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At a rubber plantation in Liberia, history repeats in a fight over land

Tanoh Jallah, a resident of one of the towns in the IFC complaint, said all the good farmland was taken by Salala. (Photo: Ashoka Mukpo/Mongabay)
Mongabay | 17 January 2023

At a rubber plantation in Liberia, history repeats in a fight over land
 
by Ashoka Mukpo 

In a small room at a safe house owned by a human rights group in rural Liberia, away from prying eyes and passing ears, Decontee explains why she quit her job on the Salala plantation. It was hard work, setting out at 5:30 in the morning every day to trek through the rows of tall rubber trees, stopping at each one to collect milky sap that oozed from their trunks into small plastic cups. But her job with the Salala Rubber Corporation paid — not much, just $15 a month, but enough to feed her two young children and elderly father.
 
Some days, instead of carrying her full bucket of latex the long way back to the weighing area at the end of her shift, she’d take a short cut by swimming across a river that cut through the plantation. It was scary; in the rainy season the current was fast and the water deep, but it was better than being late for the day’s rubber weigh-in.
 
One payday, her supervisor made a proposal. If she wanted, he said, he could give her a raise, adding an extra $5 a month onto her salary. But there was a catch. She had to visit the “green building” with him first.
 
Decontee and all the other women working at Salala knew exactly what the “green building” was. It was a term for the quiet parts of the plantation where managers could have sex with them without being caught. Frightened but also angry, she said no. (To protect her identity, Mongabay is not using Decontee’s real name).
 
“I said to [him] that I would rather go sit and suffer with my pa instead of sleeping with you to add five dollars to my salary,” she told Mongabay. Because of that he went against me totally.”
 
Decontee’s supervisor didn’t take the rejection well. After her refusal, he began treating her coldly at work, and when it was time to dole out her pay he often gave her less than she was owed. Sometimes he just didn’t pay her at all. Growing increasingly desperate, she said she brought what was happening to a senior manager at Salala.
 
“I got vexed and reported to the overall boss in management about him wanting to sleep with me, but he said he had nothing to say about it. He told me to take the complaint to the law,” she said.
 
It wasn’t realistic or helpful advice. She’d be going up against a company manager in a district where Salala was a powerful force, and she worried that she’d become the subject of town gossip in the process. More importantly, she didn’t have the money to win in a notoriously unfair legal system. So instead, she quit.
 
“It’s a slavery job, and when it’s time to pay me, you [harass me]? I decided to turn the tub over and said I didn’t want to go to work again. Up to now I have still not received my money,” she said.
 

Liberian human rights groups say Decontee’s story isn’t unusual at Salala’s plantation, a 4,577-hectare (11,310-acre) rubber concession in the wooded hills of Margibi and Bong counties, about a two-hour drive northeast from the capital city, Monrovia. Salala is owned by Socfin, a Belgian and French agribusiness giant with a long history of conflicts on its plantations in West Africa.
 
Sexual harassment of its workers isn’t the only charge that’s been leveled against Socfin here in Liberia: in 2019, 22 communities filed a complaint against Salala with the International Finance Corporation, the private sector arm of the World Bank, alleging that it took over their land without their consent, dumped pesticides into their drinking water, and used local police to harass and intimidate anyone who spoke out.
 
In the 61-page complaint, those communities said that Salala used a $10 million loan from the IFC, one of the world’s biggest development banks, to turn the forests where they’d farmed and held sacred rituals into a massive rubber plantation, violating the bank’s own rules on Indigenous rights in the process.
 
Socfin has denied the allegations, telling Mongabay in an email that it followed Liberian law when it expanded the plantation after taking control of it in 2008.
 
The complaint against Salala is currently being investigated by the IFC’s internal watchdog, called the “compliance advisor ombudsman.” The CAO was created in 1999 in the wake of a series of conflicts at development bank-financed projects across the world. It reports to the board of the IFC and World Bank, and is often described as one of the strongest accountability tools available to communities who say their rights have been violated by those projects. If a company that received a loan from the IFC, which channels donor funds to private enterprises in low-income countries, is accused of having run afoul of the bank’s environmental and human rights “performance standards,” the CAO can push for mediation or carry out an independent investigation.
 
At Salala’s plantation here in Liberia, though, patience is wearing thin with the CAO, as its investigation stretches into a third year without resolution. In towns that submitted the complaint, residents told Mongabay they were growing cynical about the process, and said they were tired of begging for help from the IFC and other outsiders.
 
“We’ve been talking about this thing for so long, and I can’t give up, but it’s hurting me,” said Queta George, who chairs Dokai-ta, one of the communities that filed the complaint. “I’ve explained this so many times.”
 
Nearly 25 years after the CAO’s creation, the fight between Socfin and communities living in the shadow of its plantation here raises a pointed question: if this is the best that development banks have to offer those who blow the whistle on their projects, how low is the bar?
 
Where the bodies are buried
 
On a sweltering day during last year’s dry season, Radiatu Kahnplaye drove through the Salala plantation in a slightly worn Toyota 4Runner, its axles creaking on the bumpy backcountry roads as it flew past row after row of neatly arranged rubber trees.
 
Kahnplaye is a program officer with the Natural Resource Women’s Platform (NRWP), a close partner of one of Liberia’s most well-known environmental groups, Green Advocates. Both are part of a network of Liberian civil society NGOs that support communities embroiled in conflicts with foreign investors.
 
Kahnplaye and her colleagues have been working with women’s groups at mines and plantations like Salala’s in Liberia for years, and were instrumental in putting together the IFC complaint. As they passed through the plantation gates, they grew tense, shooting glances through the rear window to check if the car was being followed by company security.
 
“For me, I see this not as an investment, but rather a way to extract the natural resources that these communities have, to destroy the ecosystem they’ve enjoyed over the years and just bring poverty,” she said, frowning at the sea of rubber trees outside her window.
 
Socfin, Salala’s owner, was founded in 1909 by Adrien Hallet, an agroeconomist who cut his teeth developing plantations in what was then the Belgian Congo, a notoriously brutal colonial frontier for extractive agriculture. According to the Swiss human rights organization Bread For All, today Socfin’s African subsidiary owns the rights to nearly 150,000 hectares (370,000 acres) of rubber and oil palm plantations in West and Central Africa. Its Liberian holdings alone produce around 20,000 metric tons of rubber per year, the bulk of which is shipped to Europe for use in the manufacture of tires and other products.
 
During Liberia’s civil war in the late 1990s, Socfin took over majority ownership of Salala from the Weala Rubber Company, a Dutch-German enterprise that in 1959 inked a deal with the Liberian government for 40,000 hectares (100,000 acres) of what was then a remote, dense rainforest. Back then, Liberia was a one-party state that brooked little dissent, and people here say that Weala’s concession was developed by burning villages and forcing their residents to flee to make room for what eventually became the Salala plantation.
 
“The locals say they’ve lived on this land for much longer than 70 years, and that their forefathers and ancestors never ceded it,” said Alfred Brownell, the founder of Green Advocates and a Goldman Environmental Prize winner who himself fled Liberia in 2017. “The government didn’t afford them due process, and they’re demanding their rights be legitimized and protected.”
 
Not long after Liberia’s civil war ended, in 2008 Socfin became the sole owner of Salala. The IFC thought the company could contribute to Liberia’s economic recovery after the catastrophic 13-year-long war. So it gave Salala $10 million to clean up and expand its plantation.
 
But in post-war Liberia, land ownership was murky territory. Few communities held formal title to land they considered to be theirs despite decades, and in some cases centuries, of living, farming, and worshipping on it. On paper, the government owned most of the land in the country, which meant people living in towns inside Salala’s concession had next to no legal recourse once the bulldozers showed up.
 
One of those towns was Jorkporlorsue. Back in 1961, its original location was destroyed during one of Salala’s earlier expansions. After Socfin took partial ownership of Salala, its residents say, much of the land they’d been farming was taken over in a new round of clearing and planting. Today, only a thin band of forest separates the town from the vast 4,577-hectare expanse of the plantation.
 
Walking through the military-straight formations of rubber trees outside Jorkporlorsue, Samuel Binda, one of the town’s elders, pointed to the stump of an ironwood tree that he said once marked the center of the old town before it was flattened. Some of the people in the town, he said, had never seen a car before the company’s bulldozers showed up one day.
 
“The town was established in 1942. When the company came, the old people were afraid of motorcars,” he said. “They saw the yellow machines coming — at that time there were so many forests here — and they said, since this kind of thing has never happened before, let’s [hide in] the bush where we make our farm.”
 
Binda’s grandparents and their neighbors fled deeper into the forest, to areas where they grew cassava and other crops. There, they rebuilt their town, which is now the current version of Jorkporlorsue. But in 2002, while war was raging not far away from the plantation, Salala’s workers showed up to carry out another expansion onto land surrounding the town.
 
This time, said Binda, they plowed over a forested site where his grandparents were buried. Under the shade of the rubber trees that were planted afterward, a few small mounds are still just barely visible in the leafy undergrowth, but there are no gravestones to mark them. There’s no point, Binda said; Salala’s security force has a tense relationship with communities in the plantation, and they don’t like trespassers. If they catch him here, he said, they’ll accuse him of trying to steal latex.
 
“I feel bad,” he said, standing next to one of the trees, white sap trickling into a small plastic cup at its base. “Sometimes when we come here to look for something to decorate the grave with, if they see you in the bush they will arrest you. They ask if we came to steal company property or what. So we just forgot about this gravesite.”
 
According to Bread for All, Jorkpolorsue is one of 15 towns that had some or most of their land cleared by Salala since 1997. In 10 of these towns, the bulldozers arrived the same year the IFC grant was approved. Villagers say they lost cropland where they used to grow food, along with sacred forest groves where they carried out traditional rituals.
 
In an email to Mongabay, Socfin said the expansion was carried out in accordance with Liberian law.
 
“The Salala Rubber Corporation has always respected its contractual engagement with the Government of Liberia (GOL), applicable laws and due diligence process,” the company said. “All land claims are dealt according to the guidelines set up by the GOL and are communicated to the land commissioner and all the sacred sites and cemeteries inside the concession have been mapped and preserved.”
 
Critics of Salala see a different picture, one where the law has been stacked against rural communities like these throughout a long history of exploitation, greed and formalized theft.
 
“With a lot of these plantations in particular, you can really see how closely it’s linked to colonialism,” said Silva Lieberherr, who co-authored Bread for All’s 2019 report on Socfin’s Liberian operations. “It’s still the same companies and basically the same money. The practices are shockingly similar. And I think for the people there, it’s very obvious.”
 
The IFC complaint isn’t Socfin’s only headache on the continent. In virtually all of its West and Central African plantations, from Sierra Leone to Cameroon to Nigeria, communities have made similar accusations. In each, there is a familiar story: allegations of land grabbing and intimidation of community activists, countered by arguments made by the company’s supporters that its investments have brought employment, roads and “development” to impoverished areas.
 
Not everyone here is opposed to Salala’s presence. Jobs are scarce in Liberia, and its workers have attended and disrupted strategy meetings held between communities and environmental advocates. After the conflict at Salala began to heat up, new community groups sprung up to denounce Green Advocates and the NRWP. Salala uses them to claim it has broad support from locals in the region.
 
Kahnplaye said she believes those groups are being backed by local government officials who are working to secure Socfin’s investment, and that they don’t represent most people’s views.
 
“The narrative they picture to the world is quite different from what’s on the ground,” she said. “You’ll have a community with 500 people and 10 will be in favor of the company.”
 
Kahnplaye’s figures might be anecdotal, but traveling inside the plantation it’s hard not to agree with her overall depiction of the sentiment here. Anger toward Salala is palpable, and residents of the towns inside the plantation speak openly about their resentment over what they describe as the company’s broken promises and deception.
 
“They came here to talk a sweet mouth,” said Moses Davies of Kollendarpolo. “Oh we’ll do things for you the citizens. If somebody gets sick the ambulance will come here and carry the person, and you all will not pay much money. That was a lie. So let the company leave our land.”
 
Roots of the modern era

The scholars Donna Haraway and Anna Tsing have argued that the term “Plantationocene” is a better fit to describe the modern ecological era than the standard “Anthropocene.” Much of what defines this epoch of environmental destruction, they say — the reorienting of nature toward industrial commodity supply chains, forced subsistence labor, and production of concentrated wealth under racial hierarchies — were first honed on plantations during the 17th and 18th centuries.
 
Without question, plantations have played a major role in the history of Liberia, which itself was founded by formerly enslaved African laborers who worked the antebellum U.S. South’s cotton fields before traveling across the Atlantic in search of a new homeland. A hundred years later, in the early 20th century, corporations from the U.S. looking to break the British stranglehold on the world’s rubber supply made the same trip, traveling to Liberia with dreams of turning the country’s rainforests into plantations that could fuel the growth of America’s emerging auto industry.
 
In his book Empire of Rubber, Gregg Mitman describes the development of a million-acre rubber concession by the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company not far from where Salala now operates. With the collusion of senior Liberian officials, communal land inside its newly minted plantation was seized by Firestone — by force in some cases — and many villages were simply erased from the map.
 
But while Firestone, Socfin, and their contemporaries have reaped immense profits from these vast landholdings for decades, Liberians can’t say the same. In 2020, Liberia had the eighth-lowest per capita income in the world, and the bulk of the country’s citizens, on or off plantations, live without electricity and running water.
 
Firestone tires in the U.S.
 
Firestone tires in the U.S. Image by arbyreed via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).
“Firestone is, what, 1926?” said Brownell from Green Advocates. “Three more years from now it will be a century. Not one of the workers on whose back it was built own a share, and nor do any of the communities whose villages were obliterated.”
 
But despite this history — and its role in fueling popular resentments that led to Liberia’s civil war — once peace dawned in 2003 its new government set to work signing a series of massive land deals with investors from across the world, who were drawn by the prospect of cheap land and labor. It was during this time, a busy one for extractive dealmaking in Monrovia, that the IFC decided to finance Socfin’s venture in Liberia.
 
Critics of the deals both inside and out of the country called them a staggering, brazen theft of communal resources and warned that the new investors would bring misery and conflict to a still-fragile nation. But their proponents argued that the exploitative history of concessions like Firestone’s no longer applied to the modern world.
 
It was a new century, and with it had come a completely reformed environment around extractive projects. Consumers had more access than ever to knowledge of where products came from, and they wanted them sourced ethically. Industry standards like the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, and internal bank policies like the IFC’s performance standards, would act as checks and balances against the abuse of rural people’s rights.
 
This time, Liberians would have a voice, supporters of the deals promised, and any company that did business the old way was in for a rude awakening.
 
‘A toothless bulldog’
 
In 2019, with the assistance of Kahnplaye, Brownell and other activists, 22 communities that had lost land to Salala’s plantation filed their complaint with the IFC. In it, they demanded to be afforded the full rights and protections intended for Indigenous peoples under the IFC’s performance standards, which they said had been repeatedly violated by Salala.
 
“For generations, our entire culture and survival have been dependent on nature, our use of the natural environment, and access to our traditional lands and resources,” they wrote. “The sad reality is that before [Salala] came to Margibi and Bong Counties it was possible to access our natural resources; now that [Salala] has arrived, it is not.”
 
The 61-page complaint claimed that Salala failed to pay adequate compensation for destroyed crops, that town waterways had become polluted with pesticides, and that sacred forest groves had been desecrated. It also accused Salala of failing to respond to a troubling pattern of sexual abuse faced by women working on the plantation. Human rights defenders in the communities who spoke out, the complaint said, had been harassed by police at the behest of Salala and arrested on trumped-up charges.
 
After receiving the complaint, the IFC’s internal watchdog, the CAO, hired a Liberian researcher to take a first look on the ground. In March 2020, it issued an assessment report, which found that the issues raised by the communities had merit and warranted action by Salala and the IFC. It recommended the company enter into a mediation process with the complainants.
 
But Salala dismissed the suggestion, accusing the researcher who wrote the report of bias and saying it had “no confidence in the CAO’s ability to oversee an impartial dispute resolution.” After Salala’s refusal to enter into mediation, the complaint was kicked up into a “compliance investigation,” the most serious option available to the CAO, which would determine whether the IFC had violated its vaunted, industry-leading human rights and environmental standards when it funded Salala. As per the CAO’s procedures, its results were to be presented to the director of the World Bank.
 
 
Nearly three years have now passed since that investigation began.
 
“While the process has been delayed since 2020 due to the pandemic, CAO expects the process to culminate in the publication of a report by the summer of 2023,” Emily Horgan, a communications specialist with the CAO, wrote in an email to Mongabay.
 
Here in Liberia, frustration with the wait is tipping into exhaustion. With little movement for years, what has been described as the toughest development bank oversight process in the world has instead been a maze of paperwork and delays with no concrete results. Few now expect much to come out of the complaint.
 
“We want our land back,” said Queta George, firmly. “We want our land back. The company must give our land back to us.”
 
But a close read of the CAO’s mandate suggests that even were the IFC to find that Salala violated its performance standards, there aren’t many options available for the bank to do anything about it. The loan was already disbursed, and if Salala, or any other IFC grantee, decides to ignore a CAO investigation, for all intents and purposes they can, with little consequence.
 
Despite the CAO’s status as a top-tier bank accountability tool, a June 2020 external evaluation of its effectiveness found that, often, the IFC itself doesn’t even take the findings of its investigations seriously. In those cases, even after years spent waiting for the results of a painstakingly compiled complaint, communities affected by IFC-funded projects can find themselves with next to nothing to show for their patience.
 
“IFC has frequently disagreed with CAO investigation findings; when it disagrees, IFC has not pursued remedial actions to correct CAO non-compliance findings,” the evaluation said.
 
While some advocates say the CAO’s existence is itself an improvement from an earlier era, where there were few options for Indigenous peoples to lodge complaints against development banks, they acknowledge that its narrow, limited mandate has severely hampered its effectiveness.
 
“There’s still no guarantee for people who have been harmed by IFC-funded projects that they will get any redress whatsoever,” said David Pred, executive director of Inclusive Development International.
 
In Liberia, the sentiment is even blunter.
 
“The bottom line is that I think the CAO is a toothless bulldog and a paper tiger,” Brownell said.
 
A better world, on paper

The CAO, like the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, the Forest Stewardship Council, the Equator Principles, and any one of a dozen other sustainability standards for development projects are all rooted in a simple idea: with the right rules in place, global commodity production can be a win-win for everyone. Consumers in rich countries can buy products free from guilt, local communities can benefit from foreign investment without being pushed around or marginalized, and corporations can still turn a healthy profit.
 
In the last few years, though, nearly every single one of these standards has either failed or been widely circumvented by companies they were designed to constrain. Their defenders say that they’re better than nothing; even if there’s not much the CAO can do about a complaint, for example, the fact that communities can make one at all is a step forward from earlier eras.
 
But in Liberia, where the Salala complaint is mirrored by similar petitions made from palm oil plantations, iron mines, and other extractive sites to the RSPO, OECD, and courts both near and far over the exploitation of the country’s natural resources, a more fundamental question is at play:
 
What if the reason why high-profile environmental rules and sustainability principles like the IFC’s are so frequently violated is because if they were to be rigorously applied, the projects they cover might simply cease to exist?
 
In Salala’s case, for example, fully implementing the principle of free, prior and informed consent — specifically mentioned in point 7 of the IFC’s performance standards, which covers Indigenous rights — could spell doom for the plantation.
 
Whether or not its expansions were legal under Liberian law, Salala does not appear to have requested, nor does it have, the consent of the communities that on the land before its arrival. The IFC’s performance standards look good on paper, but here at Salala’s plantation, it can be hard to imagine what might happen if they were strictly followed.
 
In the end, it may not be possible without drastic changes to Socfin’s operations.
 
“We have to rethink the investment model and how we conceive of the people who own the land,” Brownell said. “These are human beings, and they are the landlords.”
 
The CAO’s weak enforcement powers are symbolic of a truism that often applies to corporate sustainability rules: they are useful when they facilitate business, and much less so once they begin to hamper it.
 
On paper, such rules have been adopted by commodity producers and financial institutions across the world, telling a story of a new era where ugly histories of violence and dispossession have given way to a more just global economy. On the ground in places like Salala, though, that story starts to fall apart.
 
Here, under towering rubber trees that cast their shadows over desecrated gravesites, and in quiet clearings where vulnerable women exchange their bodies for low-wage jobs, an older, more familiar world remains.
 
“I can’t get tired,” Queta George said. “When I die, I’ll die with my rights. But we are suffering here.”

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