Warning: Look to Liberia

Where forests and farms once stood, oil palms now stretch as far as the eye can see...

Where forests and farms once stood, oil palms now stretch as far as the eye can see…

Citizens of Congo Basin countries need look no further than Liberia to see what uncontrolled palm oil development looks like. It’s a frightening sight.

Africa’s Vanishing Forests, published on December 4th, describes Liberia’s burgeoning palm oil industry in painful detail. This is not what “development” is supposed to look like.

Writing about the arrival of Singaporean investor, Golden Veroleum (GVL), in Liberia, author Jocelyn Zuckerman describes an all-too-familiar scenario:

– Deals signed without the consent of local communities;

– Community lands seized by the government and handed over to multinational corporations;

– Deforestation leading to extensive environmental damage and social upheaval with villagers deprived of their lands and livelihoods;

– Insufficient compensation, limited employment opportunities and increasing food prices and hunger;

– Corruption running throughout every deal;

– Local attorneys and officials overwhelmed by powerful multinational legal teams;

– Project opponents and journalists harassed and imprisoned.

The list goes on and on.

Zuckerman relates the story of a village called Pluoh, where villager, Benedict Menewah, tells his story:

He described how GVL had shown up with its Caterpillars in the village he’d grown up in and where his father, Smart Williams, still lived. Hearing the sound of machinery, Williams, a 77-year-old with stooped shoulders and clouded blue eyes, had gone to see what was up. Representatives from GVL, a Liberian company whose anchor investor is based in Singapore, asked to see his father’s deed, Menewah said. “We don’t have a deed,” Williams told them, “but this is our land. Where would we get a deed from?” (In fact, very few rural Liberians have physical documentation related to the land their families have inhabited for generations.) “They said the land was for the government,” Williams told me later, “not for us.” The company proceeded to plow under the family’s cassava, yams, and plantains, in addition to the 500 baby rubber trees that Menewah had recently planted with intentions of selling the latex. They disassembled Williams’s home and put the mud bricks on a tractor so he could rebuild elsewhere.

“The bush is our supermarket,” Menewah said, explaining how he used to hunt for small animals as well as gather fruit. “We get everything here. But now they’ve taken it all.” The company gave him a single payment of $340.

Williams was particularly broken up about the two breadfruit trees that his great-uncle had brought back from Ghana in 1922 and which, along with bush meat and “palm cabbage” (finely chopped, tender young palm leaves), had kept the family alive during the long years of fighting. “We lost our auntie, our uncle, our nephew, our niece,” Menewah said, spreading his arms to show me the horizontal scars from where the combatants had tied him up.

The coconut tree had apparently been left, along with the nearby papaya, as a courtesy when the company bulldozed everything else around the graves of Williams’s father and uncle. GVL encircled these with a rickety wooden fence. Whenever he or his father tries to tidy up the way they used to, Menewah said, “the company says we are damaging their property.”

Although Zuckerman underlines the responsibility of the host country governments for making things right (or wrong), she also brings up the important issue of the imbalance of power in these deals:

“Even the government of Liberia does not have the capacity to negotiate with these conglomerates,” (Liberian) attorney Brownell told me. “The government budget this year was $500 million [$553 million, to be exact]. Sime Darby’s is more than $3 billion; Golden Veroleum’s, $1.6 billion. These companies have the top-notch lawyers in the world, the top-notch advisers. The government of Liberia is like an ant when it’s negotiating with these people.”

To make matters worse, Brownell said in reference to the Sime Darby concession, there is little oversight to ensure that citizens’ needs are being met. “You don’t have any person from the government looking over it,” he said. “It’s a state within a state.”

Sime Darby’s head of communications, Carl Dagenhart, speaking by phone from Malaysia, admitted that the company is largely left to its own devices. “Whenever an investor is doing business in a country which has been traumatized to such a degree as Liberia, of course, in many respects we will be a little bit on our own,” he said.

The trend across the region is not encouraging and Liberia stands as an example of what can happen when palm oil is done wrong.  Read the whole article here: Africa’s Vanishing Forests

Further reading:

Sime Darby and Land Grabs in Liberia

The Bitter Taste of Liberia’s Palm Oil Plantations

More information at Farmlandgrab.org

Cargill: Expanding plantations from Indonesia to Cameroon


The Wall Street Journal reports that U.S. industrial agriculture giant, Cargill Inc., is seeking to expand its oil palm plantations in Indonesia. The company currently has more than 42,000 hectares of plantations in the country as well as an additional 27,000 hectares worked in partnership with smallholder farmers. Indonesia requires that at least 20% of plantation land be reserved for smallholder farmers.

According to the Wall Street Journal global demand for edible oils is rising by around 3% annually, but palm-oil consumption growth is as high as 7%. “Cargill argues that expansion is necessary to feed world’s growing population and rising industrial demand, but feels it can be achieved without endangering the environment.”

Cargill is also seeking land for palm oil development in several African countries, including Ivory Coast, Liberia and Cameroon. In Cameroon, the company is reportedly in late-stage negotiations for 50,000 hectares of land.

In May 2012 Reuters reported that, “U.S agribusiness conglomerate Cargill plans to invest up to 200 billion CFA francs ($390 million) in a 50,000-hectare oil palm plantation in Cameroon, an official at the Central African nation’s investment agency said on state radio.” Cameroon’s investment agency magazine, Investir au Cameroun, ran a short story reporting that Cargill was prospecting for 50,000 hectares — a plantation that could create 10,000 jobs.

Cargill is already present in Cameroon in the cocoa sector, where its joint venture partner, Telcar Cocoa, is the country’s leading cocoa exporter.

Last month the Rainforest Foundation reported that Cargill’s project was “close to signature.” If this land deal is secured, Cargill’s Cameroon palm oil operations in Cameroon will be on a similar scale to its Indonesian business.

Cargill and other agri-business firms are aggressively seeking land across West Africa and the Congo Basin but their actions don’t generate much media coverage. Massive palm oil deals in Liberia have been getting some attention, but the scale of the investment merits much more reporting. Golden Veroleum (Golden Agri Resources) and Sime Darby have each leased over 200,000 hectares in Liberia, for example. That’s about the same land mass as the state of Rhode Island. And Golden Agri Resources, the company that has been getting some good press lately for its zero deforestation policy in Southeast Asia, does not appear to be abiding by the same standards in Liberia.

Land deals in the Congo Basin region are getting even less attention. The Cargill negotiations have not been the subject of any reporting in Cameroon. Back in May a Cargill spokesperson said the company, “does not comment on speculations.” But shouldn’t the people of Cameroon be aware of major investments coming to the country? Bringing these deals out from the shadows is an important step for making them work for all stakeholders.