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Palm oil company denies capitalizing on Ebola to advance Liberia operations

  • Golden Veroleum Liberia allegedly took advantage of last year’s Ebola outbreak to expand its oil palm plantations
  • The company denies it deliberately accelerated during the crisis and says communities wanted it there
  • Golden Veroleum is a subsidiary of Singapore-listed Golden Agri-Resources, which operates primarily in Indonesia

Community members in Liberia were threatened with violence and urged to sign unfavorable land deals with palm oil company Golden Veroleum Liberia (GVL) at the height of last year’s Ebola epidemic, according to findings in a new report by Global Witness released yesterday.

The New Snake Oil: Violence, Threats and False Promises at the Heart of Liberia’s Palm Oil Expansion claims that GVL, a majority of which is controlled by palm oil giant Golden Agri-Resources (GAR), escalated its operations during the outbreak of the deadly virus last year that crippled the country and left more than 4,800 people dead.

“Liberia is rolling out the red carpet to a company that has swindled communities, forcibly grabbed land and chain-sawed its way through rainforests in Asia,” Global Witness’ campaign leader Jonathan Gant said in a statement, referring to the past behavior of GAR in Indonesia.

“With the company’s first foray into Africa, at the peak of the continent’s deadliest Ebola epidemic, it is has manipulated villagers into signing away the lands they depend on. This will affect at least five generations of families who will likely never see their land returned to them.”

Global Witness claims that GVL nearly doubled the size of its plantation during the Ebola outbreak and that while community support groups were staying at home to avoid contracting the virus the company encouraged illiterate citizens to sign away their land rights.

A graphic from Global Witness’ report juxtaposes the rate at which GVL expanded its operations with the chronology of the Ebola outbreak.

GVL has been developing its plantation in the impoverished southeast of Liberia since 2012. The project has attracted repeated criticism. A report earlier this year from the Forest People’s Programme claimed that thousands of hectares of forest had been cleared despite being the subject of numerous disputes between communities and home to endangered species including the chimpanzee. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) requested a freeze on work on the plantation in 2012 following community complaints before it recommenced in 2013.

The project falls under Singapore-listed GAR’s ambitious no-deforestation policy signed in 2011. GAR itself has come under fire lately; in May, The Forest Trust, a nonprofit that helps companies develop and implement sustainability policies, suspended their association. GAR’s chief sustainability officer also resigned.

David Rothschild, a director of GVL, told mongabay.com that his company was upset at the central allegations made in the Global Witness report and that claims that GVL deliberately accelerated operations during the Ebola outbreak showed “a lack of understanding of how greenfield operations ramp up.”

“About 70 percent of our work in 2014 was completed before August of last year,” he said. “There was a rapid slowdown after Ebola engulfed the country.”

Rothschild says local communities wanted to sign the deals cited in the report because they were fearful that the company would pull out of the area altogether.

“We were key members of the private sector Ebola group,” he said. “We provided education and assistance to the communities and employees on how to deal with the epidemic. … We had no confirmed cases amongst our employees, family or communities.”

Rothschild admits his company made “mistakes” when it first began operating in Grand Cru and Sinoe counties. But he says it receives little recognition for the steps it has made to adopt the terms of GAR’s no-deforestation policy including initiatives such as the modeling of the h

He also says that while there will always be people unhappy and opposed to the project, GVL intends to have systems in place to deal with complaints as best it can.

“Ultimately we’re a long-term player and if we do not have good community relations we will fail,” he said.

Filings with the RSPO complaints panel reveal the division at a local level over the plantation. While there are instances of complaints and violence against the company in areas such as Butaw, there are equally submissions from individuals distancing themselves from criticism of the company.

GVL employs nearly 4,000 Liberians and claims to have a direct impact on nearly 41,000, bringing much needed employment and financial benefits, it says, to one of the poorest areas in the country.

It is not the only company criticized for poor social and environmental practices when establishing palm oil operations in Africa. Many of the world’s leading producers have now set up shop on the continent and reports of forced evictions, illegal forest destruction and social conflict are commonplace.

Wilmar was recently accused of staging a land grab to establish its operations in Nigeria and farmers in Uganda are initiating legal proceedings against the company. Inadequate implementation of processes to ensure free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) is a common criticism leveled at companies operating in a host of countries.

Liberia emerged from a brutal civil war in 2003 and president Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf targeted the country’s forests as an economic driver. In 2012 she controversially handed out licenses to companies to cut down 58 percent of all the primary forest left in the country. After protests many of those permits were cancelled.

The country’s forests, while not the world’s largest, are home to a wide range of biodiversity and some of the world’s endangered species such as the chimpanzee and leopard.

Illegal logging has become rife in recent times and last year the country signed a landmark agreement with Norway in which it pledged to stop deforestation by 2020 in return for $150 million worth of development aid.

Disclosure: In late December 2015, it came to light that the author was a public relations contractor for Greenpeace at the time of this story’s publication. The author says this affiliation did not influence his reporting. The story was independently edited and fact-checked by a Mongabay editor.