Liberia: River Cess community rejecting oil palm plantation
By Lennart Dodoo
KahnKaye Chiefdom, River Cess County – Esther Beegbon, 58, has just completed a three-hour walk to Don Town from Bannie Town, where she and other residents of Kahnkaye Chiefdom in Nyorwein District selected new chiefs to lead a rejection of Equatorial Palm Oil (EPO) from expanding its plantation on their land. Not tired at all, Beegbon celebrates with other residents in dances and choruses.
“We have a new Paramount Chief and new Clan Chiefs,” says the mother of six through an interpreter. “They have been guiding the chiefdom before. “We will have meeting consistently to have our people educated on the importance of maintaining the ownership of our land,” she adds.
The replaced chiefs are accused of accepting bribe from EPO and collaborating with the company against the wishes of the community. Both the replaced chiefs and EPO deny the accusation.
“They went and took bribe from the company,” charges Eddie Gbarto, the new Clan Chief of Kahnweh (one of the two clans that make up the chiefdom). “When the elders heard that, they called them for a meeting but they refused to go there,” he explains. “So the citizens decided to remove them.”
Replaced Paramount Chief of the chiefdom David Vanciah refutes the allegation. “No, [I did not take money from EPO],” he says. Those who refused for EPO to come to this community and I are on the same side.”
Obel Dahn, the replaced Clan Chief of Kayah (the other of the two clans) claims that EPO tried to bribe him when he accompanied members of the consented towns but he refused. “When we went to the company, they asked me to sign but I did not sign,” he says.
Bribing communities to get their consent for concession is a violation of the principle of free, prior and informed consent (FPIC), one of the key principles of the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). EPO is a member-company of the RSPO and risks revocation of its membership with global oil palm regulatory body if the allegation is true.
“Bribery…has the potential to undermine the peace of the community and that does not follow the FPIC process,” affirms James Otto of Sustainable Development Institute (SDI). Otto adds that bribery as well “undermines the appropriate land acquisition process and can lead to long term conflict between clans that make up the chiefdom.” He discloses the matter has been documented its Timby platform. Timby aids journalists and campaigners investigate and report on land grabbing, climate change and corruption, among other issues.
EPO’s Country Head Sashi Numbiar says it has not bribed anybody in Kahnkaye. “Those who want us are those we go to,” he says.
FPIC is a right that belongs to a whole community. It means that communities have a right to fully participate in decision-making processes that might affect the lands, forest and resources that customarily own, live on and use. It doesn’t matter whether the communities have deeds or not. FPIC means communities have the right to decide their own future, not to have their future decided by the government, a company or anyone else.
A new law—the Land Rights Act—currently before the Legislature recognizes customary ownership of land, and strengthens rural communities’ consent right.
In 2008 EPO signed three concessions with Liberia for 50 years, totaling 169,000 hectares between Grand Bassa and Sinoe. It is listed on the Alternative Investment Market (AIM) of the London Stock and is a subsidiary of Kuala Lumpur Kepong Berhad (KLK), one of the largest oil palm companies in the world.
EPO first began engagement in Kahnkaye in 2017. So far, the company has had some success in Kayah, where 26 of 36 towns have consented. But no town in Kahnweh has not consented, and even Kayah is divided.
Confusion broke out at a meeting between consented towns in Kayah and EPO in October 2017, causing officials of the company to flee. Later that month, the consented Kayah towns lodged a complaint to then Superintendent of River Cess Matthew Z. Daniels.
“Our complaint is that non-consented communities disrupted the clan meeting on the [17th day of October 2017] …which did not go down well with [the] consented community,” the complaint letter read. “Report by Mr. Murphy Vanciah (son of the replaced Paramount Chief) to EPO management that the citizens of Kayah have no interest in the proposed project is not with the consensus of the Kayah citizens,” it added, with the names of all 26 consented towns attached.
The rift has not been amicably resolved and tension continues to brew, however. The replaced chiefs are now challenging their ousting with county authorities. They say the process to remove them lacks legitimacy.
Otto says there is a need for EPO to further engage KahnKaye to ensure that issues, including livelihood, are addressed in a timely and adequate manner. “SDI is going to…conduct training on UN Business and Human Rights, facilitate training on land valuation and negotiation, and conduct training on RSPO principles and criteria,” he says.
EPO concedes it needs to renegotiate with the chiefdom.
“We have to do more engagement,” reveals Numbiar, expressing shock that the chiefdom was divided over his company. “If a town is divided, we don’t want to go and divide it further.”
This approach of the EPA is in stark contrast to the company’s engagement with Jogbahn Clan next door in Grand Bassa County. In 2013 several residents of that community were injured in a riot after the company attempted to expand on their land without their consent. Then President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf intervened to resolve the matter months later. Thereafter Jogbahn began a sustained process, with assistance from SDI, to guarantee their customary land right. GPS mapping was done and demarcation of boundaries set between EPO concession area and Jogbahn.
Beegbon and other residents of non-consented towns in Kahnkaye say they are accustomed to farming and want to hand that tradition down to their children like it was to them.
“Land is life,” she remarks. “So long I am on the land I have to maintain it until my children grow up. When our children group up and have nowhere to live, they will say ‘Our people don’t care about us. They sold our land and here are we today, we have nowhere to stay.’”
Numbiar says Beegbon and other residents are afraid due to the way concessions treated other communities in the past.
“We are not using all of the land. A place will be there for them to farm, if the concession holds. We have to respect the laws and regulations of the country, and we want to develop sustainably. That is our main idea here. We can’t force anybody.”
This story was produced by James Harding Giahyue in collaboration with the Sustainable Development Institute (SDI) as part of a project to promote community land right and sustainable forest management. Funding for this project is provided by the Waterloo Foundation through Forest Peoples’ Programme.