A research report released in Monrovia over the weekend by Natural Resources Women’s Platform (NRWP), the Alliance for Rural Democracy (ARD), and Green Advocates International (GAI) with support from US based Rights and Resources Initiatives (RRI), unearthed how foreign direct investment deprives local women of the land rights that form the basis for their livelihoods and cultures despite promises of shared economic development.
Liberian women’s abilities to survive and care for their families are under threat from large scale concessions that deprive them of the traditional lands and forests, according to the three organizations’ reports.
Concessions now cover 40 percent of the country, with US$16 billion in Foreign Direct Investment over the past 12 years. Despite promises that concessions would bring employment, improved infrastructure, and medical care to less fortunate communities, the report found that Liberian women typically did not receive these benefits.
“Many lost access to the forests, lands, and rivers that form the basis for their livelihoods and sacred sites, but did not receive sufficient jobs or compensation to make up for their loses. While men faced similar problems, these were exacerbated for women, who are primarily responsible for feeding their families, but have fewer tenure rights than men under customary systems,” the report said.
According to the research report, the government has failed to defend the rights of these women, shirking their commitments under CEDAW, an international treaty to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women.
The report under the title, “Women: The Least Secure Tenure: Assessing the impacts of Large-Scale Land Acquisitions on women’s tenure rights in Liberia,” was launched at an event in Monrovia that brought together civil society and community-based organizations.
The women described forcible displacements, contaminated drinking water, and even threats, harassments, intimidation coupled with criminal charges ranging from criminal trespasses, economic sabotage, disorderly conducts and imprisonment for defending their customary land and property rights.
The report examined 15 counties throughout the country. Where there were no concessions, women still faced challenges, including limited decision-making power, but they typically had access to the lands and forests they needed for their livelihoods. Most relied heavily on the land for sustenance, income, medicines, and cultural activities; over 90 percent were involved in farming of some kind.
“These concessions are supposed to reduce poverty in Liberia. Yet these women are losing their very way of life. The human rights violations they face are beyond anything I’ve seen in my 20 years as an activist,” said Cllr. Alfred Brownell, GAI Lead Campaigner.
The report found that while companies provided some benefits to local women, these were few and scattered, and generally did not improve their lives.
Women, the report highlighted, lost land and forest rights and are struggling to survive and provide for their families. In some cases, forests were cleared or women were denied access, and farming land was taken over by private companies.
“They do not allow us to go in the bush any more, and how do they expect us to live,” the report quoted one of the affected woman.
“At present, there is a company operating in the area I live and there is no land for farming. No work for me and my husband. We are suffering, our back yards are cleared, and no space for the planting of pepper, and we don’t even know how to live.” — Ma Anna Tue from Sinoe County said in the report.
Rivers have been dammed, polluted, or taken over by private companies, depriving women of vital water sources for drinking, fishing, and washing. Water pumps have been provided in some cases, but often failed to work or are inadequate to serve the entire community.
“Cultural sites and ancestral graves were destroyed or forcibly removed. All 27 cultural heritage sites in the project area of one concession in the country, for example, were destroyed,” the report noted.
The companies failed to consult directly with women to obtain their consent for concessions on their land. Where consultations took place, they were exclusively with men.
“When they come into the community, they don’t talk to women.” —Sovine Teah of Chea’s Town community, Butaw District
In some cases, communities were forcibly displaced. Resettlement packages and compensation were promised, but not provided, particularly in the mining and logging sectors. Compensation in one case was promised in 2008 but delayed until 2015.
Women working for the companies engage in back-breaking labor with few benefits and can be dismissed without cause or for criticizing the company. Logging and plantation concessions in particular involved long working hours, substandard working conditions, and little or no employee benefits. Unemployment levels remain very high in some areas, with jobs insufficient to replace the lost income from the forests.
Clinics, hospitals, and schools promised by the companies were not provided in most cases. In some cases, roads and schools were actually destroyed by concessionaires.
One positive note is ArcelorMittal successfully opening a night school after consulting with local women. The school provided much-needed job training.
“Large scale land acquisition brings development, I agree. But large scale land acquisition that does not recognize women’s economic, social and cultural rights brings about suffering and should not be allowed to operate in the area,” —Maminah Carr, Head of Secretariat, NRWP.
She said government should carry out studies to understand the impact of concessions on women’s rights in the country.
The report recommended that there must be appropriate infrastructure to support women’s exercise of their rights, including legal services and mechanisms for monitoring and sanctioning; that women be consulted and their consent obtained for concessions on their land, especially given their increased knowledge of the needs of their families.
“Women should be strongly represented at meetings for planning and implementing social impact programs,” it added.
It also recommended that the final contents of the agreements made between the government of Liberia and the companies should be simplified and made available at the local level to all leaders of relevant groups, including women.
During the launch of the report, three people who claimed to have been victimized by state actors in Butaw District, Sinoe County were inducted into the ‘Women Human Rights Defender Hall of Fame Award.’ They were also provided a grant of US$500 each by the Association of Environmental Lawyers of Liberia (Green Advocates) to at least start petit trade on their own.
The ‘brutality victims,’ included Maberlyn Chea, Anna Tue and Beatrice Koon.
Maberlyn Chea, a breast feeding mother from Butaw District, beamed with smiles as she was announced a winner of US$500 for her bravery and uncompromising advocacy for land rights in Butaw, Sinoe County.
Madam Chea was pregnant when she and other local rights advocates were reportedly arrested by some unnamed officers and subsequently detained.
Chea stayed at the filthy and congested Greenville Central Prison with her pregnancy for more than three weeks.
The pronouncement follows Chea’s explanation of her ordeal during the May 2015 riot at Golden Veroleum Liberia (GVL).
Madam Chea, who could not control her emotion, recollected how she was returning from her farm on May 26, 2015, when she was arrested by people she could remember.
The local rights campaigner told international and local land rights activists that she was bundled into a waiting van, taken to Greenville Central Prison, where she was detained before the intervention of Chief Justice Francis Korkpoh.
She disclosed that Chief Justice Korkpoh secured her release during one of his visits to the prison.
She further alleged that after the Chief Justice ordered her release from further detention and left the scene, prison authorities demanded L$20,000 from her and her husband, who was also detained at the facility.
Beatrice lauded GAI for affording her the opportunity to meet and interact with land rights activists outside Sinoe.
She indicated that she will use the money to start a business.
The two other beneficiaries expressed gratitude for the US$500 award and said they will use the money to benefit their families.