The Complaints Panel of the Round-table on Sustainable Oil Palm (RSPO) has sharply rebuked Golden Veroleum Liberia (GVL) for grabbing land in communities in Sinoe and Grand Kru counties, without the mutual consent of concerned communities.
According to the RSPO, GVL coerces locals into signing MOUs and even excludes some communities in the mapping of its concession areas.
Since publication of the report, GVL has not responded to queries for comments.
Communities involved in disputes with GVL are Butaw, Tarjuowon, Du-Wolee,Nyennue (DWN) and Numopohin, in Sinoe, and Gbleebo, Wedabo and Gerraway, in Grand Kru.
The Panel’s decision followed a February 2017 verification mission in the disputed communities, after complaints by civil society and community-based organizations, including Social Entrepreneurs for Sustainable Development (SESDev), Save My Future Foundation (SAMFU), Sustainable Development Institute (SDI), Green Advocates International (GAI), Kulu United Development Association (KUDA) and Forest Peoples Program (FPP).
The 2017 mission was a follow-up to a 2015 decision that the civil society groups said was unsatisfactory.
The Panel mandated that GVL stop its oil palm development in the disputed communities, renegotiate with them before expanding on their lands, and redo the mapping of its concession areas to include communities left out.
The report notes that GVL and any of the other parties in the dispute can appeal the decision.
“In line with RSPO Code of Conduct, we call on GVL to act in good faith in implementing the above decision of the Complaints Panel,” the report reads, adding: “Any deviation from the above-mentioned milestones and timelines by GVL will be viewed adversely and may lead to consideration of suspension and eventual termination of membership.”
GVL signed a 65-year concession agreement with Liberia in 2010 for the production of 500,000 acres of land in the southeast. It holds an ordinary membership with the RSPO, which was founded in 2004 to promote the production and use of sustainable oil palm products through credible international standards and participation of stakeholders.
“The decision of the Complaint Panel further strengthens the call of civil society organizations on the Legislature for the passage of a progressive version of the Land Rights Act that supports community ownership of their customary lands,” said James Otto of SDI, whose organization is part of the Civil Society Oil Palm Working Group.
“The violations, coercion, and further abuse of the rights of communities on their customary lands are all indications of the absence of a national law to protect their lands from powerful companies,” the report said.
The Panel’s report booked GVL for seeking a free, prior and informed consent—a key principle of the RSPO—of communities in Butaw, coercing communities to sign an MOU for expansion of its concession areas.
“Butaw had limited understanding of the content of the MOU, there was limited participation of locals and the community did not get any legal advice,” the report added.
Butaw is the most infamous of all of the communities affected by GVL oil palm production. In May 2015, a riot erupted between locals and the company, resulting to a loss of life and property, which took the headlines of national and international media.
“This is evidenced by the fact that GVL decided, after the riots, to stop working with ABloteh, which were earlier considered as representatives duly nominated by the Butaw communities,” the report said.
“GVL had decided, instead, to work with BWDA. GVL further worked mostly with the Monrovia-based Peter Teah, while the investigation suggests that he had not been designated by the 24 Butaw communities to represent them,” it added.
The report also found that Butaw was promised by GVL that it would rehire 900 dismissed workers and drop all charges relating to the 2015 riot, if Butaw signed the MOU, and that was the decision of government “authorities” for them to do so.
In other instances, the report found that GVL appointed new representatives for Butaw and withdrew a complaint against it by the original community representatives before signing the MOU to suit its interest.
The Panel, accordingly, mandated GVL to facilitate consultations with Butaw, disseminate contents of a new MOU and ensure strict compliance with RSPO regulations. It mandated GVL to renegotiate with Butaw over the community’s Compensation Development Fund (CDF) management, benefits and other disputed issues. GVL was also mandated to stop work in all disputed areas until it resolves all disputes.
“Any continuing proven allegations of coercion would compel the Complaints Panel to initiate punitive sanctions,” the Panel said, and that mapping of the company’s concession area in Butaw be redone to include all 24 communities in recognition of their customary right to their land.
The Panel’s decision over Tarjuowon, in Sinoe, is the same as in Butaw, with the company not seeking the consent of the community.
The MOU, the Panel found, was signed before the mapping of the boundary between GVL’s concession area and Tarjuowon was cut. It added that GVL selected its own representatives from Tarjuowon, to sign the MOU to expand its oil palm production.
In one particular community—Blogbo—the Panel found that GVL did not get claim waiver of burial places, farmlands, shrines and sacred sites.
“The allegation that Palloh Hill, the area earmarked for the site of the mill and the nearby Slenee Creek are sacred sites of the Blogbo community has not been conclusively addressed by GVL,” the report said. “GVL has failed to take into account the fact that sacred sites may be attached to a lineage or even one family member,” it added.
GVL was ordered to halt construction in Blogbo until a new MOU can be signed that will include the community when the company maps its concession.
“Upon completion of the participatory mapping, the content of the MOU on designated customary sites and land compensation to be negotiated and agreed with the Blogbo community,” the report mandated.
The Panel found that GVL signed an MOU with “honorary” town chiefs of Du, Wolee and Nyennue it claimed were appointed by the government, and that the communities signed with the presence of armed anti-riot police.
It also found that GVL developed land disputed by DWN, violating the 2015 decision by the Panel.
The report mandated GVL to “retain its decision not to develop land that is disputed until the issues are resolved satisfactorily,” the report said.
It also called on GVL to “continue its engagement with the relevant Liberian land authorities, including the Land Commission, the Ministry of Lands, Mines and Energy and the Ministry of Internal Affairs, among others, in assessing the boundary issues and seeking for a resolution to the dispute.”
In cases of Gbleebo, Wedabo and Garraway in Grand Kru, The Panel booked GVL for not making nine provisional MOUs permanent as it mandated the company to do in the 2015 report.
“Any ongoing disputes related to the provisions in the MoU are to be resolved through a bilateral negotiation or mediation with relevant and self-identified representatives of the respective communities,” the Panel directed.