Resisting corporate takeover: 'when our land is free, we’re all free'

Silas Siakor and Jacinta Fay document the Jogbahn Clan’s struggles against agribusiness in Liberia.

From 6 to 8 May, agribusiness corporations courted African governments at the Grow Africa Investment Forum in Abuja, Nigeria, to ‘further accelerate sustainable agricultural growth in Africa’.

Corporations’ interest in agriculture in Africa has certainly accelerated corporate control of land and seeds but done little to support agriculture that will feed the continent. Rather than support family farming and smallholder agriculture, private-sector investment in agriculture has resulted in grabbing land from communities; land that they farm sustainably and on which they rely for their survival.

Communities are resisting this corporate takeover of their land and some are winning.

The Jogbahn Clan in Liberia is one such community.

Celebrating a victory.

SDI/FoE Liberia

The jubilation in Blayahstown is palpable. People come from surrounding villages to join in the celebrations and the town is filled with singing and dancing. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the President of Liberia, has now recognized the Clan’s right to say no to Equatorial Palm Oil (EPO), a British palm oil company grabbing their land. This is no mean feat in a country where, published in 2013, according to the Rights and Resources Group report over 50 per cent of the land has been given to corporations without the consent of the communities who customarily own it.

The sense of accomplishment is not lost on Chief Elder Chio Johnson. He looks like he hasn’t stopped smiling since returning from the Clan’s meeting with the President, Liberia at which she committed to support them in protecting their land from being grabbed by EPO. ‘Why should a company take away our livelihood?’ asked Chio. ‘We come from this land. Everything our ancestors left us is preserved in the forest, so why should we give it up?’

Walking through the forest, Deyeatee Kardor, the Clan’s Chairperson, picks leaves and describes the different medicines that they can be used for. She recounts how she and her family hid in the forest throughout the war and managed to survive on the plants and fruits growing in the bush. Though the land bears the scars of the recent past, it also represents the Clan’s ancestral home and they would not willingly allow this deep connection to the land to be fractured.

‘The land gives us everything,’ Chio says as he surveys the area; the vegetables, wild palm and sugar cane growing all around. Like other rural communities in Liberia, the Clan make their livelihood from the land they manage collectively. They are self-sufficient and manage the land sustainably. For them, to lose their land is to lose everything.

Standing up to big business

The communities’ resistance began in 2012 when EPO began to expand its plantation onto community land. The government of Liberia and EPO officials had signed a concession agreement allowing the company’s plantation to engulf the communities’ land amounting to over 20,000 hectares. Land given to companies without their consent has resulted in conflict between communities, companies and the police.

Coming together to resist.

SDI/FoE Liberia

The Clan organized and came together to resist their land being grabbed. Men, women and young people from the 11 affected towns chose representatives to form a core group to lead the resistance. They met the company and the government several times to voice their objections. In spite of this, towards the end of 2012 EPO began clearing and planting on their land, destroying crops and farmland.

In September 2013, EPO began surveying the communities’ land without their consent. When communities attempted to stop the survey, a paramilitary police unit was deployed into the area. People suffered harassment and intimidation by EPO security and the police. They drove through villages at night flashing their emergency lights and arrived in villages riding on top of vehicles the same way rebel fighters did during the war. People were also assaulted during a peaceful march and 17 people suffered arbitrary arrest. The Clan Chief was also suspended from his position by the government because he spoke out against the company.

Despite these aggressive tactics, the community continued resisting. They lodged a complaint to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) and presented a petition to the government stating their objections. ‘All they have done is try to divide us,’ commented Deyeatee. ‘They offer important people a little money to try to convince them.’ However, the community refused to be weakened by division and eventually secured the crucial meeting with the President where she recognized their right to say ‘no’ to the company.

EPO began clearing land in 2012.

SDI/FoE Liberia

‘The struggle has made us stronger than ever before and we’ve learned a lesson to stay united,’ said Anthony Johnson. ‘The success is so great as it secures my future and the future of my children. I will stay on this land and plant crops for my children so the coming generations can live off the land.’

Despite the President’s commitment, EPO has still not recognized that the Clan has said ‘no’. They are operating as if things were business as usual and conducting studies of the Clan’s land in preparation for clearing. But now, any land clearing would violate Liberian law and be illegal under international law as it does not respect communities’ Free Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC).

But the Clan is not discouraged; it continues its resistance in the hope of a better future: ‘We want the government to support us to be self-sufficient on our land instead of giving it to a company that will just take the money and go home. Instead, we can keep the money in Liberia and we can live better lives,’ said Garmondeh Benwon.

Every year, an area five times the land size of Liberia is grabbed from communities around the world. The Jogbahn Clan is preparing to share the lessons of its struggle and give hope to other communities resisting landgrabbing.

‘I am very happy my land is free,’ said Deyeatee, ‘Because when our land is free, we’re all free.’

Support the Jogbahn Clan to protect its land and resources and tell EPO that ‘no means no’ by signing the petition.

Jacinta Fay is a community worker and campaigner for the Community Rights and Corporate Governance Programme of the Sustainable Development Institute/Friends of the Earth Liberia.

Silas Siakor is also a campaigner for the Community Rights Programme and founder of the Sustainable Development Institute/Friends of the Earth, Liberia.

Read New Internationalist's magazine on Land grabs, including the keynote article The smallholders' last stand.