A British company, Equatorial Palm Oil plc, plans to expand its oil palm plantations on community land in Liberia. The Jogbahn Clan is fighting to keep the company off its land – covering an area of 20,000 hectares.
On 5 March 2014, Liberia’s President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, held a meeting with communities from the Jogbahn Clan and committed to make any expansion by Equatorial Palm Oil dependent on the approval of the communities affected.
The communities do not want the Equatorial Palm Oil’s plantations on their land and have said no to the company’s expansion plans. But the company continues to carry out studies of the Jogbahn Clan’s land in preparation for clearing.
Friends of the Earth International has produced a video of the Jogbahn Clan and their struggle against Equatorial Palm Oil:
Silas Kpanan’Ayoung Siakor, campaigner for the Liberian NGO Sustainable Development Institute comments:
“Equatorial Palm Oil must listen to the Jogbahn Clan and accept that their ‘no’ means ‘no’. The continuing determination of these communities is a cautionary tale for corporations who think they can ignore communities’ rights and ownership of land.”
On 19 December 2013, a coalition of international and Liberian NGOs (Global Witness, Friends of the Earth, FERN, Save my Future Foundation, Social Entrepreneurs for Sustainable Development, and Sustainable Development Institute) put out a press release accusing Equatorial Palm Oil of human rights abuses in its operations in Liberia. The press release revealed allegations that,
“EPO security personnel and members of the elite Liberian Police Support Unit (PSU) assaulted and arrested unarmed civilians who were objecting to the expansion of EPO’s plantation onto community customary-owned land in September 2013.
The company denies the allegations and claims to be “a responsible company and committed to sustainable oil palm development”. But on 4 October 2013, Sustainable Development Initiative supported citizens of 11 villages from the Jogbahn Clan to file a complaint to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil about Equatorial Palm Oil’s expansion of its plantations.
The petition to the company points out that,
As a member of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) your company is also required to adhere to the RSPO’s Principles and Criteria which include respect for the customary property rights of communities and FPIC.
The principle of free, prior and informed consent is part of Liberia’s 2009 Community Rights Law, as well as international human rights law. In 2012 and 2013, EPO cleared community land and planted oil palm, violating the right to free, prior and informed consent.
Equatorial Palm Oil has two palm oil concessions in Liberia covering a total of 89,000 hectares. On its website, the company states that it has also signed a memorandum of agreement for a third concession, covering 80,000 hectares.
The company was registered in the UK in September 2005, under the name Tari Resources. In November 2006, the company changed its name to Equatorial Biofuels, and in May 2008 it changed its name again to Equatorial Palm Oil. EPO is listed on the Alternative Investment Market of the London Stock Exchange. EPO’s directors are Michael Frayne, Geoffrey Brown, Lee Oi Hian, Teh Sar Moh Nee and Yap Miow Kien.
The company does not directly run the plantation operations in Liberia. EPO has a wholly owned subsidiary called Equatorial Biofuels (Guernsey) Limited. It’s registered in the tax haven of Guernsey.
In February 2011, Equatorial Biofuels (Guernsey) Limited formed a joint venture with a Singapore-based company called Biopalm Energy, part of the Siva Group, a US$3 billion Indian conglomerate. The joint venture is called Liberian Palm Developments Ltd, registered in the tax haven of Mauritius.
Liberian Palm Developments Ltd has four Liberian subsidiaries carrying out the company’s plantation and palm oil mill operations in Liberia.
In November 2013, Kuala Lumpur Kepong Berhad (KLK – based in Malaysia and one of the world’s biggest oil palm plantation companies) bought Biopalm Energy’s share of Liberian Palm Developments Ltd and 20.1% of EPO. KLK became the largest shareholder in EPO. In April 2014, EPO announced an agreement with KLK Agro Plantations Pte Ltd, a subsidiary of KLK. Under the deal KLK Agro will provide US$35.5 million funding for Liberian Palm Developments Ltd. The Company Secretary of KLK, Yap Miow Kien, was appointed as a non-executive director of EPO.
In April 2014, Rainforest Action Network published a report about KLK titled, “Conflict Palm Oil: Exposing KLK’s role in rainforest destruction, land grabbing and child labour”. The report documents how KLK fails to respect indigenous land rights in Papua New Guinea, KLK’s use of child and forced labour and destruction of orangutan habitat in Indonesia, and KLK’s landgrabbing in Liberia.
The US-based investment company, Dimensional Fund Advisers, holds more than US$12 million worth of shares in KLK. Dimensional is partly owned by Arnold Schwarzenegger – another example of Schwarzenegger profiting from forest destruction.
The simple idea behind REDD is to make forests worth more standing that cut down. But it’s difficult to see how REDD can help the communities of the Jogbahn Clan. The harsh reality is that after almost a decade of REDD negotiations, the Jogbahn Clan’s forests are worth more to EPO and KLK if they are bulldozed and replaced with oil palm monocultures.
To the Jogbahn Clan, the issue is not the economic value of the forests. As Chief Elder Chio Johnson says, “The land gives us everything.”
“We come from this land. Everything our ancestors left us is preserved in the forest, so why should we give it up?”
And after President Sirleaf supported the communities’ struggle for their land, Deyeatee Kardor, the Clan’s Chairperson, said,
“I am very happy my land is free. Because when our land is free, we’re all free.”
PHOTO Credit: Jason Taylor, Friends of the Earth.