Indigenous activist Massa Packer Turay accuses Liberian government of neglect
MONROVIA – “The Government of Liberia has failed to dialogue with us in finding a way forward. Since Sime Darby left, the new company, Mano and the government have failed to talk to us. Mano has even refused to pay the land rental fees,” declared Massa Packer Turay, who has been in the vanguard championing community and women’s rights to land and properties.
The uncertain conditions left behind by Sime Darby and the apparent failure of the government to intervene has revived Massa’s activism instinct. “We will continue to fight for our rights”. Massa vowed a defiant tone when speaking about the communities affected by the Malaysian oil palm giant, Sime Darby and its successor, Mano Oil Palm.
An indigenous of Johnson Town, Garwula District in Grand Cape Mount County, Massa’s husband works for the Company, but she remains a selfless champion of community rights. Her passion for advocacy is second to none among equals, not even her husband has been able to talk her out of it.
“In our communities here, when a woman is not educated, she has no rights to land. When it comes to decision-making, the women are in the kitchen while the men are sitting on the table discussing. But I said once I have been trained by the Natural Resource Women Platform (NRWP), I will try my best to fight for our rights and the communities…” she vowed.
She credits her exposure to the NRWP, a partner of Green Advocates International (GAI), who has been training community women about their rights to land and property. “I am proud of myself that I can stand up and talk about the rights of my people.” The NRWP and GAI are both affiliates of the MRU-CSO Platform.
When she looks back and sees that jobs, hand pumps, latrines and schools were being provided for the communities, she feels celebrated for what she and others have been able to achieve through advocacy. But Massa knows very well that livelihood is a life-long struggle – so the “struggle is not over.”
She co-chairs the Monobalah Land Rights Community Group in Teh, Garwula District in Grand Cape Mount County and remains an outspoken member of the Project Affected Communities (PAC). Her growing expertise in women rights issues has made her an influential voice in the community and she intends to stay engaged in the face of what she sees as recurring neglect by the government.
The Concession Agreement
In 2009, the Liberian government granted a 63-year concession to the Malaysian Company, with a total land area of 311,187 hectares in the counties of Bomi, Cape Mount and Gbarpolu in Western Liberia and Bong in Central Liberia. 220,000 hectares of the amount is stipulated for the planting of oil palm.
Unsurprisingly, the government brokered the deal without the free, prior and informed consent of the indigenous inhabitants. Hence, the Company’s operations were greeted with stiff resistance and crippling protests.
Perhaps the government thought the money it placed in the agreement for community development was enough to quiet the people, but that did not help because the beard and butter (livelihood) issues were not factored, which prompted Massa, a mother of four to join advocacy.
For every hectare developed, the Company is to deposit $5.00 into a community development fund. The fund is administered by a management team of not more than ten, including representatives of the affected communities, the government and the plantation itself, according to the legal papers.
Complaint to the RSPO
The $5.00 rental fees must have made little sense to the people thrown out of their farmlands. There were incessant protests by people like Massa. The protests movement grew and went beyond the ambit of the plantation. The PAC sought the guidance and support of human rights groups to strengthen their position.
Luckily, Green Advocates International (GAI) was in solidarity. The Forest People Program also took interest. By this time, Sime Darby would have to rethink. A formal complaint was filed against the Company with the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), an international accountability mechanism. Sime Darby was accused among other things, of the destruction of sacred sites, crops, pollution of drinking water sources and forceful displacement without adequate compensation.
The complaint of October 4, 2011, said: “We have gathered evidence and are prepared to show you places where crops were destroyed, shrines were desecrated, villages uprooted and graves sites besmirched…”
The Company and the government appeared to have been shocked by the length the people went. But it is safe to say that the people themselves must have been amazed at the ease with which they managed to navigate their way through the RSPO process.
In its reply to the Gorbla Clan Chief of Bomi County, Sakamon Samukai, and Head of the Traditional Council, of Grand Cape Mount, Sekou Balloe, the RSPO informed the complainants that Sime Darby had acknowledged receipt of their grievances and expressed commitment to cease operations immediately in the sites.
Technical Director, Salahudin Yaacob was upbeat when he wrote on 14 October 2021, that an amicable resolution was in sight. “It would seem now that the Company is open for bilateral discussions amongst affected parties. From the RSPO Secretariat perspective, this is indeed a good step forward towards discovering the detail of the issues and hence moving towards an amicable solution plan”.
Amid the apparent admission of guilt, (as demonstrated by the willingness of the investor to talk) the Government was left red-faced for its failure to protect the rights of its own people. Ideally, the government should be pushing the interest of its citizens, but the people had to take matters into their own hands.
Former President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf tried to do some face-saving, having overlooked the legitimate grievances of the people. She and some officials ran to the plantation to act as though they were concerned, but also to vent their anger.
She sounded apologetic, conceding that errors were made in surrendering all the customary lands of the indigenous peoples without consulting them. But she also blasted, insinuating that they were trying to undermine her government. “When your government signs any paper…, the communities can’t change it…” Mrs. Sirleaf said.
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She constituted inter-ministerial committees to reconcile the communities to the Company. But Massa believes the committees were intended to destabilize the solidarity among the affected communities, not to right the wrong. So, Massa and her colleagues were alert, as “attempts by the Government to coerce the communities to withdraw their complaint and throw a monkey wrench into the process failed.”
The protest letter was already biting. Sime Darby was forced to sit with the people to talk about some of the immediate livelihood needs – credit of Massa and others.
The company agreed to provide one permanent employment for each of the 579 affected households, in the 17 communities, with the understanding that the proceeds are shared among the occupants of the house. This seemed like a brilliant idea as it mitigated some of the food insecurity caused by the removal of the people from their farmlands.
Despite the belated efforts to reduce the tension and restore some quietude on the farm, Sime Darby would eventually ‘throw in the towel. The Company reported that it was able to cultivate and plant just over 10,300 hectares of the total land area due to what it called “various operating challenges.”
The Agreement states that the Company would develop 120,000 hectares in the first eleven years, and then the whole concession space by 2030. The Company also promised to provide 35,000 jobs, but it lasted for only ten years and operated only in Bomi and Cape Mount.
Change of Ownership
Negotiations to cash-in on the plantation started in 2019. By 2020, the Company announced the sale of its entire 100% equity interest in Sime Darby Plantation (Liberia) Inc. (SDPL) to Mano Palm Oil Industries Limited (MPOI), a Liberian owned company.
However, Massa and others have been alarmed that there was complete disregard for the dispossessed communities, as the sale was concluded with a number of unresolved issues, including the commitments made by Sime Darby to the communities.
“Our land, where we can get our livelihoods to benefit our children, has been taken away by the company,” Massa lamented. Adding: “People appear to be giving up, but if the doubts over the status of the new company are not sufficiently clarified, there would be more agitations on the plantation.”
Mano is accused of being preoccupied with only the assets, while foot-dragging on the liabilities of Sime Darby. According to Massa, the first issue the new company has provoked on the farm, which she described as the biggest, is the reduction in the monthly salaries of household workers.
Until its departure, Sime Darby reportedly paid each household laborer about $5.50 per day, which included four bags of 25kg rice and medication. Of the total household benefits, the house owner reportedly got two bags and $30.00, while the balance went to the person who provided the labor. But that amount has since been reduced to unspecified amounts by the new Company.
Massa said the leadership of the PAC confronted the Management, but the problem remains. She also claims that jobs intended for the PAC were given to people living outside of the affected communities.
“Before the outbreak of the COVID-19, the PAC called on the government of President George Weah to intervene, but nothing has happened since,” she added. The biggest challenge for Massa and other activists is the current division in the PAC’s leadership. Some members have apparently been compromised, which is characteristic of multinational companies to divide and conquer.
MANO Affirms Commitment to PAC
Commenting on some of the claims made by Massa, Mano head of Corporate Communications, Adama Seh, affirmed that while it is true that Mano inherited some liabilities, it had suspended regular engagement with the affected communities due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Adama said plans are underway to shortly resume dialogues with the 17 Project Affected Communities.
On the management’s inability to settle liabilities and payment of surface rental, Mr. Seh explained in an interview with the MRU-CSO Platform that “Even though under the agreement, the Government of Liberia is to set up a community management team, payment of surface rental and other fees to the affected communities are being done in consultation with the Community Development Fund Committee.”
He added that as part of the current arrangement to ensure improved mutual relationship, Sinjeh Land Committee has been transformed into a multi-stakeholder platform to be used by the new management to forge partnership with the affected communities. He clarified that “609 jobs for the communities are intact…”
The announcement of the 609 jobs by the Company means there have been additional 30 jobs from the initial 579, to which PAC officials described as arbitrary. It is assumed that the increment accounts for the reduction in the monthly benefits of the households.
The Concession Bureau
The government agency responsible for monitoring and evaluating concession compliance is the National Bureau of Concession (NBC). The Director of Sectorial Planning, Mr. Wilmot Yarsiah, was reached to comment on the lingering situation.
Mr. Yarsiah appeared to shift the blame on central government when he complained: “due to low budgetary allotment, the NBC has not been able to conduct a full monitoring and evaluation exercise of Mano Plantation since it took over from the Sime Darby.”
Director Yarsiah claimed that the NBC has had some engagements with the Company and the PAC, but fell short of saying when said engagement took place. “These engagements have led to the resolution of existing issues between the PAC and the Company. Plans are underway to conduct a full inter-ministerial Compliance Monitoring and Evaluation of the Company’s operation.”
Refering to the payment of the Community Development Fund, Director Yarsiah disclosed that the NBC along with the requisite ministries and agencies are collaborating to ensure that proper systems and mechanisms are put in place, to ensure that this money is paid, appropriated and managed in a way that the communities will benefit.