By Alloycious David (freelance journalist)
Amid repeated claims of human and environmental rights violations at oil palm plantations across Liberia, a local non-profit, public interest law, environmental and human rights group and its international partner have concluded series of training for civil society groups and residents of communities affected by oil palm concessions on how to report violations perpetrated by multinational concessions.
Green Advocates International and Inclusive Development International (IDI) recently held two regional trainings for members of local communities in Grand Cape Mount, Gbarpolu, Bomi, Sinoe, Grand Bassa, Grand Kru and Maryland counties, which are affected by oil palm companies’ operations.
Members of some civil society groups under the banner of the “Civil Society Oil Palm Working Group” also benefited from the regional training held from December 3-20, 2018.
Participants were previously consulted during the Rapid Rural Appraisals (RRAs) intended to gather the inputs of local communities affected by large-scale oil palm development.
The training, held under a project, “Advising civil society on investment chain in Liberian oil palm sector and company-specific advocacy strategies that could be employed,” was based on the investment chain mapping report.
The project was bankrolled by Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI), a global coalition of 13 partners and more than 150 international, regional, and community organizations advancing forest tenure, policy and market reforms.
The lack of an investment chain map spurred the implementation of the project, Radiatu H. S. Kahnplaye of Green Advocates International, told reporters.
Madam Kahnplaye said in Liberia, local communities and their civil society counterparts do not have the map of the investment chain in the oil palm sector and noted, for example, “they can only see Golden Veroleum, Sime Darby, Equatorial Palm Oil and Maryland Oil Palm Plantations, the business or actor responsible for managing the day-to-day operations of each concession.”
She said that local communities are not fully aware of the parent companies, shareholders, and buyers of the oil that are being produced by these companies.
“So, very little has been done to map the key actors and networks linked to the investments in the oil palm industry in Liberia, including the people and institutions with the influence and power to prevent and mitigate the negative impact of these investments,” she said.
In some instances, Madam Kahnplaye said that the absence of robust and informed community institutions has also been responsible for investments that continue to undermine the livelihood of community members.
According to her, it is important to improve accountability in the oil palm industry, including building the capacity of local communities and their civil society counterparts on investment chain mapping, to hold government and companies accountable for protecting livelihoods and respecting human rights.
A beneficiary of the training, first Chairman of the Project Affected Communities at Sime Darby Plantation in Western Liberia, Mustaphar Foboi lauded RRI for funding the research and called on Green Advocates International to join him in using the advocacy tools to help protect the rights of other affected communities in Sime Darby operational areas.
Foboi said that affected communities were still looking up to him for direction, adding, “The learning here is so important to communities that are still being affected by Sime Darby’s operations.”
He was impressed with the domestic and international pressure points identified by the report and the opportunity to address multiple community grievances.
A human rights defender from Bomi County, Western Liberia, Archie Sando was thankful for the training and the opportunity provided to increase citizens’ engagement with oil palm companies in Liberia, mainly Sime Darby.
Archie, who instantly realized the need for collective action in the oil palm sector, said: “In order to get the best out of this knowledge we have received, I am going to propose a meeting with our colleagues in the region so as to discuss how to jointly work together and address community grievances.”
“We are dealing with the same company, Sime Darby, and the human rights violations are almost the same,” Madam Jenebah Swaray, a resident of Bomi County, said. She noted that the training was rewarding as it has now allowed her to better understand how to address community’s grievances from the operations of oil palm companies.
“From today, I know how to handle human rights violations caused by Sime Darby”, she said.
Mr. Lawrence Bloh, Chairman of Sinoe County Human and Natural Resources Movement, was equally thankful for the training.“The report has provided some very sensitive information that we can use to better protect our people,” he said.
Local land rights advocate Benedict Menewah in Sinoe County used the gathering to encourage other participants to remain strong in their advocacy for their people.
The Chairman for “A-Bloteh”, a citizen advocacy movement in Butaw District, Sinoe County, told the group that, “You have to be brave and strong, because many things will happen and put pressure on you in order to discourage you.”
He continued, “The report is helping us to better understand the oil palm companies and how to deal with them using new ideas.”
Elder Thomas Moore of Gbah Town, Grand Bassa County, vowed to work with his community residents in order to stop the alleged violation of their rights by Equatorial Palm Oil.
Moore added, “They planted palm on our reserved land, our drinking water is not safe and they also fell portion of some private oil palms. As a smallholder farmer, I never benefited from the World Bank support given to smallholder farmers in the EPO project areas in Bassa.”
Another elder, Amos Bweh, a resident of Nohn Town, Grand Bassa County, said that the training was very helpful to his community members who, according to him, were yet to truly benefit from EPO’s investment.
“People are jobless in our community. And imagine a company asking you to give up your remaining land or the last land of your ancestors as a pre-condition for employing community members. This is too much for our people,” he said.