As Liberia emerges as a new frontier market for the cheapest, most popular vegetable oil globally, Liberians report being beaten, threatened, and arrested for taking a stand against one of the world’s biggest palm oil plantations in the southeast of the country.
State officials are said to be helping the palm oil company Golden Veroleum (GVL) harass communities into signing away their land and crush dissent. Global Witness reveals how GVL accelerated its operations at the peak of Liberia’s 2014 Ebola outbreak, holding meetings with hundreds of people and encouraging illiterate citizens to sign away their land rights when community support groups were staying home for risk of contagion. At this time GVL almost doubled the size of its plantation.
This behaviour hasn’t discouraged the world’s major banks from offering their services. Standard Chartered, HSBC, and Citibank alone hold shares in GVL’s parent company – Golden Agri-Resources (GAR) – worth nearly US$ 1.5 billion.
The case of GVL risks becoming the first chapter of a longer narrative of dispossession and abuse. Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has made agriculture a central pillar of the country’s development strategy, making repeated – yet so far unfulfilled – public assurances that palm oil will lift poverty in rural areas. In response to early protests at GVL’s plantation she called those who spoke out against the company “unpatriotic” as they risked discouraging future investors.
Hear from communities about signing deals with GVL, called Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs).
GVL has bought the rights to convert 2,600 km2 of southeast Liberia into an oil palm estate – an area the size of London and Barcelona combined. Its contract is valid for up to 98 years, affecting some 41,000 people.
Public meetings where landowners were encouraged to hand over their land to GVL were watched over by powerful local officials, and in at least one case armed police. Global Witness also documents several accounts of violent assaults and arbitrary arrests of those who voiced their concerns.
The benefits offered by GVL to communities in return have been negligible. Those willing to work for the company are promised access to free medical support and schools. For non-employees, the most tangible negotiated benefits Global Witness could find evidence of were six toilets. READ MORE OF THIS ARTICLE