New Global Witness Report Reveals Golden Veroleum Bulldozes Shrines in Liberia

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Monrovia – Palm oil giant Golden Veroleum (GVL) bulldozed religious sites in southeast Liberia and paid Police armed with assault rifles to protect its plantations, a new Global Witness report has revealed.

“Our investigations show that Golden Veroleum is at it again in Liberia – intimidating communities through the threat of force.

This time the company has also destroyed what’s most sacred to the people who have traditionally owned this land – a place they go to worship.” Jonathan Gant of Global Witness

However, GVL in a statement Tuesday said it was “disappointed to see Global Witness and Sync Consult make erroneous claims in their reports published on October 19, 2016.”  

GVL has bought the rights to convert 2,600 kmof Liberia into an oil palm estate – an area the size of London and Barcelona combined.

The company’s contract is valid for up to 98 years, currently affecting some 41,000 people.  

These fresh revelations coincide with the publication of the first ever economic analysis of palm oil development in Liberia, which suggests that continued expansion under the current model could do the country more harm than good.

The study, by economists at Sync Consult, found that converting community land into plantations left those impacted an average of three times worse off.   

Global Witness has been calling for Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to rethink the country’s approach to agriculture, which she has made a cornerstone of the country’s development strategy, based on the belief that it will lift poverty in rural areas.

Ten percent of Liberia is already earmarked for plantations, but expansion has happened in a legal vacuum, with still no laws governing how agriculture companies should operate or be held accountable.  

“Our investigations show that Golden Veroleum is at it again in Liberia – intimidating communities through the threat of force.

This time the company has also destroyed what’s most sacred to the people who have traditionally owned this land – a place they go to worship,” said Jonathan Gant at Global Witness.

“Without laws and penalties to keep agricultural companies in check they will continue to get away with trampling over the rights and traditions of landowners across Liberia.”  

Global Witness’ new investigation, called The Temple and the Gun, documents how GVL cordons off two sites that are sacred to the Blogbo people of Sinoe County. Palotro Hill, where women would pray for fertility, has been flattened to make way for a mill for processing palm oil. Tucked behind the construction site, the sacred Sleni River is now also off-limits and is at risk of contamination from waste water.

The report said when asked to comment, GVL did not deny it had desecrated these religious sites. Instead, the company states that it has not infringed upon the rights of the Blogbo people and points to a decision by the industry certification body the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).

However, locals interviewed say that GVL was never given permission to desecrate these sites.

These developments are taking place amid an atmosphere of fear and intimidation, according to the report, with armed Liberian Police installed to protect the company’s plantation.

The Emergency Response Unit (ERU) was first despatched to the GVL plantation in May 2015 to pacify protests over staff’s working conditions.

Its officers are still there, invited to stay by GVL to provide protection, and are being housed and fed by the company, the report added.

“As of November 2015, the ERU was also being paid by GVL, although when asked recently whether this is still the case the company declined to answer. They are armed with American-made M4 military rifles – some of the only guns left in an otherwise demilitarised country exhausted by 14 years of civil war,” the report said.  

“Sync Consult’s analysis of GVL’s impact shows how the benefits to communities of the land they have traditionally owned, farmed and hunted on is four times greater than the value that GVL claims it will provide in salaries and social services once it converts the land into plantations.”

“The economists also revealed how only a handful of people stand to gain from GVL – principally the company’s comparatively small staff and their families. Presented with these findings GVL did not give a substantive response, instead providing only general criticisms of the study’s methodology,” the report continued.  

“This economic forecast paints a gloomy picture of the future of palm oil in Liberia, which threatens to deepen poverty and suffering across the country rather than lifting it,” said Jonathan Gant.

“The government should be thinking very seriously about alternative development models – ones which strengthen the rural poor’s rights to the land they rely on rather than robbing them of it for generations.”

GVL reaction

GVL said that it had invited Global Witness to its concession area on multiple occasions since 2015. The Indonesian oil palm giant said it remained open to discuss with the watchdog

GVL said Global Witness’ assertions relating to the Tarjuowon community were “incomplete and not representative of the facts on the ground,” adding that it “obtained community consent by conducting a full FPIC (Free Prior Informed Consent) process in 2013 and no claims of the referenced locations being religious sites were made during this process.”   

Effort to contact the Liberia National Police (LNP) did not materialize. However, over the presence of armed Police, GVL said presence of the Police was to protect employees and personnel following a violent attack in May 2015. 

“The Police serve in a reactive role and it is unclear how this Police presence could intimidate a community that lives over 30 kilometres away,” the company said in the statement.”

 “GVL pays daily subsistence allowances in line with Government of Liberia (GOL) guidelines. Under the President’s directive, GOL deployed the unit to be based on the farm pending construction of a community Police station in Butaw, which we understand is now underway.”

GVL said it welcomed researches but ones based on facts.

“However, the report GW has commissioned from Ghanaian Sync Consult is regrettably fundamentally flawed in its facts and its analysis,” it said.

“For example the consultant has fundamentally misunderstood the relationships between area, employment and the economics of oil palm,” it added, disagreeing with Global Witness on the exact size of land it has acquired and the number of employees it has.

 “There are many other errors. Regrettably, GVL was not given an opportunity to contribute substantively to the report, as we would have been able to point out these flaws.  We will comment in detail on this in our full response,” GVL said.   

 “GVL is fully committed to building a sustainable business in Liberia including the infrastructure that underpins that development such as roads and healthcare facilities and to support the economic development of host communities. 

It will take many years before oil palm is produced at scale in Liberia and many more years before the investor companies may see a return on their significant investments. As with all projects, there are a number of challenges to first be overcome.

As a company we do not claim to have all the answers and we have therefore committed significant time and investment to working with the many community representatives, local NGOs and sustainability advisers to benefit from their experience.” 

Butaw Citizens-GVL Riot   

Scores of locals rioted on Tuesday at the plantation of Golden Veroleum Liberia in the Butaw District of Sinoe County in mid-2015, leaving a government official wounded and the company’s properties vandalized.

Angry locals, according to FrontPage Africa, threw stones at a delegation of government officials who had come to meet a vice President of the company as well as smashed the windscreens of vehicles. The paper reports that the damage done the company is up to a $1 million.

The riot began when aggrieved locals, who had been demanding proper compensation for their land, job opportunities and better working condition (for those employed), were denied a meeting with the company’s vice President who was visiting from Indonesia.

Butaw and other communities have had issues with the company over land grabbing and desecration of ancestral shrines and aged burial sites. The people say the government did not involve them in the concession agreement with GVL.

President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in 2012 openly apologized on a visit to Butaw over the situation, saying government was in a hurry to provide jobs for its people.

However, the jobs provided by the company have been insufficient, with Vice President Joseph Boakai calling on the company to employ more Liberians instead of foreigners in managerial positions on a recent visit with the company’s executives Indonesia.

The angry citizens assembled before the entrance of the company’s administrative building when the company was playing host to a government delegation from Monrovia who should have had discussion with the company’s visiting vice President.

The delegation comprised Minister of Gender, Children and Social Protection, Julia Duncan Cassell, who is acting as President in the absence of President Sirleaf and Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs (Interior Ministry), Varney Sirleaf. Minister Cassell had just left when the riot took place but Deputy Minister Sirleaf was unlucky as he was reportedly injured on the back and hand. 

“It was scary; it is serious and if it continues like this, it will not be good. We have been pushing to get the community involved, some 500 hectares had just been approved by the company and visiting senior vice President of Golden Veroleum.

Now they have damaged the company’s properties and caused a lot of problems here,” Minister Sirleaf lamented. The riot only met its quietus when a contingent of riot Police was deployed in the county. Several rioters were arrested.

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