By Alloycious David, with New Narratives
WEALA, MARGIBI COUNTY- It is 10 years now, and David Siaffa still recalls vividly the day when Lango town, his birthplace, was bulldozed by earthmovers guided by men carrying cutlasses from Liberia’s fourth-largest rubber producer, Salala Rubber Corporation (SRC) in Margibi County. Siaffa, 60, and his family sought refuge in neighboring Siaffa Molly village.
“They came and started breaking down our houses,” Siaffa tells Daily Observer. “My sister Ciannah nearly got killed when she defiantly stood before one of the yellow machines to prevent it from bulldozing her home.”
Established in 1959, SRC holds a concession of over 40,000 hectares in central county. The company merged with a rubber processing factory, Weala Rubber Company in 2007, with the merger retaining its name. The next year, the new company received a US$10 million loan from the International Finance Corporation (IFC) to expand its plantation. The IFC is the arm of the World Bank that supports the private sector.
But Siaffa and other locals from 22 towns and villages in Margibi and Bong say that the company used the loan to forcefully evict them and grab their farmlands to develop 3,640 acres of new rubber plantation. They filed a complaint with the IFC in April last year through Green Advocates International, Alliance for Rural Democracy, the Natural Resources Women Platform, and Yeagbamah National Congress for Human Rights. Their complaint also includes allegations of economic displacement and loss of livelihood, labor rights violation, gender-based violence, and threats of reprisals and intimidation. Their case joins an array of others filed by rural communities across Liberia who have sought redress for alleged land-grab abroad as the Liberian government has failed to address their plights.
SRC’s alleged actions violate several provisions of the IFC’s performance standards on land acquisition and involuntary resettlement, and community health, safety, and security. IFC is currently reviewing the complaint after it dispatched a team here last October to assess the validity of the complaint. If it finds the allegations true, the member of the World Bank Group could compel SRC to fix the wrongs either through the payment of compensations for destroyed crops, the provision of alternative livelihoods or be barred from further loan acquisition.
“I don’t know when, but I am positive that we will get our land back from this company. Our children need a place they, too, can call home,” says Siaffa.
“We have resolved to remain peaceful in our approach, because we are certain that our rights to our land will be restored and, during that time, SRC will correct the wrongs [it] perpetrated against us,” adds Abraham Pennoh, another resident, who has been jailed severally over the land crisis.
The IFC found the communities’ compliant eligible following an assessment mission here in June last year. The communities opted for a resolution to the dispute with the company—one of two options under the IFC’s complaint mechanism—but SRC chose a compliance audit, the other option.
The company protested the fairness of the assessment. James Telewoyan, one of the mediators on the IFC’s Compliance Advisor Ombudsman (CAO) assessment mission, worked with Green Advocates International before, the company claims. Under the IFC’s rules, a CAO member must pull out of a case when there is a conflict of interest.
“SRC has no confidence in the CAO’s ability to oversee an impartial dispute resolution and therefore, has decided to enter into a compliance review with the IFC,” the company said in a statement in March this year.
Telewoyan denies he worked for Green Advocates International.
IFC also denies any wrongdoing, saying in a communique late last month that its “assessment process had been conducted in accordance with its operational guidelines.”
‘Displaced in our own hometown’
The people here show deeds that date as far back as the early 1900s, and that their ancestors had lived on the land even before the establishment of Liberia in 1822.
“We have deeds and tribal certificates for our lands that the company took from us by force,” Binda Ketter, a townsman in Kuwah Town says, displaying a photocopy of a land deed dated 1944.
“SRC’s action is having negative effects on our communities and on our livelihood,” Kennie Monkeytail, 63, says, adding that they hardly farm because “There is no land left in their communities to do farming.”
Companies that receive IFC’s loans are mandated to avoid involuntary settlement because it may result to hardship in affected communities and lead to environmental damage that may have adverse socioeconomic impacts. And Liberia’s Land Rights Act, which was passed into law in 2018—eight years after the SRC-community conflict—recognizes customary land rights and lays out the framework for tribal certificates to be processed into land deeds.
But the company refutes the residents’ claims, challenging the authenticity of their deeds.
“We received some notices from some individuals and groups claiming that they own land within our plantations but none of the deeds from those individuals or groups were predated 1959,” says Jallah Mensah, SRC’s human resource director. “All the deeds were fake.”
Apart from land-grab, villagers also accuse SRC of polluting drinking water sources, destroying their ancestral graveyards and sacred sites. The alleged action of the company also violates the IFC’s performance standards on resource efficiency and pollution prevention. The member of the World Bank Group prohibits its loan recipients from abusing or ruining cultural heritage for current and future generations.
“They started spoiling our farms and breaking down our people’s graves, Monkeytail says. “They (SRC) entered our Sande bush and spoiled it without talking to us.”
“When it rains, the spray used on the rubber trees can enter into the creeks which serve as drinking water sources for us,” Monkeytail adds. We cannot even go fishing because the chemicals have killed the fish.”
Villages depend solely on creeks and streams for drinking and for other domestic use. Like many parts of rural Liberia, villages have no hand pumps or pipe-borne water.
SRC claims it provided direct support to communities to perform cleansing rituals to move their shrines to different locations. But Siaffa says that was after the desecration of their ancestors’ graves and sacred sites, including the grave of Lorpolue Siaffa—Siaffa’s father—who was a renowned traditional healer, who was famed for curing snakebites.
It is unclear when the IFC will conclude its investigation into the communities’ complaint as it has announced cases before it would be postponed or delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
But Siaffa is certain that they will get justice no matter how long the investigation takes. “We are being displaced in our own hometown,” he says. “I know and I trust God that we will get back our land from the company.”
This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of our Land Rights and Climate Change Reporting Project. Funding was provided by the American Jewish World Service. The funder had no say in the story’s content.