Liberia: Locals Claim GVL Continues Rights Violations Despite Watchdog Order

A GVL contractor at work in Butaw, Sinoe County/James Harding Giahyue

Monrovia – Golden Veroleum Liberia (GVL) has not ceased its land grab and hasn’t taken actions to curb alleged deforestation of forest communities in southeastern Liberia, local community rights defenders claim. 

GVL denied the claims. 

The Roundtable on Sustainable Oil Palm (RSPO)—the global watchdog of the oil palm sector—in February last year found GVL guilty of land grab following complaints by communities in Sinoe and Grand Kru complained beginning 2012 against the company. The watchdog mandated the company to stop its plantation expansion and renegotiate with communities. 

 The company rescinded the move after its request to exit was rejected by the global watchdog on the oil palm sector, announcing that it would implement a sustainability action plan as well as adhere to the RSPO’s decision. 

But Harriet Saylee of Numopoh and Terry Panyonnoh of Butaw, youth leaders of their respective communities, claimed that GVL has yet to live up to the RSPO’s orders and are continuing to violate the rights of their communities.   

“According to the memorandum of understanding between GVL and the Butaw community, GVL is obligated to fulfill a whole range of development actions, such as scholarships, jobs, infrastructure, payments into community development funds and development of a community-based palm oil out-growers program, but GVL is not complying with these obligations,” Panyonnoh said in an interview following their meeting with Dutch banks and European Union (EU) Parliamentarians last week in the Netherlands and Belgium.  

“Instead, we are intimidated by Emergency Response Unit (ERU) that are still stationed in the Butaw compound of GVL,” added Panyonnoh.  

“The decision of the complaints panel [of the RSPO] is not being followed by the GVL at all,” Saylee said in a separate interview. “Even after the complaint, GVL continues to clear forests and develop plantations on conflict land,” she said.  

She claimed Numopoh did not sign an MOU with GVL in 2014 with free, prior and informed consent. “Now five years later, GVL has not fulfilled its obligations,” said Saylee. “GVL should have paid $5 per hectare of Numopoh land each year, but we have not seen that money.” 

Randall Kaybee, GVL’s communication coordinator, denied Saylee’s claim on community development fund (CDF). “Currently, payments for 2018, which were expected to have been updated by around April 2019, has been delayed by two key factors: 1. changes in signatories to the CDF account, and 2. the need to create a new account specifically for the GVL CDF, due to community depositing funds from different sources into that account,” he said in emailed comments. 

On Panyonnoh’s claim GVL is not sticking to terms of a memorandum of understanding it signed with Butaw, Kaybee said Panyonnoh was not saying the truth. 

He listed a number of projects he claimed GVL was carrying out and had already completed, including a US$120,000 construction of an eight-classroom annex and a teacher quarter to elevate the Butaw Jr. 

High School to high school status, and the ongoing construction of a 13-km road from Pluoh to Butaw seaside. This will be completed during the upcoming dry season, he said. 

In May 2019 the RSPO complaints panel confirmed that GVL was not in compliance with the terms of its stop work order. That was more than a year since the stop work order was released.   

Apart from Saylee and Panyonnoh, GVL has also come in for criticism from civil society over its sustainability action plan and how it is handling the RSPO’s orders. 

GVL has remained adamant to change. Since the decision of the RSPO in February 2018 and reports of rights abuses and environmental consequences by environmental rights based organizations, the company has not taken a step to improve its relations,” James Otto of the Sustainable Development Institute (SDI) said in an emailed statement. 

“In early 2019, the company admitted clearing high carbon value areas with promises of working to restore those areas – but has yet to happen,” he said. SDI, Dutch environmental group Milieudefensie, and Friends of the Earth USA have filed a complaint against GVL with the High Carbon Stock Approach, an international that distinguishes forest areas for protection from degraded lands with low carbon and biodiversity values that may be developed. 

Kaybee refuted Otto’s comments. He said GVL was committed to the RSPO principles and shared its documents. “We would advise SDI to familiarize itself thoroughly with the guidance before making demands,” Kaybee said. 

“On the issue of consultation, GVL has specifically shared the Action Plan with not only the Civil Society Oil Palm Working Group (CSO-OPWG), but the rest of the world,” he said.  “We are currently at the stage of sharing a draft Memorandum of Agreement with the CSO-OPWG to regulate our mutual collaboration,” he said. SDI is a member of the CSO-OPWG. 

In 2010 GVL signed a 65-year concession for 350,000 hectares of land or approximately 2.3 percent of Liberia’s total landmass, which violates Liberia’s Public Lands Law that prohibits lease agreements from exceeding 50 years.  

GVL’s involvement into land grab and human rights violations is also in violation of Article 16 of the company’s concession agreement, which mandates the company to comply with RSPO principles.