Palm oil firm desecrates religious sites and clears forest in Liberia

Thursday, October 20th, 2016

The GVL plantation covering places sacred to the Blogbo people ©Global Witness

A major palm oil firm has desecrated religious sites and polluted water supplies in Liberia, in the latest in a series of rights violations, according to the NGO Global Witness.

In an expose released on Wednesday, Global Witness presented evidence that Golden Veroleum (GVL) has bulldozed religious sites and paid police armed with assault rifles to protect its interests. It highlights the latter factor as particularly egregious and dangerous, in a fragile state recovering from civil war.

Global Witness previously published allegations that Liberians had been beaten, threatened and arrested for opposing the plantation, and that it had accelerated its expansion at the height of Liberia’s Ebola outbreak.

“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, of Global Witness, in a press release. “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.”

Golden Veroleum has acquired rights to convert 220,000 hectares of land into plantations. In 2012 the NGO Forest Peoples Programme (FPP) lodged a complaint with the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) against the company on the grounds communities had lost land, water sources and crops had been destroyed, it had failed to implemented a process of free, prior and informed consent, and there were “associated allegations of intimidation, arrests and harassment directed at community leaders”.

A subsequent report by The Forest Trust, which was contracted by Golden Veroleum to investigate the allegations, largely confirmed community concerns. A summary of the case published by FPP in 2013 concluded that” GVL’s actions to date undermine the very purpose of […] Liberia’s environment laws and related international law”.

The case remains within the RSPO complaints process. The most recently available minutes of meetings of the Complaints Panel note that it “stressed the need to reach a balanced decision to address all the issues leading to an amicable solution to multiple issues”.

GVL is believed to be majority-owned by the Southeast Asian palm oil giant Golden Agri Resources, which has committed to a policy of “zero deforestation”, as well as a commitment to respecting the rights of indigenous and other rural communities.

Global Witness’s report states that in the past year “GVL has converted the forest, savannah, and land owned by the Blogbo people into rows of oil palm trees”. A key religious site has been “transformed from forest into a muddy construction site on which a large palm oil processing mill is being built”.

Today the Guardian released a film on the same case (see below), that is unconnected to the Global Witness report.

The film features David Rothschild, Managing Director of GVL. He says: “I think what does happen is that large-scale business coming into Africa is automatically labelled in certain quarters as being negative and there to exploit, rather than to actually do something positive.

“We feel that we’re trying to do a bit of both.”