Still talking …
I’m leaving Liberia feeling pretty wretched. When I was last here, two years ago, as part of the work that we were doing on the HCS Study, I spent the best part of three days meeting politicians and key stakeholders in Monrovia. It seemed obvious at that time that a deal could be done quickly, to strike the right balance between promoting sustainable economic development and protecting Liberia’s forests.

Two years on, and as you’ll have seen, next to no progress has been made. The ‘collective leadership deficit’ is staggering if you take stock of the last decade when discussions first started between the government and the three big oil palm companies – Sime Darby, Golden Veroleum Liberia (part of Golden Agri Resources) and EPO (part of KLK).

The ‘big picture’ was crystal clear even then: if the three companies, through their own plantations, plus supported outgrowers’ schemes, plus ‘community palm oil’ initiatives of different kinds, could get oil palm in the ground on around 120,000 ha, that would be enough to justify investment not just in more mills, but in a refinery.

That may not sound much to people who know little about either Liberia or the oil palm industry, but a refinery represents the single most important value-adding opportunity for the economy for the foreseeable future. It will allow high-value refined products (not just the raw oil) to be exported to Europe, create tens of thousands of jobs, and secure significant and sustainable prosperity for the next few decades. Just 120,000 ha!

The area in Liberia under forest cover is around 4 million ha, most of which are at risk precisely because people have no choice but to carry on with their customary ‘slash and burn’ farming or charcoal burning. Sure enough, that’s still quite a lot of young regenerating forest that would have to be felled on those 120,000 ha. Which would inevitably entail some damage to Liberia’s biodiversity. And quite a lot of CO2 in the atmosphere.

Moreover, minimising that damage these days would mean having to put more trust in the companies, which is really difficult for NGOs, as those companies didn’t exactly cover themselves in glory in those early days, with some incredibly clumsy interventions on what they had assumed was ‘unencumbered land’. Trust is now worryingly elusive.

But look at things now. The government still desperately wants this kind of international development. All the communities most closely involved want it. The three companies obviously want it but, critically, want to do it in the right kind of way. Supportive governments (like Norway) want it, even if the Tropical Forest Alliance (that Norway helped set up) has proved itself to be something of a thumb-sucking waste of time.

Potential funders like IDH (backed by the Dutch government) theoretically want it, just so long as they can avoid any of the risks involved. And some international NGOs (including Conservation International, Forest People’s Programme and the RSPB) are now in there making serious efforts to get stuff moving.

But what of the rest of the international NGO community? Well, you may be interested to know that the HCS Approach Steering Group has just produced a new (and actually rather impressive) Toolkit 2.0 – ‘a global methodology for putting No Deforestation into practice’. It still has a special Working Group trying to come up with some ideas about what to do about very poor, densely-forested countries, such as Liberia. Expect more meetings, more guidance, more politically correct ‘consensus’ – from which the communities of Falie and Senjeh will of course be completely excluded.

As a representative of the ‘Western NGO community’, I’m deeply ashamed for myself and for my colleagues. As I board my plane back to the UK, I leave behind tens of thousands of Liberian citizens in the communities we visited. Their testimony has moved me, deeply; the visual impact of the conditions that they’re living in has moved me, deeply. The rage I feel at our collective failure has still not gone away.

So what could we, dear NGO colleagues, have done better? Well, we could have acknowledged that getting things right in very poor, densely-forested countries is always going to be complicated and messy, and that the perfect is always the enemy of the good.

We could have got ourselves out to Liberia much earlier on, perhaps as soon as the moratorium on further development had been announced, putting on the ‘Yes to Development’ t-shirts worn so hopefully by the citizens of Falie in the Zodua Clan. And we could have worked together with the government, with the companies, and with the communities themselves, with the blessing of the Norwegian and Dutch governments, to identify the 120,000 ha that could be developed with the least possible damage to Liberia’s forest.

In other words, we could have helped in a small but significant way to get them on that path to a new palm oil refinery. But we did not. We sat and we talked. True enough, we did some really good stuff to stop the oil palm companies riding roughshod over people’s human rights and valuable forest. But then we talked some more, even as children went uneducated, and children died.

And just as much of Liberia’s forest has been damaged or destroyed during that time anyway, primarily because we’ve given none of those communities a compelling reason to help protect it. It’s not too late. But I suspect we’re still too stuck in our arrogant ways to make that possible.

Jonathon Porritt
Founder Director
Forum for the Future

This is an edited version of the article.


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