The Sime Darby Concession Agreement and the Falling Takeover: Local Residents Express Gross Violations


MONROVIA — A leading voice in the Natural Resource Management, Extractive, and Human Rights Sectors of Liberia, Green Advocates International (GAI), has embarked on a process that brought together residents of Bomi and Grand Cape Mount Counties to scrutinize the terms and effects of the Contractual Agreement that was signed between the Government of Liberia, and the Sime Darby Plantation for its smooth operations in Grand Cape Mount County. The Contract Agreement covers a period of 63 years and 220,000 hectares of land.

Christopher K. Seeton, Sr. Contributing Writer

In January 2020, without the free, prior and informed consent of the Project Affected Communities (PAC), Sime Darby Plantation Liberia (SDPL), a Malaysian company, sold its Liberian operation for a token US$1 plus an earn-out payment to Mano Palm Oil Industries Limited (MPOI), leaving a burden of compliance issues that are affecting the Project Affected Communities (PACs) and neighboring communities that are being affected by Mano.

MPOI is a subsidiary of Mano Manufacturing Company (MANCO)—the parent company which was established in 1969 and is considered a manufacturer of household health and cleaning products in Liberia. 

GAI held a one-day training session to expose the project affected communities in Bomi and Grand Cape Mount Counties to the tools and methods at Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment (CCSI) and GAI for identifying, understanding and comparing the different parts of the Sime Darby agreement.  In the last three (3) years, GAI and CCSI have been working to raise awareness and increase engagement in Liberia regarding (OLC), and land contracts more generally.

The one-day training session provided the opportunities for GAI to present the annotations to the Sime Darby Contract thereby giving the locals the fair chance to better understand and express themselves about the terms of the agreement. GAI staff also allowed residents to cross-examine the provisions in the Agreement in terms of implementation.

They were unanimous in expressing that Sime Darby has failed to adhere to the implementations of the Contract Agreement as laid down.   

During the training session, several residents from the PACs expressed their dissatisfaction with the Contract Agreement.

The Residents who converged in Gbah Foboi, Grand Cape Mount County, stressed that the essence of the Sime Darby contract agreement was to provide huge job opportunities for Liberians; particularly, with special preference for the sons and daughters of Grand Cape Mount County, but regrettably the Company is downsizing its workforce without proper compensations.   

The residents expressed that the Company is paying deaf ears to their cries and has refused to lead frantic efforts that will improve their social well-being.

They lamented that the provisions in the Agreement that calls for free education, health and medical centers, schools, and social services, including transportation systems have been sadly ignored and abandoned by Sime Darby Plantation.

A representative from the PAC Community in Grand Cape Mount County, Foday Kamara mentioned that the Company has refused to live up to expectations and that they are exposed to unbearable hardships in the County.

Another representative from Gbah Foboi, Mr. Hans Massaqoui pointed out that there is no enforcement of the Contract Agreement, and he craved the indulgence of Green Advocates to play leading roles to ensure that the Concession Company lives up to expectations as required in the Agreement.

He thanked the Green Advocates International for coming to their rescue by strengthening their knowledge and understanding of the Contract Agreement.

Massaquoi mentioned that with the relevant pieces of information provided by Green Advocates, the residents will be well-equipped to advocate for improvement of their living conditions.,

Massaquoi noted that the company does not relate to the residents and whenever they want to engage the Management, their plights are never given serious attention.  

For her part, Helen Kandakai mentioned that they are going through deplorable conditions in Grand Cape Mount County and that Sime Darby is not employing Liberians anymore and the few who are employed are being laid off with no proper benefits.

She called for relentless advocacy to ensure the rights and protections of Liberians who are being deprived of basic social services in these concession areas.

Reviewing the Contract Agreement to determine whether the Concession Company was living up to the terms and conditions as laid down in the Agreement, the Citizens expressed that Sime Darby has deviated from the implementation of the Contract Agreement.

The Citizens indicated that all of the provisions in the Agreement are not adhered to by Sime Darby. Parts of the Agreement call for the following: Right to access concession area (non-contracting parties), Land use outside of concession area, Local employment, improvement in Infrastructure, Protections or benefits for employees, dependents, financial obligations- community or commodity funds among others.

Engaging their views about Sime Darby’s adherence to this agreement, the residents mentioned that Sime Darby has abandoned its responsibilities. They indicated that the Company is yet to constitute the ten-member funds’ management committee charged with managing the Community Development Fund.

The residents stressed that instead of being in compliance with these agreements, the Company has said that it will select five individuals from its management team while the rest of the five persons will be selected from the affected communities.

The Agreement indicates that 50% of the employment opportunities should be given to Liberians while 75% of employment should be provided to Liberians in top management positions at the Company

The community development funds are in addition to any separate social or development expenditures included in the agreement. The development contributions will be tax-deductible and may be carried forward for an indefinite period during the terms of the Contract. Sime Darby Plantation will contribute 1 % of its annual revenue from sales of oil palm products to the oil palm development fund.

The revenue from which this percentage contribution is taken, will be total revenue accrued at the end of each year of the term of the contract and excluding sales of oil palm derivatives or by-products. The obligation to provide this percentage contribution will not arise until the oil palm development fund has been duly established and constituted by the laws of Liberia.

As part of serious efforts to raise citizens’ voices regarding contracts and to give the locals the rights to be heard in decisions affecting the customary lands, the Civil Society Working Group on Open Land Contracts, with support from Green Advocates and Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment had launched the Open Land Contract initiative in Gbah Foboi, Garwula District in Grand Cape Mount County.

The launch of the initiative called for full disclosure to the public and the communities to fully understand the content of an Open Land Contract of a concession. Speaking in an exclusive interview with the media, Mohammed Kamara, Chairman, of the CSO Working Group on Open Land Contracts said that the objectives of the group are to “raise awareness of contracts signed between companies and the Government of Liberia, undertake policy engagement to inform better contracts or better deals and to promote proactive disclosure of investment impacts consistent with contracts or agreements signed”.

Open Land Contracts consider large-scale investments in land, agriculture, forestry, and renewable energy projects and the contracts that govern them because the impacts have serious implications for land users, local communities, and the sustainable development efforts of host governments. OLC is a storehouse of publicly available contracts and associated documents created to strengthen the growing campaign for information disclosure around land-based projects and to demonstrate that contract transparency is both feasible and valuable.

During the training session, the news that the Government of Liberia has reportedly renegotiated the Sime Darby Agreement or signed a new deal with Mano Palm Oil Industries Limited (MPOI) that will replace the existing Sime Darby Agreement was met with confusion and outrage. According to the residents who attended the training, Sime Darby signed lots of community agreements, covering education, health, employment, culture, etc.  There is uncertainty regarding what will happen to the different agreements Sime Darby signed with the community members if there is any renegotiation or replacement of the Sime Darby Agreement outside community consent or consultation.

Francis Colee, the Head of Programs at Green Advocates, said “If the news circulating out there is true, I wonder whether the Government of Liberia, in particular, the lawmakers from Bomi and Grand Cape Mount counties, learned any lessons at all in the last decade from the way the Sime Darby Agreement and several other open land contracts were signed outside community consent?” He said “Former President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was compelled to visit those affected communities, mainly Sime Darby and Golden Veroleum, where she talked to residents and admitted that the Government erred in awarding those concessions outside community consent”.

At the same, the Chairman of the Alliance for Rural Democracy (ARD), Mr. Paul Larry George, has challenged MPOI’s claim that it has dedicated most of its primary sustainability efforts to social and community engagement. “This statement amounts to nothing if it is true that Mano has indeed signed a new agreement with the Government of Liberia without obtaining buy-in from the communities surrounding its project in Bomi and Grand Cape Mount Counties”, he said.

Speaking further on the issue, Mr. Mustapha Foboi, the first Chair of the PAC, Grand Cape Mount County, and the man who represented the PAC in most of the negotiations with Sime Darby, questioned the duty of the lawmakers from both Bomi and Grand Cape Mount to their constituents, especially local communities affected by the operations Mano if they ever sat in any meeting and entered into a new agreement with Mano without involving the affected communities.