But in 2011, Liberia took its first step toward reforming its forestry industry. The country signed a Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) with the EU to begin cleaning up the logging sector. The VPA ensures any logs exported to the EU can be traced directly back to the source.

Three years later, Liberia supported the New York Declaration on Forests and signed an agreement with Norway that it would issue no new logging concessions and would gazette 30 percent of its forest as protected areas in exchange for $150 million in financial help. Liberia is also a signatory of both the New York Declaration on Forests and the African Restoration Initiative (AFR100), the latter of which pledges to restore 100 million hectares (about 247 million acres) of forest across the African continent by 2030.

Today, timber can only be legally exported from three logging concessions in the country – none of which are connected to the growing and controversial palm oil sector in the West African country.

‘A backdoor opportunity’

Louise Riley, a campaigner with Global Witness, said Liberia has come a long way from being a forest pariah.

“Liberia [now] has a robust legal framework for managing logging… This makes us very concerned at the lengths palm oil companies appear to be going to find ways around the law, not to mention their own public commitments to zero deforestation,” Riley told Mongabay.

The problem is that around the same time that Liberia was cleaning up its logging sector, it was handing out monster concessions to palm oil companies. A number of these concessions, including GVL’s, were located in largely forested areas. Yet GVL also operates under a zero deforestation policy and is a member of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), making much of its 2,600-square-kilometer concession supposedly off limits. Or is it?

The company, a subsidiary of Singapore-based giant Golden Agri-Resources worth $1.5 billion, denied that it ever tried to undercut Liberia’s logging laws with its request to sell timber. But in October 2015, GVL reached out to the government to ask if it might be possible to sell timber from one of its new concessions on behalf of the local community, Tarjuowon in Sinoe County. Any money made from the timber would go directly to the Tarjuowon District, not GVL, according to the company.

“GVL made a request to the [FDA] on behalf of one community to permit the community to collect logs from an area that had already been agreed for development of oil palm,” the company said in a statement. “GVL did this so that, if it is legally possible, the community might extract maximum value from its own land before oil palm development began.”

The company’s statement claimed their request did not fly in the face of its zero deforestation policy, which only applies to high conservation value forest. It also wrote in the same statement that it had been completely transparent about the matter with both the FDA and the environmental group, SDI.

But James Otto, an environmental campaigner with SDI, said GVL’s response was a “knee jerk” reaction to the environmental NGO’s campaign. Otto said the law and regulations on community logging were clear and that the Tarjuowon case did not fit the current laws. Moreover, he said, such logging should never be pushed “by a third party” like GVL.

He said the company’s real intent was to “create a backdoor opportunity” to allow logging in an area of forest where it hopes to expand operations. According to Otto, this would make it possible for them to get around their own high conservation value and high carbon stock standards by intentionally degrading the forest, albeit at the behest of the local community.

SDI’s suspicions were raised by a report that Forest Ventures, a logging company linked to Malaysian company Samling, has been seen in the district even though it doesn’t have a legal permit to log there.

“It has become clear…that GVL’s implementation of its Forest Conservation Policy in Liberia will not protect forests and the cumulative impact of its plantation expansion on forest could be devastating,” SDI wrote in a briefing paper in May of this year. “What is alarming is the real possibility that the company will destroy forest while promoting itself as a supplier of deforestation-free Crude Palm Oil.”

But the company disputes these allegations.

“All the areas proposed by the community were in areas that had been assessed in accordance with the High Carbon Stock Toolkit and judged acceptable for development,” Leroy Kanmoh, Communications Coordinator with GVL, told Mongabay.

He said that “following almost a year of discussion with the FDA and the SDI,” the government turned the request down.

Kanmoh said GVL told the Tarjuowonc community “that they will not be able to extract timber for their own business purposes.”

However, at the same time, the FDA provided a small, but possible, loophole, telling the company that it could still assist the community “in all legal ways possible, including small-scale extracting and milling activities.”

Such a statement raised concerns among SDI that the government was also trying to have it both ways, including possibly developing a new regulation that would allow the sale of conversion timber. The FDA did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

The ongoing dispute – splashed over the pages of Liberian newspapers – highlights just how fraught the issue of palm oil has become in Liberia. And it’s not just logging. Local communities complain of strong-arming, violence, and unmet promises. Conservationists fear the loss of Western Africa’s last great forests and a number of threatened species, while the palm oil industry contends its business is the economic future in a poor country recently shattered by Ebola following a decades-long civil war.

A short but controversial history of palm oil in Liberia

The rise of palm oil in Liberia has divided communities and kick-started what Global Witness called a possible “land grabbing crisis” in a scathing report last year. Like many developing countries, locals in Liberia largely don’t own the land they have lived on and farmed for generations, though a long-touted Land Rights Act, if ever passed, could change that. But the current situation makes it possible for the Liberian government to lease out vast areas of communal land to palm oil companies, sometimes with contracts intended to last as long as 98 years.

GVL is one of the biggest of these palm oil companies, holding concessions spanning 2,600 square kilometers – nearly the size the U.S. state of Rhode Island – and impacting some 40,000 people who have utilized these lands for generations, according to the Global Witness report entitled The New Snake Oil.

Overall, the report paints a picture of a company that has used links to powerful local politicians, intimidation by government and private security forces, and pro-development propaganda to keep impacted communities in check. This story of development at any price is similar to what one hears from many countries, from Indonesia to Peru.

As a member of the RSPO, GVL has pledged to follow the standards of free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC). This includes signing an agreement, according to GVL’s Kanmoh, that includes general benefits as well as any specific benefits agreed on between the community and the company, including such things as a payment into a community development fund and jobs for locals.

But critics say GVL has hardly followed FPIC. For example, Global Witness researchers found that GVL signed four agreements during the worst of the Ebola crisis, a catastrophe that resulted in the deaths of over 4,000 people in Liberia and near-hysteria across the country. According to Global Witness, this allowed the company to get easy access to land when communities were paralyzed by fear, travel and large meetings were practically nonexistent, and NGOs – often the only alternative voice in the development debate – were absent.

“With people in such desperate circumstances and deprived of NGO support, it is clear that the conditions for genuine FPIC to be obtained did not exist during the Ebola crisis,” reads the Global Witness report, which called on these agreements to be redone.

Otto said communities that have lost their land to palm oil companies have seen a wide variety of negative impacts. The plantations have led to the pollution of local water sources, a rise in local food prices given the loss of harvests, destruction of adjacent forests for more farmland, and displacement of farming households.

“Companies and government have indicated that they will not be removing communities from their customary lands but that they will provide farming lands around host communities for farming,” said SDI’s Otto. But according to him, this has resulted in families scrambling for ever-smaller parcels of farming land, with the end result being community members forced to move anyway.

Given the local frustration with palm oil companies, SDI believes that GVL’s attempt to secure logging rights for a local community was an attempt to improve community relationships. Such deals, the organization believes, would make it more far more lucrative for communities to agree to GVL concessions in the future, at the expense of forests and wildlife.

“This is likely to create a situation where local leaders benefit financially from forest destruction, effectively removing any potential criticism of the company. GVL is also likely to benefit in public relations terms through stronger support from the local leadership,” reads SDI’s briefing.

The impacts of Liberia’s booming palm oil sector affect not only human communities – GVL is working in a particularly important region in terms of conservation. According to Global Forest Watch, GVL’s massive concession overlaps with one of Liberia’s last Intact Forest Landscapes, as well as two areas where local communities have resource rights to the land. Moreover, the concession comes very close – within three kilometers (two miles) – to Sapo National Park, arguably the country’s most famous protected area.

Intact Forest Landscapes (IFLs) are particularly large, undisturbed tracts of primary forest. Of Liberia's few IFLs, around a third have been degraded since 2000. One of GVL's oil palm concessions overlaps with a thus-far undegraded IFL -- but tree cover loss appears to be ramping up in the concession, with more than 8,000 hectares lost between 2001 and 2014.
Intact Forest Landscapes (IFLs) are particularly large, undisturbed tracts of primary forest. Of Liberia’s few IFLs, around a third have been degraded since 2000. One of GVL’s oil palm concessions overlaps with a thus-far undegraded IFL — but tree cover loss appears to be ramping up in the concession, with more than 8,000 hectares lost between 2001 and 2014.

West Africa has lost much of its forest cover over the last hundred years, resulting in the local extinction of many species. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Liberia’s total forest cover was around 40 percent as of 2010. However, of that, only about 4 percent was primary forest.

This means the country is viewed as one of the highest priority countries in West Africa for preserving biodiversity, especially given its high proportion of the world’s remaining Upper Guinean forests, a biodiversity hotspot that has lost around 90 percent of its historic range.

For example, Liberia is home to one of the largest remaining populations of western chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes verus), with an estimated 7,000 individuals. This subspecies is considered Critically Endangered by the IUCN Red List. But scientists have estimated that more than two-thirds of land suitable for palm oil in Liberia overlaps with unprotected chimp habitat. Conservationists fear that what has happened to orangutans in Malaysia and Indonesia – loss of habitat and food resources in addition to increased conflict with people – could soon happen to chimps in many parts of Africa.

The pygmy hippo is one of Liberia’s standout mammals. No one really knows how many pygmy hippopotami (Choeropsis liberiensis) are left in the world, though it’s also assumed Liberia remains the stronghold of this rare, low-density, forest-dwelling dwarf. The species is currently listed as Endangered and is known from the parks near GVL operations.

The small country is also home to the little-known and rarely seen Liberian mongoose (Liberiictis kuhni). Considered Vulnerable, this species is so distinct that it has its own genus. The region also contains the Critically Endangered Liberian greenbul (Phyllastrephus leucolepis). Not seen since 1985, it’s possible the bird, which has only been recorded in Liberia, is already extinct.

Finally, a small population of forest elephants continues to hold on in Liberia’s forests even after decades of poaching from the civil war, as well as the continent-wide poaching crisis. Although still viewed by many groups as a subspecies of the African elephant, forest elephants are indeed morphologically, genetically, and behaviorally different than their savannah relatives. Recent research has suggested that the forest elephant should be raised to species levelLoxodonta cyclotis – making Liberia’s population all the more vital.

To date, Liberia has handed over around 10 percent of its land area to monoculture plantations, including the influx of palm oil. Conservationists fear this form of development will make it even harder for the country’s already struggling species.

In the context of GVL, its zero deforestation commitment has not halted deforestation.

“Although GVL is taking steps to enclave some forested areas during land preparation, they are clearing forest patches of less than 10 hectares and may also clear patches ranging in size from 10 hectares to 99 hectares… Whilst small forest patches may seem insignificant in terms of their biodiversity and carbon value, they can provide important connectivity functions for various species,” according to SDI’s briefing on the subject.

SDI also noted that GVL was clearing forest known to be home to Jentink’s duiker (Cephalophus jentinki), a species listed as Endangered by the IUCN Red List and known for its distinct white-black-and-gray markings. It is thought that fewer than 2,000 mature Jentink’s duikers remain. Other animals found in the concession area actively being cleared include African buffalo (Syncerus caffer), Maxwell duiker (Philantomba maxwellii), the bay duiker (Cephalophus dorsalis), and the bongo (Tragelaphus eurycerus), the latter two of which are considered Near Threatened.

“If this area does not qualify under GVL’s Forest Conservation Policy, it is difficult to see how implementation of this policy will protect forests within GVL’s concession,” the briefing reads.

Not over yet?

While GVL’s request was eventually turned down by the Liberian government, environmentalists fear this isn’t the end of the push for selling timber from palm oil concessions.

“The company continues to expand its operations in high value forest areas in Tarjuwon and other forest areas in Sinoe County,” said Otto, who believes that “the pressure is ongoing for the development of the regulations on conversion timber.”

If the Liberian government develops such regulations it could open the door to far greater deforestation and the expansion of an industry that is hardly conflict-free.

To date, there is no evidence that other big palm oil players in the country are pushing for the permission to sell timber from their concessions. Indeed, palm oil giant Sime Dary denied any involvement. It stated that the company is maintaining a global moratorium in clearing forests that it set in 2014 to give itself time to research how to define high carbon stock (HCS) forests after undergoing punishing criticism from environmentalists for cutting down forests after other palm oil companies had made zero deforestation commitments.

But Otto said he believes companies like Sime Darby may be involved as well.

“I know that they might not be on record but they do have interest if a regulation for conversion timber is developed and becomes legal,” he told Mongabay.

Companies may be simply trying to find ways to get around their own zero deforestation pledges, according to Louise Riley of Global Witness.

“This is currently what [GVL] are pushing for in their concession in the southeast of Liberia in order that they can expand more rapidly into the areas with high quality forest that they are constrained by currently,” she said.

But Kanmoh insists the company has no interest in changing how logging is regulated in the country.

“GVL has always made it clear that it will never seek to engage in any form of commercial logging,” he said.

But given the massive size of GVL’s concession and the fact that a good portion of it may be wholly out of bounds for the company due to forest cover, SDI recommends that the government and the company agree on reducing the size of the concession to remove any temptation of breaking commitments on either side.

The power still remains on the side of the FDA and government of Liberia. If it drops any pretense that it may in the future allow export of logs from palm oil concessions and other plantations, the controversy will likely end up in the dust bin of old ideas. But if such a regulation is crafted and allowed, it could not only spur more deforestation in the country but also threaten Liberia’s VPA with the EU, its partnership with Norway, and several years of hard work to clean up what was once one of the worst logging industries in the world.


Header photo of forest elephants by Thomas Breuer via Wikimedia Commons (CC2.5)

Article published by Morgan Erickson-Davis
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