time long ago in U.S history. But, think for a moment if in a short period of time, say five to ten years, 40,000 people in a certain geographic area, are earning a pay check more than five times the national average wage. Couple that with the associated taxes that a company has to pay on those wages, the cost of goods and services, because now people will want to improve their lives and they would be willing to pay for it. All of that is pretty powerful, and that kind of economic power can and will push Liberia forward.

DAILY OBSERVER: In brief, what are the basics of your concession agreement?

MAGEE: The concession agreement is for 65 years, in which approximately 500,000 acres have been identified as an area of interest. What does this mean? It means that within the 500,000 acres we will have to discuss and negotiate with local communities to develop specific areas, which they identify to us. It also means that ultimately we will not develop anywhere near the 500,000 acres number. It certainly will be much less than that. So 500,000 acres equals the total area where we can talk to the people, the final number will be based on what the people want but will certainly be smaller than the areas of interest. In addition to this, approximately 100,000 acres will be developed for smallholder programs, but again everything depends on the communities.

DAILY OBSERVER: You just used the term acres, but in the past you have used hectares. Most Liberians don’t know what a hectare is. Can you please simplify this for us?

MAGEE: Of course, simply put a hectare is a unit of measurement, much the same way an acre is. One hectare equals roughly two and a half acres, which is roughly the size of a football field.

DAILY OBSERVER: There is a lot of talk of deforestation and its affect on the climate, what do you think this means for Liberia?

MAGEE: This is a little more complicated, as it may sound strange to hear that a palm oil company is interested in non-deforestation measures. We realize and recognize that the rain forest is an important national treasure for Liberia, as well as any place, which possesses such forest. We have committed to working on what we call degraded forest. Areas primary forest, that which man has not touched, we don’t look at it and we don’t touch it.  In other word, we don’t want to be there and we don’t want to disturb the natural habitat as much as possible. Preservation is the key issue for us. We have been offered land from communities in the past, which had very high conservation value or was primary forest and we have flatly turned it down. We have been very pleased that the Liberian government recently signed a pact with Norway to work toward a complete stoppage of deforestation by the year 2020. To my knowledge Liberia is the first country in Africa to make such a commitment. That commitment is perfectly aligned with our own non-deforestation policies on avoidance of primary forest in favor of degraded areas. We look at the new Liberian initiative as supporting companies dedicated to stopping deforestation, while creating jobs and economic opportunities for local citizens by creating rural income generating streams not dependent on forest depletion, thus providing both rural and government incomes. This type of model has the potential to amplify Liberia’s non-deforestation commitment, with sustainable forest based on replanting or natural replenishment.

DAILY OBSERVER: Does oil palm contribute to eradication of the rain forest?

MAGEE: Oil palm actually uses a minimal amount of land compared to other oilseed crops, and of all oilseed crops has the most efficient use of land. For example on a single acre of land used for oil palm 635 gallons of oil can be produced compared to only 18 gallons of cottonseed oil and about 48 gallons of soybean oil. What this means in terms of land usage is that of the major oilseed products oil palm is the most efficient in terms of land usage and it is the most productive. Another way of looking at it is for every one acre of oil palm; 13 acres of soybeans and 35 acres of corn are needed to produce the same amount oil palm produces on a single acre.  Additionally for other oilseed crops the land is stripped of vegetation and plowed yearly, while oil palm is a perennial, meaning it does not have to be replanted year-after-year and allows for a balanced ecosystem by allowing woodland creatures, insects and other animals to inhabit the area. 

DAILY OBSERVER: Greenpeace recently did a report on GVL, what were your thoughts on the report?

It was a good report, but it was not exclusively on GVL, although it did mention GVL. We like the report; we welcome and appreciate it. Our views are consistent in many areas with what is in the report particularly on community rights and aspirations. In the report it mentions our relationship with government and local communities, which again we really appreciate and we look to further those relationships and look forward to working with agencies such as the Liberian FDA as well as key other national stakeholders especially the Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Lands Mines and Energy, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Land Commission.  We further plan to support the Norwegian-Liberian engagement, where the key challenge will be to ensure that such foreign funding actually reaches the communities in the poor Liberian countryside and provide sustainable and productive means for communities to subscribe to the commitments. But community participation is key, as the forested lands are their lands, and the communities have justified aspirations of lifting themselves out of poverty. We will continue to engage relevant stakeholders on this. We see the creation of an economically viable smallholder and community oil palm sector as a promising avenue where, available funding, for instance the Norwegian contribution, should be targeted, along with productive food farming and sustainable community managed forestry.

DAILY OBSERVER: Thanks for taking the time to speak with us.

MAGEE: The thanks belong to you, so thank you for taking the time to speak with me.

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