“I don’t understand why our people are still resulting to violence as a means of solving problems? This did not help our country and will never do so now, or in the future.”Bomi County Superintendent, Samuel Brown said this during a press conference held in Bomi recently following the arson attack on the company’s facilities. The Arson attack took place after a lady who had gone for medical treatment at the company’s health center was reported missing. She was treated and discharged. The demonstrators accused the company. After several hours, the lady was seen with her boyfriend in a nearby camp.
When the former Chairman of Sime Darby Group, Tan Sir DatoTun Musa Hitam came to Liberia in April 2011 to inaugurate Sime Darby’s first oil palm Plantation in Africa along with Vice President Joseph N. Boakai in Grand Cape Mount County, he promised that his company would provide jobs for more than 25,000 people once the project gets fully operational. His promise gave hope to thousands of young people who were living in desperation and uncertainty.
The population in Bomi and Grand Cape Mount Counties, especially around the Ex-Guthrie rubber plantation area had hit more than 50,000, most of whom were considered transient. Following the end of hostilities in 2003, rebel fighters who were in control of the rubber plantation had already settled with families and were continuing illicit tapping and looting of the rubber as a form of livelihood.The government had little or no control of the situation until it settled and sealed a 63 year concession agreement with Sime Darby Behard in April 2009. The agreement paved the way for young people who were mostly former fighters to acquire new skills and begin working with the company. Many of the new SDPL employees were given training in earthmoving equipment operation, nursery management, field maintenance, plantation operation and accounting.
By June 2012 Sime Darby Plantation Liberia (SDPL)already had more than 3,500 permanent employees on its payroll exceeding the initial projected figure per annum. The company also began constructing living quarters for employees and opening new roads to link villagers to markets, in a region that was considered volatile and poverty stricken. Most of the people living in this part of Liberia lacked access to safe drinking water, electricity, health care and basic education facilities. A company representative said SDPL has more than seven (7) schools which are part of its school system besides others that were built for villagers, and two clinics that are providing basic healthservices to local population at no cost. “Our students are not allowed to walk to school. We have school buses to help them. We run a clinic that is opened to all,” the representative said. The clinic treats more than 30,000 persons annually, according to Ahmad Rifqi Abdul Head of SDPL’s Health, Safety and Environment. Records in the possession of this paper, seems to suggest that SDPL has spent more than US$130 Million dollars since it began operations in Liberia from 2010. However, the company has only managed to develop a little over 10,000 hectares of land with oil palm out of an estimated 220,000 hectares provided in the Concession Agreement (CA).
Nonetheless, it seems the effort of the company is not appreciated in many aspects. For instance, according to the Liberia National police records; there have been more than 12 protests or go-slow actions since the inception of SDPL in Liberia. Some of the protests according to witnesses were over what they called ‘trivial issues.’Between 2012 and 2016, Sime Darby has lost more than $3.6 million in fire due to arson. Mr. RoslinAzmy Hassan former General Manger of the company told journalists during a fact-finding visit in 2013 that the burning of the plantation by unknown individuals was going to hurt the company and the local population. “This is not good for us or the local people. We are in this together. If there are no palms to cultivate, there will be no jobs,” Roslin said in a passionate tone.
More than two weeks ago, the mysterious disappearance and subsequent recovery of a woman who had gone for medical treatment at SDPL clinic put the company’s investment in Liberia in a more troubling mood. Community residents unleashed a surprised attack on the company and destroyed more than US$1million dollar worth of oil palm trees in Grand Cape Mount, Lofa and Bomi estates. Other valuable assets of the company were vandalized. Normal working activities came to a halt for two days, until the Presidential elite guard- Emergency Response Unit (ERU) moved in to put the situation under control.
Bomi County Superintendent, Samuel Brown described the protest action by the people as ‘barbaric and share naivety.’ He contends that violence did not help Liberia’s two decade of civil conflict and will only put the gains made in a backward trend. “I don’t understand why our people are still resulting to violence as a means of solving problems? This did not help our country and will never do so in the future,” Superintendent Brown lamented.
The Liberia National Police says it will arrest and prosecute all of culprits of the recent protest at Sime Darby’s Plantation. At the time of writing this article, the government news agency, Liberia News Agency has reported that about 11 rioters have been charged for criminal facilitation.
Police Inspector General Col. Chris Massaquoi said no stone will be left unturned.
Reports from Sime Darby’s Headquarters in Kuala Lumpur, seems to suggests, that the company could consider selling its asset in Liberia if the wave of arson continues on its operation in Liberia. Even though this paper is yet to independently verify this report, Liberia could get on a red line in terms of doing business and investment friendly.
With this level of damage done by residents in many parts of the country, to investments, it is creating some level of fatique.
This situation is not unique to Sime Darby Plantation in Liberia. From GoldenVeroleum to Equatorial Oil Palm, Arcelor Mittal in Nimba, Cocopa Rubber Plantation (also in Nimba, investors are unhappy.
Already, Arcelor Mittal, global steel giant has decided to scale down due partly to drop in international steel price on the market.
At Golden Veroleum in Sinoe County, the South East, there was report of fire incident at the plantation.
“This level of destruction is not healthy for the country and investors. It is making investors to become weary. I think the authorities from the part of government need to do much more to protect investment or else, they will regret one day that some of the companies will leave. They will one day say, enough is enough,” a junior government official at the Bureau of Concession Commission said.
So, it is about time that government starts to look into these incidents.