Friday, July 25, 2014

Communities' Resistance To Palm Oil At Odds With President's Stance

Liberia's Jogbahn Clan is at the forefront of efforts to resist the grab of Indigenous Peoples' land and forests for palm oil plantations. But according to the country's President, they are only 'harrassing and extorting' international investors.
"If we lose our land how will we live? We are in Africa, we live by our crops. Palm plantations can't help us!"
"They refuse to talk to us about our land business. Because we are standing here, are we not people? We are somebody."
So spoke Elder Chio Johnson defiantly looking through the tall iron gates of Equatorial Palm Oil (EPO) / Kuala Lumpur Kepong Berhad (KLK's) office in Grand Bassa County, Liberia.
His Jogbahn Clan had come to deliver a petition signed in solidarity by over 90,000 people to tell the UK and Malaysian palm oil companies that they must stop grabbing the Clan's land. However the companies refused to speak with the community.
EPO also thwarted efforts to present the petition in London, when they refused a meeting. Attempts to doorstop their London premises proved futile - the office appears to exist only in the form of a brass plate.

Even though the companies refused to speak with the communities the story of their struggle is now known all over the world with signatories for the petition coming from across the globe.
Their story has also been a source of inspiration for communities all over Liberia who like the Clan are facing dispossession from their land by agribusiness corporations that will replace their sustainable communities with monocultural plantations to produce certified 'sustainable' palm oil for the global market.
The fight many communities are facing in protecting their land is a fight for their very survival.
Last month Liberian communities affected by all four major palm oil companies; Equatorial Palm Oil / Kuala Lumpur Kepong Berhad, Golden Veroleum Liberia (Golden Agri-Resources), SIFCA / Maryland Oil Palm Plantation (Wilmar / Olam) and Sime Darby came together for the first time to discuss agriculture concessions as a national issue.

These companies are European (UK), Asian (Malaysian, Indonesian and Singaporean) and African (Côte d'Ivoire) with considerable European financing. The focus was on creating a space for these diverse communities to share their experiences.
The same narrative of exploitation is playing out all over the country; the companies' names were interchangeable. Bringing the communities together in this way laid the foundations for connecting their separate struggles.
Chio Johnson offered advice to the other communities, urging them to stay united in the face of the companies' divide and rule tactics. "Land is life, it is too valuable to lose", he warned.
Solomon Gbargee, a youth representative gave a stirring speech recounting the Clan's struggle so far and urged all the communities to stand together in their resistance of the companies:
 "If we lose our land how will we live? We are in Africa, we live by our crops. Palm plantations can't help us!"

Communities impacted by Wilmar's operations described resisting land clearances and the destruction of their property. When they objected to paltry compensation for destroyed crops they were told by their politicians: "If you want to get nothing, take to the streets" - where communities who continue to protest face assault and arrest.
Deyeatee Kardor, Jogbahn Clan's chairlady called on women to lead the struggle. "Because I stood up to the company people accused me of being a man but I carry the spirit of a thousand women", she proclaimed.
"For those of us under struggle with a palm company we must remain strong. My land is my land, your land is your land, your forest and bushes are your bank. Don't get tired. We cannot agree to leave our land."
Communities shared advice and support and these exchanges led to the development of a community solidarity network to provide a platform to work together.

In her ninth Address to the Nation in January 2014 the President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, characterised community resistance to large scale concessions on their land as "harassment and extortion of investors".
"Agriculture remains the key sector of the economy for local employment creation, poverty reduction, food security and income generation, as over 60 percent of the population depends on this sector for livelihood.
"Food security is listed as a national priority, but we must admit that there has been under-investment by both the public and private sectors. Only massive investment can fix this under-performing sector so that it can play the vital role of delivering inclusive economic growth, environmental sustainability and long-term poverty reduction.
"Our scarce budget resources cannot do this, given the many other priorities, so we will need to attract investment from the private sector. At the same time, the private sector will not respond if there is continued harassment, extortion and unreasonable community demands."
Her statement somehow failed to recognise that investors are primarily interested in the production of export cash crops - which does nothing to increase food security in Liberia. Indeed it achieves the very reverse, as land used for local food production is comandeered to produce commodities for global markets.
The result of community resistance, she later claimed, is to undermine Liberia's economic growth and harm "the renewed confidence that Liberia is still a good destination for investment".
Earlier this year she voiced support for the Jogbahn Clan's struggle against EPO - as reported by The Ecologist. But her promises have come to nothing.
Read more here

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