-But GVL says it plans to reinforce its community relationships
The Civil Society Organization on Oil Palm Working Group (CSO-OPWG) says Golden Veroleum-Liberia’s (GVL) decision to withdraw from the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) reflects a lack of commitment to fully abide by Liberian law, respect human rights and protect the environment.
“The action of GVL might violate Article 16 of its contract with the Government of Liberia, which requires it to be in compliance with the Principles of the RSPO. By refusing to abide by Article 16, the company might be in breach of its environmental and human rights’ obligation,” CSO-OPWG said at a press conference in Monrovia.
Gleadae Harmon Hoskins, who read the press statement, said Golden Veroleum Liberia voluntary withdrawal from the international palm oil certification scheme highlights the need for clear national policies, laws and regulations that recognize, formalize and strengthen land rights of communities in Liberia.
“We are utterly disappointed and alarmed at Golden Veroleum Liberia’s (GVL) decision to withdraw from the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). The company’s decision was communicated to the group in a letter dated July 20, 2018,” Mrs. Hoskins said.
“The Financiers of GVL need to ensure that the company fully abides by its contract with the Government of Liberia and respect the land and environmental rights of Liberians,” Mrs. Hoskins said.
She said CSO-OPWG acknowledges the RSPO’s decision and its efforts to hold GVL accountable for violating the land and environmental rights of rural Liberians. The group however notes that GVL’s voluntary withdrawal from the certification scheme, without any indication of serious consequences, is further evidence of a critical weakness within the scheme.
The group further calls for regulations to govern the activities of companies operating in the natural resource sector, especially large-scale investments in oil palm, and international agreements that are legally binding.
“The Government of Liberia should also consider GVL’s decision to voluntarily withdraw from the oil palm certification scheme as a wake-up call to enact the Land Rights Bill that has been under consideration since 2014,” Mrs. Hoskins said.
When passed into law, the Land Rights Act will recognize, formalize and strengthen communities’ land rights in Liberia. This would make it easier for Liberian courts to enforce the land rights of rural communities rather than relying on voluntary certification schemes such as the RSPO,” Mrs. Hoskins said.
She said GVL has failed to increase the number of rural jobs and reliance on food imports. Rather, the company relies on cheap land and cheap labor.
Communities in Sinoe and Grand Kru counties where GVL started operations presented series of complaints to the RSPO in 2012. The complaints centered on allegations of human rights abuses, land grabbing, failure to secure Free Prior Informed Consent from would-be affected communities, and desecration of sacred and burial sites.
In response, Elvis G. Morris, General Manager for Central Operations at GVL, said GVL did not pull out of the RSPO because they are running away, but to permit the company to solve all the issues which have been discussed, including reinforcing its community affairs department, among others.
As it stands today, Mr. Morris said, “GVL has stopped all land clearing within Sinoe County, because we want to make sure that GVL is respecting all that was said about the company. The decision to stop now gives the company the opportunity to re-energize, re-strategize and re-work with the communities to put some of these misleading informations to rest.”
Mr. Morris said the decision of GVL pulling out of clearing or development in Sinoe County has been explained to communities, associates, friends and others and will continue to be explained.
According to him, GVL remains one of the best companies working in Liberia and continues to respect human rights, employees at every level.
Today, he said GVL is constructing 300 housing units with 24-hour electricity and water for its employees, adding that GVL has lived up to its obligations over the years and will continue to operate in line with the agreements and respect for communities’ rights.
“Since GVL began its operations, the community and the company have worked together and signed an agreement before we can proceed with any clearing or development initiative. GVL does not go anywhere without a letter from the community; so we have letters to prove our movement into any community,” Mr. Morris said.
Mr. Morris said the company is now working to reinforce its community relationships and will take six months to address or rebuild the company’s relationship with the communities.
“We believe that the decision from RSPO is not an easy window; this is why the company is suspending its clearing in Sinoe County. Every palm oil company will like to advance and develop so the decision is just to give us time to clear or fix our house first. This is not an easy decision taken by GVL now,” Mr. Morris said.
GVL last week announced a new sustainability action plan aimed at reviewing the company’s sustainability journey and addressing ongoing criticism of the company’s performance, especially in relation to community engagement.
Recently appointed CEO, Patrice Lobet, unveiled the new action plan at the same time as the company announced its voluntary withdrawal from membership of the RSPO.
Mr. Lobet said, “GVL has made the difficult but necessary decision to withdraw, voluntarily, from the RSPO to allow us to do the necessary work in rebuilding community confidence, and trust in our sustainability efforts in a time and manner that best suits the working reality of Liberia. This decision in no way represents a weakening of GVL’s commitment to sustainable palm oil production.
“Having reviewed our operations closely and engaged in the RSPO processes over the last two months, I believe that GVL can best honor the spirit of the RSPO P&C’s by stepping out at this time to refresh personnel and systems that will enable the company to better deliver on its sustainability commitments and its promises to the communities in which we work.”
GVL’s action plan, encompassing both social and environmental components, is time bound and will be supported by expert implementation partners including The Forest Trust.
The action plan, expected to take 12-18 months for full implementation, will include:
Focus on community engagement and the implementation of FPIC processes with a view to finalize Memorandums of Understanding (MoU) with communities in disputed areas, specifically in Sinoe County;
Reassessment of High Carbon Stock (HCS) forest areas in light of allegations of forest clearing and submission of those assessments to HCSA for review;
Gap analysis of current practice against the GAR Social and Environmental Policy, RSPO P&Cs and HCSA requirements – all are part of GVL’s current sustainability policies and commitments and the focus will be consistency and adequacy of implementation.
A stop work order will be implemented in Sinoe County while the assessments are being undertaken. Work will continue as normal in Grand Kru.
GVL’s major investor is Golden Agri-Resources (GAR) and the company is required to meet the GAR Social and Environmental Policy (GSEP).
Speaking for GAR, MD for Sustainability and Strategic Stakeholder Engagement, Agus Purnomo, said: “GAR supports this decision by GVL and urges management to take all necessary steps to implement the action plan and demonstrate compliance with the GSEP.”
GAR will provide technical assistance to support this effort through a technical services agreement to allow for an exchange of expertise to assist in delivery of the action plan.
The GVL action plan will be available on the GVL website.