Golden Veroleum Liberia (GVL) is again inviting NGOs to sustained fieldwork and dialogue with the company and the local communities of South East Liberia.
The company is today the South East’s largest employer with more than 3,600 jobs providing wages, that are five times the national average, and benefits, after signing direct agreements with more than half-a-dozen communities and clans for the development of oil palm farms. The company recognizes the Liberian communities as the true owners and decision makers of their land and therefore practices the Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) principle in its engagement with all communities. GVL adheres to environmental standards and practices that go beyond the principles of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), including a commitment to no-deforestation through a High Carbon Stock (HCS) approach. GVL practices an open information policy, providing company documents, procedures, community agreements and community information for public sharing, both in community meetings, as well as, on the GVL website and Facebook pages.
Today, the company continues to be invited for partnerships to develop land by more communities than it is possible to work with in. GVL further continues to welcome constructive, open and direct dialogue and discourse.
Report failure of reliability and objectivity
It is against this background that the Forest Peoples Programme (FPP) has published a press release titled “Harmful Social and Environmental Impacts of Liberia Palm Oil Project Exposed” and an accompanying report.
Regrettably, the report lacks a real and current understanding of the communities of the South East Liberia, and of how the company works with them. The authors have not participated in sustained fieldwork with the communities for the past 1.5 years or more. Out-dated information is presented as current facts. The report does not go beyond vague descriptions of statements and generalities. The authors consistently quote only anonymous or unnamed sources. The report highlights only selectively picked views and quotes, while excluding others. In particular, it omits any broad community view, which would provide a more accurate reflection of GVL’s operation and its relationships with communities. In its analysis of the Concession Agreement, it selects and quotes specific clauses without providing context and qualifiers, thus providing a misleading interpretation. These failures raise questions on the report’s reliability and objectivity. The report has been issued to interfere with RSPO’s own direct findings in Liberia.
GVL works under a duly legal Concession Agreement. The Concession Agreement is an enacted Act of Law, which was passed following scrutiny by the Liberian multi-party democratic legal system. It was negotiated by a formally constituted Inter-Ministerial Concession Commission advised by international legal experts. It was reviewed, ratified and passed as an Act of Law by the Senate and the House of Representatives of Liberia, and thereafter signed into Law by the President of the Republic of Liberia in September 2010. This process conforms to legal standards and processes accepted around the world. The Liberian agreement with GVL conforms to one of the highest standards of negotiation and legal processes that any agreement may have, with praise in international reviews as exemplary in Africa.
Human Rights and RSPO standards upheld
The Concession Agreement establishes that conformance to human rights and related legislation and to RSPO standards. In particular, GVL is bound under the concession agreement to RSPO Principles & Criteria as well as applicable international law, including laws on human rights. Importantly, the concession agreement differentiates between Government land and tribal and community held land. GVL recognizes the rights of communities as the landholders and accordingly negotiates with communities directly to reach mutually agreed agreements in accordance with FPIC principles. For example, GVL may not resettle communities, but may only apply and propose for such resettlement. In fact, GVL has committed to the approach that all community agreements and MOUs clearly confirm that GVL will not propose or request such resettlements.
Developing right procedures
GVL, assisted by internationally recognized experts, has been working tirelessly since early 2013 to develop and apply industry benchmark FPIC processes in community engagements, in addition to similar efforts in environmental protection and conservation. We have provided our Standard Operating Procedures as one of the inputs to the development of new RSPO Guidelines for FPIC. This RSPO work is in what we hope is a final round of review towards reaching consensus amongst RSPO stakeholders. When this work, led by FPP, is complete, we look forward to applying widely accepted new, further and better-defined guidance to companies, including GVL, on how FPIC can best be conducted.
Working closely with communities
In the past two years, GVL has worked with many Liberian communities, entering into direct development agreements (MOUs) with more than half-a-dozen communities. The MOUs are published and readily available on the GVL website. In accordance with FPIC good practice, GVL has completely respected the rights of those communities holding suitable land who have not wanted to offer their lands for development with GVL. Some communities, which originally did not wish to develop oil palm with GVL, have requested GVL to return to discussions. Some communities have recently settled their land disputes with their neighbours, explicitly so that development could be agreed by all parties in the disputes.
Currently, the company is not able to respond immediately to all requests from communities to start discussions on oil palm development, due to our desire to proceed gradually, within our resources and to provide time for full understanding to build up. Communities also need to consult and consider with their learned diaspora members, including trusted lawyers. Communities themselves select and decide on their representation and advisors.
GVL fully recognizes the challenges of implementing our policies and procedures to the highest standards. There is a need for continuous development of our community information work and our FPIC engagement skills of all stakeholders. This is important, particularly in a post-conflict society such as Liberia, where opportunities and concerns quickly create fears, suspicions and jealousies, which can divide communities. We have observed that, when this happens, political, personality based rivalries come to the fore, to the detriment of the wishes of the broader resident communities.
In this environment, GVL strives to engage sensitively and transparently with communities and interest groups, as well as pre-empt or promptly address any grievances that may arise.
Welcoming constructive criticism and participation
GVL welcomes dialogue with and participation of civil society organisations committed to working with our partner communities. In this context, we treat all constructive comments and recommendations seriously.
We intend to review, consider and discuss with our communities and stakeholders the feedback presented by this report, together with outputs from our participation in the new RSPO FPIC guidelines development process.
A different approach and re-invitation
GVL supports the view that direct engagement of stakeholders is the most constructive mechanism for resolving grievances, including differences of opinion, philosophy and approach. We consider it unfortunate that the authors of the recent report have elected to avoid direct dialogue and engagement in objective fieldwork with the communities, instead offering a report, which is impossible to verify and to check against established facts. GVL would like to suggest a different, collaborative and multi-stakeholder approach.
Mr. Scott Poynton, founder of The Forest Trust (TFT), in his blog (http://scottpoynton.com/2015/04/the-evolution-of-cooperation-in-forest-conflicts-part-2/):
“NGOs still view company efforts through cynical eyes and for the most part stand aloof, unengaged from the change process, judges and jurists of what’s good and what isn’t. […] But I wonder whether we might accelerate our journey to a better future if more of us engaged and if we all cooperated not just more but in a more productive, more compassionate way, if somehow we could find it in our hearts to trust the people opposite us; yes, to believe they are genuine and serious.
[…] Many NGOs and those that fund them believe that companies are inherently evil, unable to change. Many companies believe that NGOs are only out to cause trouble, to bleat and attack whatever good efforts they make so that they continue to get funded. We’re suffering a future sung to us by cynical voices that degrade and drain the energy away from efforts to bring change. It’s as if people want bad news, it justifies them, energises their song, chimes with their world-view, with the song they sing in their head. That their song might be part of the problem never enters their imagination.
" I personally hold to the belief that there is good in most folk and that if we can set it free and sing a more positive song about each other and what might be, we might get somewhere better.”
We believe that Mr. Poynton speaks both to us, GVL, and to the authors of the report.
We wish to re-extend the field invitations we have made to Civil Society Organizations and NGOs, including FPP, to meet with us, share ideas and experiences, and help reinforce and embed the community engagement approach set out in the RSPO P&C and FPIC guidance. We encourage the authors and NGOs to visit us and see our work in the Liberian countryside, and in the local communities, in order to engage in a process which may lead to improvements in our and the Oil Palm industry’s FPIC procedures.