Fighting the power in Liberia
‘They refuse to talk to us about our land business. Because we are standing here, are we not people? We are somebody,’ said Elder Chio Johnson defiantly, looking through the tall iron gates locking him out of the office premises of Equatorial Palm Oil (EPO)/Kuala Lumpur Kepong Berhad (KLK) in Grand Bassa County, Liberia.
The Jogbahn clan had come to deliver a petition signed in solidarity by over 90,000 people to tell British and Malaysian palm oil companies that they must stop grabbing their land. However, the companies would not speak with the community. EPO also thwarted efforts to present the petition in London by refusing a meeting. Attempts to doorstop their London premises proved futile – the office appears to exist only in the form of a brass plate.
Still, the story of Jogbahn clan’s struggle has now travelled wide (in May New Internationalist published ‘When our land is free, we’re all free’) 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 Jogbahns 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.
In June Liberian communities affected by the major palm oil companies operating in the country – 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 share their experiences. These companies are European (UK), Asian (Malaysian, Indonesian and Singaporean) and African (Côte d'Ivoire) with considerable European financing. The same narrative of exploitation is playing out all over the country.
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. ‘If we lose our land how will we live?’ he asked. ‘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.’ Those who continued to protest faced assault and arrest.
Deyeatee Kardor, Jogbahn clan’s chair, 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.’
These discussions led to the development of a community solidarity network to provide a platform to work together.
The President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, has characterized community resistance to large scale concessions on their land as ‘communities’ harassment and extortion of investors’ which is undermining economic growth and harming ‘the renewed confidence that Liberia is still a good destination for investment’. The prevailing narrative of Liberia for so long was that of a country ravaged by a long and bloody conflict. The current narrative is of ‘Liberia Rising’, a country that has dusted off the ashes of the war and plans to be a middle income country by 2030 through a development path paved by Foreign Direct Investment.
Even if the Liberian government refuses to acknowledge agricultural concessions as a fraught national issue, it is being viewed as such internationally. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, the industry body for the palm oil sector, undertook a mission visit to Liberia, the first of its kind, to address the high volume of complaints against Golden Veroleum Liberia and Equatorial Palm Oil. However, the lack of any satisfactory resolution shows the inherent weaknesses of such industry-created voluntary mechanisms.
The voices of affected communities are also absent from the prevailing breadbasket narrative which argues that feeding the world requires investment in large scale agriculture to make Africa’s ‘unproductive’ land productive. A widely reported study, Food appropriation through large scale land acquisitions, used this narrative to claim that 300–550 million people could be fed if land grabbed from communities was used to improve crop production through large scale industrial agriculture. What the study failed to address was that the crops set to be produced on this grabbed land are not for food for domestic markets but cash crops for export. It also fails to acknowledge that hunger is political, not the result of a shortage of food production.
The former UN Special Rapporteur to the Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter argued that shifting to large scale, highly mechanized forms of agriculture will not solve hunger but make it worse. Poverty and hunger will be addressed by ensuring communities have access to land and resources and by supporting small scale local farmers. Smallholder agro-ecological farming can ensure the sustainable use of resources and sustainable livelihoods, outperforming the industrial agriculture model.
Seventy per cent of the world’s population is fed by smallholder farmers like the Jogbahn clan. The clan countered the unproductive land argument better than any academic paper could when they presented all the crops they produced on their land to the visiting RSPO delegation. ‘This is why we will not give up our land,’ said Chio. Though the Jogbahn clan continues to face the threat of the imminent clearing of their land, they will keep resisting. And the newly formed solidarity network will rouse other communities in Liberia to act in solidarity with communities resisting land grabs worldwide.
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. She is also Landgrab Campaigner for Friends of the Earth International. She also campaigns on trade justice, reproductive rights and social justice.
Silas Kpanan'Ayoung Siakor is a community rights campaigner and the founder of the Sustainable Development Institute/Friends of the Earth, Liberia a national civil society organization promoting the sustainable and just use of Liberia’s natural resources. Silas has received the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2006, the Award for Extraordinary Achievement in Environmental and Human Rights Activism from The Alexander Soros Foundation in 2012 and TIME magazine chose him as a Hero of the Environment in 2008.