Impressive CSO activity
All the NGOs operating in Liberia are very well aware of these dilemmas on the ground, including SDI, the local chapter of Friends of the Earth International, and Green Advocates. Both have been consistently and virulently critical of the oil palm industry, especially in the early days, when a lot of bad mistakes were being made.

We met with SDI before we left Monrovia. As a former Director of Friends of the Earth in the UK, I warmed to SDI’s story of doing its best to help protect Liberia’s natural resources, and its forests in particular. For that, inevitably, they need a lot of international support, and that comes most easily if they keep putting the boot into the palm oil companies. They know this isn’t necessarily ‘fair’, but it keeps bringing in the money.

But for me, it was infinitely more valuable meeting with the three Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) that work on the ground with communities in Zodua and Senjeh, as well as with the 17 so-called ‘Project Affected Communities’ in the first areas that were planted up before Ebola and the moratorium.

By any standards, these CSOs are impressive. Their entire existence is geared to helping the communities themselves – the Foundation to Protect People’s Dignity working with the Senjeh Land Committee; the Whistleblowers’ Union with the 17 Project Affected Communities; and Communities Organised Against Hunger working with the Zodua Clan.

Their leaders are outspoken but always constructive, telling it to the SDPL team just as they see it, and always seeking solutions and more corporate social responsibility support for their communities. They themselves receive no money from SDPL. But, above all, they want to see the development resume: they fervently believe that that’s the only way to secure real economic uplift for their people, at the same time as protecting the forests.

We also had an exceptional session with leaders of the 17 Project Affected Communities, and quickly discovered that there are still plenty of spiky issues that have to be resolved. The most controversial relates to an ongoing dispute about the amount of compensation paid to the Project Affected Communities when Sime Darby first arrived in the country – and was much less attuned to the sensitivities of dealing with local communities than it is today.

Their case is passionately advocated by Oscar Dolo, head of the Whistleblowers’ Union, who wants to see justice done for more than 1,400 subsistence farmers (all of whom claim to have been paid less than they should have been) on a case-by-case basis. A huge inquiry is under way, with the full and active support of SDPL.

The original concession agreement between the government and Sime Darby promised the company ‘unencumbered access’ as far as its 220,000 ha were concerned. Nothing could have been further from the reality that awaited on the ground, where every community within the concession has historical ‘customary rights’ over different areas, often overlapping and, more often than not, undocumented. A lot of the early problems can be traced back to this major misunderstanding.

Listening to the articulate, fired-up CSOs, I began to appreciate in a rather different way just how critical the different and often overlapping processes developed through the RSPO and other initiatives really are – FPIC; participatory mapping; Environmental and Social Impact Assessments; High Conservation Value assessments; HCS analysis, and so on.

It’s hard to imagine any other commodity crop having to go through an equivalently rigorous process before being able to get its boots on the ground. And Liberia urgently needs those boots on the ground.

There’s little if any Foreign Direct Investment coming into the country. According to the World Bank, about 70% of the citizens live below the poverty line of US$1.90 a day, while the level of male unemployment stands at 70-80%. The population of about 4.5 million is growing fast, with an average fertility rate of 4.6 children per woman. Only 60% of the children complete primary education, with a very low 37% going on to secondary education.

A group of Zodua women wearing their t-shirts with the motto ‘Yes to Development’

All that counts for little when your primary concern (if not your exclusive concern) is stopping trees being cut down, even if those trees are growing on land that has been intensively farmed (for rubber, in the case of Senjeh) at some stage in the recent past.

I asked Boima Sando, the guiding light behind the Foundation to Protect People’s Dignity, what message he would want to send to the international NGOs. He replied: “It’s difficult. This HCS thing is pretty strange for us. So just tell them what’s going on here. And tell them too that there’s going to be an uprising if we can’t find a solution to this moratorium. Do they really want people here to go on living without any prospect of proper jobs or decent living conditions?”

Strong stuff, but definitely not meant in any inflammatory way. After 500 ha of oil palm were burnt to the ground in April last year, everybody’s top priority is to resolve things as amicably as possible. This year, not one oil palm has been lost.



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