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Will palm oil help Liberia? Industry expansion has critics crying foul

  • The palm oil industry is quickly expanding throughout the impoverished West African nation.
  • Land grabs are made easy because many Liberians don’t have ownership rights to their property.
  • Communities and watchdog groups are speaking up about perceived industry wrongdoings.

This is the second part in a series on palm oil in Liberia written through on-the-ground reporting. Read the first part here.

Thirty-two-year-old Abigail Jabateh* balanced a bucket of fertilizer on her head as she walked through the Liberian forest on her way to the palm oil plantation she works for six days out of each week. The heavy bucket had been filled to the brim with fertilizer pellets, which she spread at the base of the baby oil palm trees on the plantation. As she walked through the bush, a branch from a nearby tree hit the top of the bucket sending the pellets in a stream down the front of her shirt.

Later that day, Jabateh ’s chest began to itch and she lifted her shirt to find a row of blisters lining her right breast. She continued her eight-hour shift, dragging along a 110-pound bag of fertilizer and a plastic bucket, applying the fertilizer to the row-upon-row of palm plants lining the rolling landscape. The next day the blisters became so painful that she could not wear a bra under her shirt.

Jabateh works for Equatorial Palm Oil (EPO), a United Kingdom-publicly listed company that has recently set up shop in this West African nation. She makes about $5 per day, the only source of income for her family of six.  She usually spends the day spreading fertilizer without any gloves. She explained that the company usually provides gloves once per month, but that the gloves are of such cheap a quality that they only last about a day. The company maintains that any damaged or spoiled gloves are returned and replaced with new ones. Jabateh’s hands itch, but she needs the money.

Abigail Jabateh spreads fertilizer on palm plants on Equatorial Palm Oil’s plantation in central Liberia. Jabateh said the company provides gloves once per month, but they are of poor quality so they spoil quickly. Photo by Sara Jerving.
Abigail Jabateh spreads fertilizer on palm plants on Equatorial Palm Oil’s plantation in central Liberia. Jabateh said the company provides gloves once per month, but they are of poor quality so they spoil quickly. Photo by Sara Jerving.

Life wasn’t always like this for Jabateh — she hasn’t always been someone else’s worker. She used to farm her own land in the forests surrounding her father’s home nearby. But the Liberian government gave away her family’s land, as well as others in their community, to EPO to build a plantation on tens of thousands of acres. So, with nowhere else to turn, Jabateh applied for a job with the company and has been working with EPO since 2011.

“I get a back ache from the work, from carrying the bag. My palms hurt.  I have pains in my body from this work, but this my only means of survival now so I have to come back each day,” Jabateh said.

Jabateh is just one of the many rural Liberians who have had their lives upended as the country becomes a new frontier for the mass production of palm oil – an edible oil that is also used in cosmetics, soaps, candy and biofuels. Liberia’s palm oil is intended to supply multinational companies such as Unilever and Nestlé, as well as regional markets. The top global producers of palm oil are Malaysia and Indonesia. In 2013/2014, the two countries exported 39.1 million metric tons of palm oil, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. But Malaysia is facing land shortages and Indonesia recently passed a moratorium on new concessions in primary and peat forests, which may hinder further large expansion of the industry. West Africa, however, where palm oil is an indigenous crop, has fewer such restrictions and is emerging as a new frontier for mass production.

Among the top companies now jockeying to supply international markets with Liberian palm oil are Malaysia-based Sime Darby, Golden Veroleum Liberia, a subsidiary of the U.S.-based Verdant Fund LP, and UK-listed Equatorial Palm Oil. These three companies have rights to more than 1.2 million acres through leases that range from around 50 to 65 years, after which they could be granted extensions by the government. The government of Liberia invited these companies to Liberia, granting them massive concessions of land that were often already in use by communities for subsistence farming. As top palm oil companies have moved into Liberia in recent years, watchdog organizations have documented clearing of land without consent of the affected communities. Farms, sacred areas, even graves, have been destroyed.

Several rolling hills of oil palms away from where Jabateh works lies a lonely village of several mud homes with thatched roofs – an island surrounded by a sea of oil palm. The village is divided in the center by a dirt road running through it that is used by the company. The company that previously occupied the plantation promised this community it would see municipal improvement in exchange for the felling of the forests that once surrounded it, according to Silas Kpanan’Ayoung Siakor of the Sustainable Development Institute, a local organization that has been organizing communities resistant to palm oil development. Now, he said, other communities that currently face losing their land to palm oil laugh at this village. “They think: If that’s what development looks like, they don’t want anything to do with it.”

Miles away, on the other side of the country, driving through Grand Cape Mount and Bomi counties in western Liberia, the twisting roads at times are buried in towering forests. On the roads are the United Nation’s white jeeps as well as cars with license plates starting with “SD,” indicating that they belong to the palm oil company Sime Darby. The forests eventually come to an abrupt end, becoming barren mud slopes specked with land-moving vehicles that are terracing the hills to prepare the land for palm nurseries. Fallen trees are stacked on the ground, with stragglers that missed the path of the bulldozer standing desolate in the bruised remnants of a once-forest. Smoke rises from the ground where local residents are burning piles of brush. They’ll sell some as charcoal, a task that for many is all that remains of their livelihood from the forest.

“A lot of the communities are opposed to the expansion of these palm plantations because they visit other villages and see the living conditions,” Siakor said. “Other villages that have allowed the companies to take their land on the promise that they will bring development to the villages and they haven’t seen those developments.”

Palm oil company Sime Darby cleared forested areas in western Liberia in preparation for its palm oil plantation. Photo by Sara Jerving.
Palm oil company Sime Darby cleared forested areas in western Liberia in preparation for its palm oil plantation. Photo by Sara Jerving.

Palm oil companies, such as Golden Veroleum Liberia and Sime Darby, have said that they have worked on improving relations with communities after attention was drawn to the lack of dialogue between companies and communities, and complaints were filed. This has included, in some cases, halting operations, as well as engaging in more active and wide-ranging consultation with stakeholders, company representatives told Mongabay. One requisite for membership to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil – which many companies that purchase palm oil require – production companies must obtain “free, prior and informed consent” from communities from which they obtain land. Sime Darby, EPO, and Golden Veroleum Liberia are all members. However, watchdog groups in Liberia have noted instances where they believe these standards have not been met.

A big promise palm oil companies have made to Liberians is that more jobs will come from the industry. Some of the more major companies currently employ several thousand in the country, but hope in the future to each employ several thousand more, or even tens of thousands, according to representatives of these companies, contingent on how much land they are able to develop. For instance, the Sime Darby Plantation Liberia currently employs close to 2,900 Liberians, which is actually more than it needs, according to a company representative. But additional hiring will depend on the availability of land for planting, the representative added, which has been made challenging by the required “free, prior and informed consent” procedure.

But not everyone is confident that the country will see much job growth from palm oil expansion. Critics say that if expansion continues, it won’t necessarily result in the number of jobs promised by the industry, and that the jobs it does create won’t lift the Liberians it employs out of poverty.

“Palm oil will not be a major source of employment for the youth. Large palm oil plantations are fairly mechanized,” Daniel Boakye, an economist for the World Bank, told Mongabay. “The scarcity of jobs in the market means that it is easy for companies to employ at low wages. The job contribution from palm oil will not be big enough to make a large dent on unemployment in the country.”

The palm oil companies claim that people like Abigail Jabateh, the fertilizer spreader on EPO’s plantation, are success stories because the wages they pay are higher than the average wage in Liberia. Then there are the roads, health clinics and schools the industry promises communities.

Opponents say this argument has been tried, tested and it has failed to provide anything resembling upward mobility in Liberia. According to Thomas Doe Nah, executive director of the Center for Transparency and Accountability in Liberia, the country’s “plantation economy” is a flawed model.

Benefits for the population will come, Boakye said, if large-scale producers form partnerships with small-scale farmers. The larger companies have the capacity to build processing plants with links to international markets. As the industry is currently set up, the larger companies entirely dominate production. The arrangement would benefit Liberians far more if production was shared more equally between small-scale famers and larger companies, he said, allowing the small farmers to acquire surpluses, which would increase their spending and stimulate the economy.

Some of the companies have inserted partnerships with smallholder farmers in their future plans for Liberia. Of the 600,000 acres that Golden Veroleum Liberia aims to develop in the country, it states on its website that a minimum of 100,000 acres will be devoted to smallholder outgrowers and community oil palm plantations. The company then would buy the palm oil from the farmers. These partnerships can be important to poor farmers that lack capital. According to Liberia’s National Export Strategy, a primary challenge facing small farmers is access to financing. Sixty-four percent of the nation is living at the national poverty line of under $1 per day, according to the World Bank.

“It could be that they can now educate their children so they will have education outside of their farms. It will be a gradual process,” Boakye said. “The partnerships need to be in place to create long-term benefits.”

Palm oil is produced by pressing the fruit of oil palm trees, primarily the African oil palm (Elaeis guineensis). Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

John Alphanso Perkins, a program officer with the Farmers Union Network of Liberia, hopes that the palm oil investments will have a trickle down effect in the nation’s economy. But Perkins is concerned about farmers losing control over their lives when a large company comes in and takes the land small-scale farmers were using for cultivation. Without capital, a farmer may be unable to invest in the land, and then may be easily overtaken by a company with more funds, he said.

The country currently doesn’t have the capacity to process the large amounts of palm oil that will be produced by these companies. Sime Darby is planning to build a mini mill capable of processing eight metric tons of palm oil per hour, but construction was delayed by the recent Ebola outbreak in Liberia, which devastated the nation with more than 4,800 deaths. Planting also was put on hold because of the crisis. Construction of the mill is expected to resume soon and be completed by November 2015, according to a company spokesperson. Golden Verolem Liberia also had also broke ground on their first mill last year, before Ebola halted construction. The lack of consistent electricity throughout the country is also a challenge for domestic processing.

“If the company takes the raw product and sends it to another country to process it and it comes back as a finished product that we then pay more for, how do we benefit?” asked Perkins.

However, production companies, such as Sime Darby, are confident that the training they provide will make an impact on the nation.

“Palm oil companies like Sime Darby are the largest employers in Liberia providing among the highest paid jobs in the agriculture sector,” said a spokesperson for the company. “Besides providing training and an opportunity to learn the best agricultural practices from the largest plantation company in the world, a pool of highly skilled workers are being trained.”

While Southeast Asia is still the epicenter of palm oil production, the industry is expanding throughout the tropical world. In addition to Africa, South and Central America are also seeing surges in development. Here, an oil palm plantation abuts forest in Costa Rica. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

When discussing development in the country, many Liberians will say that Firestone, the American tire company, “set the model” for the country. The company set up shop in the West African nation in 1926, obtaining about one million acres to develop its plantation for a lease of 99 years. The largest single natural rubber operation in the world, it now operates under a lease granting it nearly a tenth of the country’s arable land.

But not everybody agrees on the contributions the company has made in Liberia. In 2005, the International Labor Rights Fund (ILRF) filed a class action complaint in the U.S. against Firestone, accusing the company of illegally using child labor in Liberia. The complaint alleged that the children are “trapped by poverty and coercion on a frozen-in-time plantation,” and are “stripped of rights, they are isolated, they are at the mercy of Firestone for everything from food to lodging, they risk expulsion and certain starvation if they raise even minor complaints.” In 2011, a federal appeals court in Chicago threw out the lawsuit, finding that the court had not been given an adequate basis for inferring a violation of customary international law. ILRF’s argument was that Firestone had imposed tough daily rubber quotas on their employees, which forced the parents to enlist the help of their children – but the company was not directly hiring children, and so was deemed not at fault.

Some citizens are skeptical that the palm oil companies will be any more capable of stomping out wealth inequities in Liberia’s countryside than Firestone has been.

“When the president [Ellen Sirleaf] speaks, it’s about how we have to create jobs for people,” said Doe Nah. “But we are creating these menial jobs that are not going to affect these people in any way. These people are going to live in these tin cans that these plantations will build, like Firestone did. Over a period of time, what do they have to show as assets for themselves?”

During a community meeting in Grand Bassa County, community members gathered in a small, bare-bones church on a sweltering afternoon to discuss their plans on how to handle the company’s movement’s on their land. Light speckled through walls made of dried palm leaves and barren tree branches onto the nearly 100 community members seated on wooden benches. One member, Deyeatee Kardor stood up to speak. Wearing a red dress decorated with a pattern of golden wheat over a silver full moon, with a golden scarf wrapped around her head, Kardor is a farmer who said that she had her cassava crops cleared by EPO without her consent. At the meeting, the petite mother of seven began waving her finger in the air and compared the company to “a man that does not know how to have courtship with a woman.”

“We depend on these forests for everything we need,” Kardor said. “The forests are our bank, they are our hospital and they are our economic home.”


*Name has been changed to protect source.

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