Environmental Activist Hails EPO – Villagers Sign MOU Over Land Dispute
Blayah Town, Grand Bassa County – “I think this is a very important milestone…, where the company and those that will be impacted by the private sector’s activities are coming together and having a conversation,” Silas Siakor, lead land rights campaigner told reporters just before the signing of an agreement between the Equatorial Palm Oil and villagers of District Four, Grand Bassa County.
More than one year ago, parties have been locked in dispute over land ownership and consent some community members had given to Equatorial Palm Oil, which is a major employer in Grand Bassa County.
Traditional leaders, elders, women and youth attended the signing ceremony, which is believed to be a major breakthrough for the conflicting parties. Traditional songs and dances ushered what has been described by many as an almost impossible venture.
Hundreds of community residents – women, elders and youth – showed up in Blayah Town to witness the signing. Monday’s MOU ends nearly a year of conflict between aggrieved locals and the company.
Siakor, who worked as Executive Director of the Sustainable Development Institute (SDI), said that the MoU is a step forward for the locals. Although he’s optimistic about the impact of a company, Siakor said the only guarantee for the locals in investment is for locals to have a clear understanding of the resources they will have access to.
The locals had rejected the oil palm company’s extension. But Monday’s signing has renewed possibilities of an improved relationship between the company and locals. The MoU according to Siakor, the lead campaigner of the affected communities is a major breakthrough with the people and company.
“The company can now carry on its operations unhindered, while the people on the other hand can continue their livelihood activities,” the Land Rights activist said in a passionate tone.
Sashi Nambiar, EPO’s Country Head said the company is happy that the signing went smoothly and peacefully. “This clearly shows that if we all sit together we can resolve so many issues,” he told FrontPageAfrica after the signing. “We have a direction now and we are going to move in the areas where the concerned communities asked us to do development.”
Mr. Nambir predicts a bright future with the communities, adding that the company is keen on following international laws which supports Free Prior Informed Consent (FPIC) in the acquisition of land from locals by concession companies.
The EPO Boss stressed that the company is keen on providing some basic social services for the communities that have consented for their operations to extend and are engaging with communities that have not consented for any possible expansion. He said there are already some interventions like road rehabilitation works, clinic and schools for the local population and the company’s employees, the EPO Boss said.
‘Victorious Day’ – Says District Lawmaker
Hon. Robertson Siaway who has been under fire by his constituents – especially those opposing the EPO expansion – told reporters that the signing of the MoU is historic for his district.
“I’ve been chasing this land saga from 2012 and for us to come to conclusion today of the whole matter makes me very happy,” the lawmaker said.
Many locals in the area agreed that signing the MoU ends the infighting amongst them. There were mixed views over EPO operations in the district which sparked graved tension amongst several affected towns with some calling for the resurvey of the over 34,500 hectares of land, while others rejected the survey.
However, Hon. Siaway is confident that the signed MoU has put everybody in the area together creating the need to work with all sides – the company and the communities. “This we’ve been talking about tri-partied agreements,” he said.
“We have to bring citizens, we have to bring government, bring in management that we will sit down and discuss peace.”
Those opting for the company expansion in their area are assertive about a new found harmony in the district putting to end conflict amongst affected towns.
“Today we are excited that the MoU will be signed and we work in line with the company,” explained Charles Chedegar. Chedegar supported the resurvey of the concession land to determine areas (towns) that might be affected, something that met stiff resistance from others. But he now believes it is a new beginning to uniting all the towns in the area regardless of the diversity in views about the EPO expansion.
“Our point was to do the resurvey then we all come together and talk about these things because if the company does improve the present land that they occupied we can’t tell them to go ahead.”
Continued Chedegar: “This land has been here over the past hundred years and our people have not been doing anything here and people are living in abject poverty. But I think if we allow the company to expand we will be able to engage them to improve these areas.”
District Four Senior Elder, Chio Johnson is overwhelmed about the signing. He is optimistic that it will make a lot of difference; adding “with this new relationship into place, community members will explore different avenues to get the maximum impact of EPO.”
Elder Johnson believes issues related to roads, and other basic challenges his people are facing will be addressed by the company under its Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) program.
Key Quote: “The only guarantee for the locals in investment is for locals to have a clear understanding of the resources they will have access to.’ – Silas Siakor, Executive Director – Sustainable Development Institute.
Alpha Daffae Senkpeni, [email protected]