Wrestling with World’s Largest Oil Palm Company

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— The Tale of Mustapha Foboi, a Grassroot Frontline Defender

There has been a recent uproar at an oil palm plantation outside the capital Monrovia. It was characterized by irate youths setting up of road blocks and grounding of work over ‘compromised local employment deal’ as a transferred problem from Sime Darby to Mano Manufacturing Company, MANCO that since last year bought out the Malaysian company.

Amidst the furore, one name has resurfaced to hopefully save the fluid situation-that is, if prejudice is cast aside to drink from his sagely cup of water. He merits the accolade of dogged grassroot human rights defender. He is Mustapha Foboi 65, of Gbaa Foboi town, Grand Cape Mount county. 

Mustapha Foboi made history and brought the Government of Liberia to its knees when he took on the world largest oil palm conglomerate, Sime Darby. Assisted by Green Advocates International, Mustapha mobilized his indigenous Vai people from Garwula District in Grand Cape Mount County and filed the first ever complaint from Liberia on behalf of indigenous communities against a Multinational Corporation before the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).

The complaint preceded months of campaigning and complaining with both local and national government officials including local law makers to come to their aid and stop the egregious violations being meted against them by Sime Darby to no avail.  After Mustapha realized that the government official including lawmakers they had elected would not come to their aid and were ignoring their grievances, he led his people to the offices of Green Advocates International, a public interest law organization, based in the Capital city, Monrovia and requested assistance. After series of field investigations and gathering of evidence including robust consultation with the Project Affected Communities, Mustapha on behalf of his people mandated Green Advocates to proceed with the Complaint.

According to the PAC 4th October 2011 letter addressed to Technical Director Salahudin Yaacub in Kuala Lumpur Malaysia, the important local grievances were stated: 

“We have gathered evidence and are prepared to show you places where crops were destroyed, shrines were desecrated, villages uprooted and graves sites besmirched. We are also prepared to take you on a transect walk and field visit to verify sites and areas where crops have been destroyed by Sime Darby, spots where towns and villages have been swept-away to grow oil palm, sites where ancestral graves, Sande and Poro societies sacred sites were dishonored using Bull dozers…”

RSPO Yacoub replied October 14th 2011 and stated the following: “… we have submitted your complaints to Sime Darby Plantations and I am glad to inform you that we have received a response from Sime Darby regarding the issues brought up by you in your letter. Accordingly, Sime Darby has expressed commitment to cease their operations immediately said operations sites.”

The Government of Liberia could not believe that a group of indigenous communities and subsistence farmers could launch such a powerful complaint that momentarily stopped a 2.7-billion-dollar investment based on a moratorium from an international palm oil sustainability body.  It sent wave of jitters in the corridors of powers.  All of a sudden local and national Liberian Government officials including lawmakers who had ignored the legitimate grievances of the indigenous communities, started to engage the communities. Then President (Ellen Sirleaf) of Liberia announced the establishment of a number of inter-ministerial Task forces to mediate the disputes between the communities and Sime Darby.  Even the President of Liberia visited the Projected communities. During her visit she told the community members: “When your government and the representatives sign any paper with a foreign country, the communities can’t change it…”

She argued that the Liberian Constitution granted the government — and no one else — the right to negotiate with foreign investors. She accused them of trying to undermine her government, noting that their action was going to make other foreign investors flee the country. This situation she pointed out was going to make the country slide back to the old days.

The President then apologized, admitting errors for not consulting the indigenous communities and giving away all of their customary lands for an oil palm concession. 

However, despite the admission of errors and the apologies from the president, there was no political commitment to resolve the grievances of the communities. At series of meetings with Government officials, they demanded that the indigenous communities must withdraw their complaints filed against Sime Darby because the complaint was undermining the sovereignty of Liberia.

In desperate scheme to undermine the indigenous communities’ unity and cohesion, a number of high-ranking Government officials from the Internal Affairs, Agriculture and Justice Ministries first attempted to disrupt meetings between the indigenous communities and Sime Darby.

Violence was setting in acts of disrupting community meetings. When that reactionary move failed the government then drafted a letter and coerced one of the traditional leaders to sign informing the RSPO, that the communities were withdrawing their complaints. At the time, these high-ranking Liberian Government officials did not even know that the said traditional leader had requested that he be replaced because he was being harassed by these officials.

The withdrawal letter was ignored by the RSPO and Mustapha Foboi led his people to series of face to face negotiations and discussions leading to several bilateral and trilateral agreements between the communities and Sime Darby.  It was the first time that indigenous communities were holding accountable a trans national corporation for the impact of its operation. Even though he was making progress and winning victories on behalf of his people, Mustapha Foboi would later at a future date face the wrath and reprisals of the Government of Liberia and Sime Darby.

 Foboi is now aging, but his strength and conviction in defending the rights of 17 communities affected by recent job loss at the oil palm plantation remains unflappable. He has been fighting to ensure the release of seven youths arrested that day of the protest action.  A mediation effort involving the County Commissioner and some other stakeholders has secured the release of the youths that were incarcerated at the Grand Cape Mount county capital Robersport Police cells.

Asked if the matter is resolved; old man Foboi says it is a sham — intended to cower the boys from asserting legitimate claims to their jobs. “But you see I always tell those boys they should not be afraid of going to jail in defending their rights, they will never remain in jail for this kind of action in defending their rights…”

Feelers from Cape Mount suggests that it is a momentary subdued calm; fear is pervading the air. The problem as already disclosed, dates back to 2009, marking the genesis of Foboi’s resolved to fight for the land, 220,000 hectares that the then government of erstwhile President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf had offered in a concession agreement for 63 years. Such a vast swath of land space taken away from the local population meant deprivation of livelihood and cultural underpinnings including access to potable drinking water, sacred sites, subsistence farming space. It is thus imaginable how such a deal could have grated the feelings of many locals.

Initial local resistance to the lack of local prior consent in the deal witnessed the impounding of two yellow caterpillar machines.  Armed Police crack squad acting on authorization of the government, zoomed-in to disperse the protesters and retrieved the machines. This was a turning point in local resistance to the Sime Derby land grab. It was a time for the Project Affected Community, (PAC) that Foboi had spear-headed its formation to be recognized for a string of mediation dialogues that a tad simmered down tension.

Foboi recalls the supportive role of Green Advocate International in terms of providing them the advocacy and negotiation skills that paid-off in a deal that ensured that the company submitted to setting up of US$ 1Million dollars endowment fund. In addition, Sime Derby made an undertaking to provide 579 jobs to households in 17 communities of the project affected area. Households that had no employable somebody were to nominate a proxy to work and trickle the benefit of employment to the entitled family.

Then something dramatic happened to lend credence to the fact that the company and the government were half-hearted in their concession made to the PAC. As leader of the PAC campaign, Foboi suffered a litany of clandestine acts of aggression and victimization. His son was terminated by the company, fear tactics was employed by the powers that be and his family deserted him, someone stealthily tampered with his motorbike so that he would have ran into a fatal accident. He says he was lucky to have detected the gimmick and chose to fix the motorbike, making sure that it was now even better protected from wicked manipulation.

Hard-pressed by the covert wicked schemes- from powerful hands in government and the company-working behind the scene Foboi says, “I decided to slow down my advocacy… my family members were getting increasingly worried about their own safety…”

Then there was another twist of event. It reeked of Sime Derby’s divide-and-rule tactics to create fissures within the PAC. It followed the company’s initial disbursement of US$,90.000, (it was actually supposed to be USD 100,000) into the endowment fund- the Green Advocates had helped negotiate for the PAC. Some members of the PAC were bought-over to write and renounce all support in legal representation and advocacy guidance of Green Advocates International. And Green Advocates International back-out of all PAC dealings; something that Foboi says was a sad moment for him. He was now an isolated man.

In due course members of the compromised PAC would realize that they have erred in sidelining their foundational chairman and made moves to appease him with the position of advisor. Foboi says that position is nominal because all his pieces of advice are ignored; culminating to the tension that has erupted; forcing him to get on his legs; retracing the route to the office of Green Advocates International with a plea “kindly stand by us to ensure that those seven arrested boys could not go to jail…”

Yes, those seven boys arrested have been released, yet their jobs have been sold-off by the new management of the PAC. Foboi says the agitation for a just cause-economic empowerment of households that “we struggled to achieve for the stability of the county cannot be denied by any means…”

Clearly, it is a false start in the action of MANCO, not trying to unite the people but seemingly standing aloof to see the tearing apart of conflict sensitive frameworks crafted at the offing of Sime Derby plantation.

For Mustapha Foboi: “when you take away the means of survival of the people, there can be no peace…I can just caution that without uniting the people the future is just unpredictable…” Whatever that means remains a matter of wait and see…

4 COMMENTS

  1. Which is better, your land being utilized for productive purposes or it remained vacant that your manual labor cannot assist you nor provide services for your people? A determined land right defender, as old man Foboi is, only if he could negotiate for his people himself, he would have had a better deal that would have culminated into a “WIN-WIN” situation for his people and the company. His grand children would have had a better school to attend, clinic and other benefits, plus employment for its youths and other citizens from far and near.
    Sime Darby has left with all of the harassment received from Green Advocates and its arrogant leader, Atty. Alfred Brownell, the sole beneficiary of this campaign, now resides in the United States, with his family and living the best of life, while the people of Cape Mount continued and specifically, the Sime Darby area are struggling for survival. In a country of Liberia, just returning from civil crises as significant as we saw, need to negotiate tacitly with investors to get its points on going to derive a situation for all the parties to benefit.
    You have the natural resources, but you do not have the means of exploiting the resources to work for you to make your life better and another have the means, it is better for the pair to negotiate and come up with solution that will benefit all.
    That is the reasons, when I hear people accused the past regime of signing 60 plus concession agreements that they called “bogus”, it becomes laughable to me, as if the investors who bring their financial resources to invest are philanthropies who do not want returns on their investment, but would give all their money to Liberia, because God say so. Sometime, you will not get the best deal at the beginning, because you need to provide jobs for your citizens, but in the long run, the deal becomes better after many periods of re-negotiations. This happened almost every where and in almost every concession agreements: Firestone( second largest employer in Liberia), GVL, Acelor-Mittal,etc. So, today the people of Cape Mount are still struggling with the Company that bought out Sime Darby, Where is Green Advocate and Atty. Alfred Brownell?

    • Gbada Flomo, all this ignoramus “win win or renegotiation“ rants from you are only deceptive ploys from you intended to vindicate another corrupt politician or President who in all the bogus concessions reached with companies, she and her labor ministers (Tiawen Gongloe and Kofi Woods) who claim to be human rights lawyers DID NOT GIVE A DAMN FOR THE PEOPLE but were only there as transmission belts for these foreign exploiters.

      According to you, foreign companies in this day and age should conclude agreements no different from those agreements entered into by wicked bastards as Charles D. B.King, and his immediate predecessors whose policies with driven by selling their Liberian citizens into slavery. And this is why you will add insult to injury by ranting such bull dung as Firestone, or even under Ellen and her two so called human rights labor ministers Tiawen Gongloes agreements with Acelor-Mittal,etc!

      Do you think these three politicians (Ellen, Tiawen, and Kofi) who are here today because they are not in government deceiving voters that their public service convictions are based on the welfare and improved living standards of the people, did not know about international business and government relations? Make no mistake about that! THEY KNEW!

      BUT THEY (UNLIKE FABOI OR ZODUA) JUST DO GIVE A DAMN FOR THE PEOPLE!!!

      So Flomo, unlike you or Ellen, Tiawen or Kofi, etc. who are only good to be transmission belts and beneficiaries of these foreign exploiters, Mustapha Foboi is asking such questions as..

      BY WHAT POLITICAL AND ECONOMIC PROCESSES, AND THANKS TO WHAT POLITICAL AND ECONOMIC STRUCTURES AND GOALS DID THESE GREEMENTS COME ABOUT? FOR AFTER CAUSES, COME CONSEQUENCES!

      . WHO BENEFITED? WHO PAID? WHO CARRIED THE RISKS? WHO ENJOYED NEW OPPORTUNITIES? AND WHICH INDIGENOUS PEOPLE AND THEIR UNBORN GENERATIONS SHOULD BE DOOMED TO LIVE AND DIE WITH THE CONSEQUENCES OF THSE BOGUS AGREEMENTS?

  2. Mustapha Foboi, my icon of a freedom fighter!
    I can be your lieutenant in your struggle for justice for your community. You are indeed a real freedom fighter, not the destructive and corrupt types or bandits we’ve seen and are still seeing around. You should be making headlines.

    In the Ivory Coast, I was fortunate to have been a former classmate of a guy from a community earmarked by Rangold, a British mining company, to exploit gold over ten years.
    According to this friend who currently works with the company, before the Ivorian government could even sign a concession contract with the multinational, it went to every village to be affected by the project in the first place, called the traditional chiefs and told them the intention of the company and the consequences on the environment in the short, medium and long terms, the benefits of the project for the local community, the region and the country at large. Then the delegation told the chiefs and elders to consult their people (the villagers) to give them the information and ask what they would need in exchange for giving up their land (respect and consideration for your fellow men).

    As a hamlet or village, the people NAIVELY expressed their desires to their chiefs, who in turn recalled the government delegation to put forward their expectations collectively.
    The government, endowed with the required human resources, presented a comprehensive pre, during and post mining compensation package and disaster management plans beyond the expectations of the villagers.

    Without the intervention of any local or international NGOs to benefit from the usufruct of their natural property for their own people, the RESPONSIBLE Ivorian government ordered the construction of new housing units for the communities with all basic facilities; electricity, pipe borne water, healthcare centers, schools, playgrounds, etc. before the start of exploitation. Their sacred places were NEVER destroyed or desecrated, irrespective of the amount of gold to be exploited therefrom, they were given preferences for employments, bids, all commercial activities, etc.

    The Ivorian government, like the Liberian government, has all rights to contract with any foreign companies and to dispose of any parcel of lands or natural resources to foreign countries or companies.
    Because Liberians vote into office unpatriotic rogues, rebels and killers, they can dispose of any resources in the country and walk away with the proceeds in the USA, leaving the country and its people in destitute. How can a postwar mother president make remark such as:
    “When your government and the representatives sign any paper with a foreign country, the communities can’t change it…”
    It means the inhabitants of the project zones must “go to hell”. Their forebears kept the land for them to be given cheap to foreign companies; To hell with any sacred places or their traditions; They are sub humans and so they do not deserve to benefit from proceeds to be generated from their land; A total disregard for the guardians of our traditions and cultural heritage.
    And when the white guys mete such acts on us in foreign countries, we cry out “black lives matter”, nonsense!

    I thought I heard a speech promising FIXES, did I? Should this too not form part of the FIXES? Or was it a recitation copied from any world leader?

    Dear Liberians, stop being carried away by unpatriotic and international crooks. You should not be going to jail for your own property. The land of Liberia belongs to the children of Liberia. You have the right to refuse or accept anyone exploiting any minerals or resources on your land.

    To my people in Cape Mount, if the government does not fix this one, I admonish you to use all legal means to get reparations, or use any means to sabotage the operations of any company exploiting you illegally, with the collusion of few rogues in the government. Stand up and fight for your rights, you have no other village or country.

    Gird yourself for the battle, papa FOBOI! Never relent in your rightful fight in the face of deception and traitors in your midst.
    With God above, you shall prevail in justice!

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