- On February 13, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, the industry certification system for production of conflict-free palm oil, confirmed what many in Liberia’s rural Sinoe County have been saying all along: Golden Veroleum Liberia (GVL), a palm oil company operating since 2010, did not properly receive the consent of local communities to acquire their traditional lands.
- The charges against GVL are not new. The first complaint filed against GVL with the RSPO came in 2012. Over the years, multiple civil society reports have documented GVL’s land grabbing, human rights violations, and environmental degradation. In 2015, a riot erupted on GVL’s plantation. Six years and various investigations by the RSPO later, the situation for these communities is largely the same.
- It’s striking that, given the resources and responsibilities of both the company and the certification body, neither GVL nor the RSPO had chosen to communicate with these communities about the remedies GVL was directed to pursue by the RSPO. This begs the question: What is the value of corporate commitments and industry standards if those messages never reach the people they intend to benefit, let alone are translated into tangible actions?
- This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.
It’s late March and the latest news about the future of communities’ traditional lands has yet to reach the towns and villages in southeastern Liberia.
On February 13, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, the industry certification system for production of conflict-free palm oil, confirmed what many in rural Sinoe County have been saying all along: Golden Veroleum Liberia (GVL), a palm oil company operating since 2010, did not properly receive the consent of local communities to acquire their traditional lands.
A letter issued to GVL by the RSPO Complaints Panel says that the company coerced and intimidated community members into signing agreements ceding their lands, did not conduct adequate participatory mapping, destroyed communities’ sacred sites, and continues to develop disputed lands, all in violation of RSPO Principles and Criteria.
The charges against GVL and its parent company, Golden Agri-Resources, are not new. The first complaint filed against GVL with the RSPO came in 2012. Over the years, multiple civil society reports have documented GVL’s land grabbing, human rights violations, and environmental degradation. In 2015, a riot erupted on GVL’s plantation. Six years and various investigations by the RSPO later, the situation for these communities is largely the same.
Across Sinoe County, many villagers have long decried the impacts of GVL on their lives. They claim that despite the company’s promises, GVL has destroyed their sacred sites, polluted their drinking water, and curtailed their access to their forests and livelihoods.
“When they came to operate on my land, they never asked me,” says Romeo Chea, a resident of Jacksonville. “They just jumped on my land and started working. When I asked them, ‘Who gave you this land?’ they said it was government land. So we were forced to leave the place. They disturbed my sacred sites. They destroyed everything. This is where they are building their mill. They won’t permit me to go there.”
Among the recommendations in the February 13 Complaints Panel letter, the RSPO directed GVL to meet with specific communities to review and revise the terms of their agreement within one month. In late March, six weeks after the letter was issued, I visited plantation-affected communities in Sinoe County. Virtually every single community in Sinoe named in the decision was unaware of the news, let alone of the timelines put forward to address the issues. No one had bothered to inform the people directly impacted by the company’s operations of the proposed steps forward.
It is striking that given the resources and responsibilities of both the company and the certification body, that neither GVL nor the RSPO had chosen to communicate with these communities. This begs the question: What is the value of corporate commitments and industry standards if those messages never reach the people they intend to benefit, let alone are translated into tangible actions?
“Even now if you try and go in the forest you must go to GVL security to ask for permission,” says Lee W. Sworh, a resident of Jacksonville. “National security has been hired into their plantation. On a regular basis, they beat people and incarcerate people without reason. These are the barriers we are facing. If you have your own forest, but you can’t go there, then where are we?”
But it’s not just rural Liberian communities that are taking notice of the RSPO’s weaknesses in upholding its own standards. On March 12, less than a month after the RSPO Complaints Panel decision on GVL, 101 institutional investors representing over $3.2 trillion in assets wrote a letter to the RSPO calling on the body to be more transparent and responsive in addressing complaints. The investor letter specifically expresses concerns that the RSPO’s current process puts the institution’s credibility at stake.
While the investor letter cites ongoing violations in Indonesia, it might as well have highlighted the Liberian palm oil experience. All four industrial palm oil companies active in Liberia have faced allegations of land grabbing, human rights violations, and environmental degradation, with RSPO complaints filed against three of the four companies. (The fourth company operating in Liberia is not an RSPO member.)
Globally, the story has been the same. From Guatemala, where palm oil company REPSA was recently linked to corruption and appears to have been involved in the killing of an indigenous leader, to Indonesia, where palm oil companies’ burning of peatlands has caused fires responsible for thousands of respiratory illnesses and millions of tons of carbon released into the atmosphere, the industry has been mired in controversy.
If investors are relying on industry certification standards like the RSPO to ensure they meet their own sustainability commitments, they may want to think again. If they don’t, they are susceptible to significant risks to their investment. Deforestation, along with violations of human rights, including land rights, are increasingly being recognized as posing material financial and reputational risks to investors. Furthermore, escalating land conflicts linked with palm oil operations pose significant risks to stability, which may cause operational delays leading to stranded assets.
At the same time as investors are requesting greater accountability, civil society across Liberia is demanding the Liberian Legislature pass a 2014 draft of the Land Rights Act. The Act would secure communities’ rights to own, manage, and protect their customary lands, providing them with legal recognition when approached by companies and investors.
Back in Sinoe County, frustrations are only growing. In the Nimupoh community, villagers shared stories of the day GVL came to sign a memorandum of understanding with them. The company was accompanied by pickup trucks of armed police. Yet many members say they still want investment on their traditional lands, as long as it is done fairly. Others are more skeptical. Once informed of the recent RSPO decision, communities welcomed the recommended steps to address their grievances. But they’re not holding their breath. Too much damage has been done over the past decade — and too few promises have been kept.
As Sworh says, “In every part of the bush, GVL is felling down the major species of the forest. The area is no longer a forest. They have continued their operations since the RSPO decision. I worry whether the RSPO decision was to force GVL to change its operations or was it to reduce tensions between the community and the company?”
Gaurav Madan is Senior Forests and Lands Campaigner at Friends of the Earth US.
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RESPONSE FROM GVL
GVL has always been clear about the challenges faced in achieving responsible palm production in Liberia and therefore remains committed to supporting the country’s agricultural strategy which aims to use palm and other crops to diversify and strengthen the nation’s economy. GVL’s activities in Liberia are planned for the long-term and consequently being able to successfully work alongside communities is critical to the company’s future success.
GVL believes that Friends of the Earth USA’s Gaurav Madan’s commentary in Mongabay does not accurately reflect the situation on the ground in Liberia.
Contrary to what was reported, GVL has been working with communities and other stakeholders to address issues raised in past complaints. These have been reported to the RSPO on a quarterly basis since 2013. The reports are available in the RSPO website at https://www.rspo.org/members/complaints/status-of-complaints/view/24. In Butaw for example, remediation efforts and engagement with the community has led to a new Memorandum of Understanding signed in February 2017 by a broad representation of the community and letters from the community withdrawing past complaints.
Mr. Madan also quotes the RSPO Complaints Panel decision of February 2018 extensively and states that the company should have contacted communities affected by the decision. The decision is however under appeal and it is therefore important to respect due process at this time.
GVL is in fact in frequent contact with communities and their representatives as part of our day-to-day operations and although there will continue to be critics of any enterprise the vast majority of our interactions are both positive and invested in the future success of palm oil.
GVL remain committed to sustainable palm oil development in Liberia and acknowledges that there are areas for ongoing improvement in company operations. GVL will therefore implement relevant Directives made by the Complaints Panel whilst appealing the overall decision.
RESPONSE FROM THE RSPO
We would like to respond to the Commentary by Gaurav Madan on 13 April 2018, “Certified weaknesses: The RSPO’s Liberian fiasco”.
We acknowledge that the work of RSPO might be perceived as slow, or imperfect. This is because, often, the issues at hand are complex and protracted. Nonetheless, RSPO always strives to improve its assurance and complaints systems. This includes seeking inputs and having consultations with the various industry stakeholders to ensure that optimal recourse is available to communities who are undeniably often in a vulnerable situation when it comes to negotiating their rights.
In this context, it is hoped that NGOs such as Friends of the Earth (FoE) would go beyond just sharing their frustrations and criticising the available redress systems, but also jointly contribute to finding a solution to the issues at hand, especially given their presence on the ground.
Specifically, we wish to respond to Mr. Madan’s comment that there is a lack of communication with local communities in the affected areas in Liberia regarding the decision by the Complaints Panel on the GVL complaint. This is where the shared responsibility of all Parties to the Complaints come into action. The decision of the Complaints Panel was communicated directly to the NGOs, who had submitted the complaints on behalf of the affected communities and relatedly we trust that these same NGOs, who are representing the communities will communicate the decision directly to those affected. We appreciate the response received from several of the NGOs and community leaders who have communicated their next steps on the follow up to the decision. In particular, RSPO was informed by the Chairperson of the Blogbo-Teh, that the decision has been shared with their affected constituency and they will revert with their formal communication once they have had a meeting with the Blogbo people in Monrovia, Jacksonville, Wieh Town, and the surrounding communities.
Furthermore, Mr. Madan says “If investors are relying on industry certification standards like the RSPO to ensure they meet their own sustainability commitments, they may want to think again. If they don’t, they are susceptible to significant risks to their investment.”
Again, we seek more constructive contribution from the NGOs and other stakeholders in addressing the concerns related to development. It is a dangerous call to ask stakeholders to disengage as the problems will remain unsolved rather than supporting to improve a system that is available and accessible to all.
The RSPO is a multi-stakeholder, consensus-based organisation that has managed to bring transparency and accountability forward within the palm oil industry, when previously there was none.
Here is a dilemma for FoE. If the criticisms continue to fall solely on companies who have made a move towards transparency platforms won’t it mean that FoE is part of a perverse incentive to keep supply chains opaque? Won’t it mean that recalcitrant actors will NEVER leave the intransparency? Given the current trends, it makes business sense.
Mr. Madan says “All four industrial palm oil companies active in Liberia have faced allegations of land grabbing, human rights violations, and environmental degradation, with RSPO complaints filed against three of the four companies. (The fourth company operating in Liberia is not an RSPO member.)” It would be good to hear from FoE on how the allegations directed at the 4th non-RSPO company were dealt with and if there are any learnings on how such disputes are resolved outside of the RSPO system.
We invite FoE and other stakeholders to engage constructively to further enhance and strengthen RSPO standards and the complaints system. We remain committed to transparency and always welcome feedback aimed at achieving sustainability in the context of palm oil industry.
– Datuk Darrel Webber, CEO of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO)
Response from FoE US to Datuk Darrell Webber, CEO, RSPO and GVL:
We appreciate having meaningful dialogue on issues facing communities affected by industrial palm oil operations in Liberia. Given the serious nature of GVL’s violations, we see this as more than “sharing our frustrations.” Highlighting shortcomings and exposing violations reveals the specific and often systemic nature of the social and environmental problems facing communities. This is a valuable step toward achieving responsible investment and sustainable development.
In his response RSPO CEO Mr. Webber says, “It is a dangerous call to ask stakeholders to disengage as the problems will remain unsolved rather than supporting to improve a system that is available and accessible to all.”
However, the article does not call on investors to disengage. To the contrary, we believe that investors have a responsibility to engage with companies to ensure they follow responsible business practices, including the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. The article echoes the call of 101 institutional investors representing $3.2 trillion in assets for greater transparency and responsiveness in RSPO redress processes. However, when companies fail to comply with best business practices that respect human rights and environmental norms, it is only reasonable to expect that their investors recognize the related material and reputational risks and withdraw their financing.
In his response, Mr. Webber says, “Here is a dilemma for FoE. If the criticisms continue to fall solely on companies who have made a move towards transparency platforms won’t it mean that FoE is part of a perverse incentive to keep supply chains opaque? Won’t it mean that recalcitrant actors will NEVER leave the intransparency?”
As civil society, we believe in informed criticism to hold companies, investors, and industries accountable to the commitments they have made in their own sustainability policies, as well as to the norms established by international law. Transparency is not an end in itself, but a means to achieve greater accountability and tangible change. While Mr. Webber notes that the RSPO communicated its decision to frontline NGOs supporting affected communities, we recognize the profound asymmetries in power, resources and capacity between rural communities and well-funded, international institutions.
In the end, we believe that achieving transformative change and social justice comes when local communities and peoples’ movements are empowered to hold institutions accountable. This includes multinational corporations and industry bodies, as well as governments responsible for upholding the rights of their citizens.
While GVL says that “the vast majority of our interactions are both positive and invested in the future success of palm oil,” the reality on the ground tells a starkly different story. In the various impacted communities I visited in Sinoe County, feelings of disaffection remain widespread and have persisted for the past six years. While many people may hold out high hopes for future success from palm oil, the past and present reality has put such a future in doubt.
– Gaurav Madan, Senior Forests and Lands Campaigner, Friends of the Earth United States