The sign at the entrance to the palm oil plantation in Grand Bassa has faded thanks to Liberia’s relentless cycle of scorching sun and torrential rain. Even so, it’s possible to make out the phrase: “Your community is rich: Let’s have a fair share.”
Several miles farther on, past endless rows of carefully cultivated palm trees, it’s a slogan that bears little relation to reality. Gbenee Town is a small huddle of huts surrounded by a plantation more than six times the size of London’s Richmond Park.
The townspeople say that the benefits of the plantation’s expansion have passed them by and they have been duped by a government that took the land they were living off and gave it to foreign investors.
“The level we’re living here is very deplorable,” says G Hilary Gbah, one of the town’s elders. “We are starving to death.”
Gbah, 54, remembers the arrival in 2012 of Equatorial Palm Oil, the London-headquartered company that owns the plantation. “We embraced the company because we wanted development,” he says, remembering the promises of schools and clinics if local people gave up land.
“We were expecting education for our children, employment, healthcare.”
He still has a dog-eared list distributed by Liberia’s government. It promised huge rewards if farmers agreed to the clearance of their land, at fixed amounts per plant for crops such as rubber and cassava. “They came and encouraged us … that if we gave them the land then they were going to develop it, all the crops that we had on the land they were going to pay good prices.”
Gbah – and many others – jumped at the chance. But when the time came for payment EPO handed over less than 10% of what they were expecting.
People talk of receiving $100 or less for the clearance of crops that could have sustained them for life. The clinics and schools never materialised. One local expert on community compensation, who asked not to be named, said the prices – promised by the government rather than the company – were always wildly unrealistic.
But those in nearby communities such as Blayah Town say they had no reason to doubt what they had been told. “They only fooled us and took our land,” says Gbah.
Now farmers who once grew their own crops rely on charity or the offer of work from friends in neighbouring towns.
The palm oil industry, meanwhile, is thriving. Oil milled from palm fruit is something of a miracle product that has become indispensable to billions of consumers around the world, spawning $60bn industry that continues to grow.
Palm oil is found in everything from chocolate to bread, cereal and shampoo. It keeps crisps crispy and stops ice-cream from melting. There is a global process designed to promote ethics in the industry – the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) – but it has limited power to effect change.
Around the world palm oil continues to play a significant role in deforestation, threatening wildlife and fuelling the climate crisis. In rural Liberia, one of the world’s poorest countries, the immediate concern is the impact that the industry’s appetite for land is having on the people who live here.
For many people in Gbenee and nearby towns, land is the only thing of value that they have. Those who have given up their land, even after compensation offers were drastically reduced, say they did so for one reason alone: fear.
In communities from Blayah Town to Qwarkpojlian and Paye Town, elders and women’s representatives recount a similar story.
When EPO arrived in 2012 to survey the land it had been awarded by the government, local people concerned that they had not been consulted gathered to protest. The company’s representatives were accompanied by an armed police unit, a terrifying sight in a country still recovering from civil wars that left hundreds of thousands dead.
“Since the war finished in Liberia, that was the first day to see arms,” said Garamondeh Banwun. “We were afraid.” Banwun, like many people here, reports beatings handed out by police, some of whom – it is claimed – rode in EPO vehicles.
The company is keen to expand further in Grand Bassa but communities that were once open to development no longer trust the process to improve their lives. The alleged role of Liberia’s underesourced state in this dynamic is crucial.
While neighbouring Ivory Coast’s economy is the fifth fastest growing in the world, Liberia’s is forecast to shrink by 1.4% this year. The government’s annual budget is a paltry $570m. Former footballer George Weah swept to the presidency in 2017 but two years later optimism has given way to disillusionment among many of his supporters. Government employees are going without pay for up to four months at a time.