Earlier this month, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, told villagers who had travelled from the country’s rural hinterland to see her in the capital Monrovia that the international company they’ve been locked in conflict with for two years would not be allowed to expand its palm oil plantation on their land.
To the nation’s lively independent FrontPage Africa newspaper, this intervention was “remarkable”. To Goldman Environmental Prize winner Silas Kpanan’Ayoung Siakor it was “a victory for community rights in Liberia”. And to those at the heart of this protracted and bitter saga - the hundreds of people in Grand Bassa County who said their survival was threatened by the expansion of a palm oil plantation owned by the UK-listed Equatorial Palm Oil (EPO) - the president’s positive response to their plea was cause for serious celebration.
“We were being ill-treated, we were beaten, we were taken to prison for this same land and so for the mother of this country to come in and say ‘Look, I will make sure that the company stops where it is, until we can go into a dialogue’ is joyous news,” said one resident, Deyeati Carter.
Johnson Sirleaf’s decision appears to signal a dramatic change of heart for a leader who has signed 30 percent of Liberia’s land over to foreign investors - with 1.5 million acres allotted to palm oil companies - in a country where, as one NGO worker put it, ministers seem “drunk with the idea that international investment will bring economic recovery”.
The dispute with EPO, which began two years ago, was the latest clash between rural Liberians and companies rushing to acquire land to feed the growing global market for palm oil – a product found in around a third of products on supermarket shelves, according to one jaw-dropping estimate.
Widely reported complaints have been made against the Singapore-controlled Golden Veroleum (GVL), which holds a 350,000-hectare oil palm concession in south-western Liberia, and the Malaysian corporation Sime Darby, whose 311,187 hectare operation is in the north, and was recently the target of a suspected arson attack.
Allegations against EPO surfaced in 2012, when villagers living by the company’s Palm Bay Estate in Grand Bassa County accused the company of clearing their land and planting oil palm there without their consent. EPO insists all the land it has used has been legally acquired.
On September 18 last year - the same day a complaint was filed against EPO with the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), the industry’s voluntary certification body – events took an ominous turn.
DISPUTED ATTACK ON VILLAGERS
Around 200 villagers began a six-hour march to the state capital Buchanan to a lodge a protest against EPO with the local authorities. It was early afternoon and they had been walking for around two hours when they said they were stopped by members of the elite Liberian Police Support Unit (PSU) and EPO security personnel, who allegedly set upon them. According to their testimony, as CS gas was fired, some villagers darted into the bush while others were assaulted.
Interviewed in January, shaded by a thatched hut in a village surrounded by a rolling palm oil plantation stretching as far the eye could see, Marcus, a tall, sparely-built father of seven, said he was bundled into the back of a police vehicle, where he was slapped, beaten and his clothes were torn. “They kept saying, ‘You’re against development’,” he said.
With 16 others, he was arrested and driven to Buchanan, where they were later released without charge by the government’s County Attorney, who found there were no grounds for their detention. Grand Bassa’s police commander has denied that his officers attacked the villagers, and EPO says its investigations showed that “no such actions were taken”.
Now, with the promise that no more land will be taken, the mood in Grand Bassa is one of elation. Whatever motivated the president’s decision – a political calculation driven by upcoming Senatorial elections, pressure from local and international NGOs, or maybe even the strength of the villagers’ case - any reversal of her position in a land where four fifths of the rural population endure hunger and malnutrition would mean trouble.
In November, the U.N.’s Panel of Experts on Liberia concluded that “large-scale palm oil development continues to pose significant challenges to peace and security in rural areas.” It’s a view echoed in the villages around EPO’s plantation.
“This is where we get our food, our medicine, our entire livelihood This is where we grow rice, cassava, plantains, pepper, yams - where our old peoples’ graves are. If EPO take more land there will likely be another war,” said Marcus, his eyes blazing.