A forest of obstacles for Liberia’s palm oil industry
Commercial pressures, community expectations and conservation demands are weighing on Liberia’s palm oil industry
In parts of rural western Liberia, gated entrances manned by private security guards divide red dirt tracks from the main road. Behind them are neat rows of squat palm trees belonging to Sime Darby Plantation, one of the world’s biggest palm oil producers. The tracks meander through the plantations, arriving at settlements that predate the arrival of the company. These villages now find themselves hemmed in by oil palm trees, which produce bunches of shiny, reddish fruit containing the sought-after oil.
Even the most basic amenities, such as functioning hand pumps for drawing water, are often lacking here. Most of the inhabitants eke out a living through subsistence farming, growing crops such as cassava and hot pepper or producing charcoal. A few lucky ones work as labourers or security guards on the plantation.
But the number of employees is dwindling as Malaysia-based Sime Darby prepares to leave Liberia, just a decade into a 63-year concession agreement with the government to produce palm oil for export.
"Sime Darby deceived us," says community leader Gbally Boimah in Gaya Hill, a town within Sime Darby’s plantation in Bomi County. "They used us to plant for them and then just left us. They told us we would be with them for 63 years."
Gaya Hill consists of about 300 homes — but only three inhabitants are still employed by Sime Darby.
Palm oil is the most widely used vegetable oil in the world, contained in products that range from bread to shampoo and biofuels, and demand has more than doubled since 2000.
The oil palm is an efficient crop that yields greater volumes of oil per hectare than rivals such as rapeseed or soy. But there are major concerns about deforestation to make way for new plantations and about the impact on rural communities who are losing rights to their land — and livelihoods — in unscrupulous deals.
When companies in Southeast Asia, the world’s principal oil palm region, ran out of land for expansion, parts of West and Central Africa were identified as promising new frontiers. There appeared to be an abundance of land available for plantations, combined with a favourable tropical climate and governments keen to welcome large-scale foreign investors.
But the reality has often been disappointing, for companies and their African hosts in equal measure. And nowhere more so than Liberia, in which only 7% of the land allocated for oil palm concessions since 2008 has been planted.
There is widespread agreement that the way the concessions were granted caused problems from the outset.
In the early 2000s, the government was desperate to attract foreign investment to jump-start an economy crippled by 14 years of conflict, and to create jobs for its citizens. Palm oil was considered a low-hanging fruit, and more than 600,000ha of land were hastily allocated to Sime Darby and three other companies.
"The concession-granting process took a top-to-bottom approach," says Gregory Coleman, who until recently served as the director-general of Liberia’s National Bureau of Concessions. "Most of the arrangements were made at central government level and later taken to the people."
This proved to be a serious error. The agreements signed in Monrovia refer to land the government guaranteed would be "free from encumbrances".
But companies arrived to find communities who had not been consulted about handing over their customary land. Complaints of land-grabbing were lodged with international watchdogs, and aggrieved residents carried out several attacks on company assets. Theft of crops also became commonplace.
Golden Veroleum Liberia (GVL), a subsidiary of Singapore-based Golden Agri-Resources, which holds rights to 220,000ha for oil palm cultivation, has developed less than half of the 40,000ha it expected to by this time.
In a written statement to the FM, GVL identifies shortfalls in land acquisition as its most significant challenge, saying that "the critical issue … [is] that land is not unencumbered".
But the companies are by no means blameless in their interactions with communities, says Simpson Snoh, programme liaison for the Alliance for Rural Democracy, a civil society group focusing on land rights issues. "The companies tried to get land as quickly as possible. They should have started with smaller areas to demonstrate good things to neighbouring communities."
Global scrutiny of the palm oil industry is high, leading companies including GVL and Sime Darby to sign up to initiatives such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a certification body with standards designed to reduce the impact on communities and the environment. But in Liberia, guidelines about gaining consent to operate from affected communities have not always been followed.
"RSPO thinking had not filtered into practice sufficiently at the time, and the companies started off on a wrong foot by not properly following the process of free, prior and informed consent," says Philippa Atkinson, an independent consultant specialising in social safeguards in the palm oil sector. "If the companies were starting out today, we might be in a very different situation."
Complaints about GVL’s land acquisition practices led to the company’s temporary withdrawal from the RSPO in 2018.
James Otto, programme co-ordinator at the Sustainable Development Institute, describes GVL’s failings in attempting to negotiate with an entire district in Sinoe County. "Parts of the district said: ‘We don’t agree with what you’re signing,’" he says. "[GVL] should have done a more specific consultation process with different segments of the district."
Very few communities are wholeheartedly opposed to the companies’ presence in their area. But problems arise when there is a mismatch between community expectations and what the companies are willing or able to provide in terms of jobs, schools and infrastructure in exchange for land.
"The communities are desperate for opportunities," says Otto. "They want jobs and roads because the government has failed to provide these basic social services. So the companies make promises they don’t keep to get consent from the communities to acquire land."
Bendu Sando is a mother of three from another palm-enclaved community in Bomi County that granted land to Sime Darby.
"We’re fed up with Sime Darby. Let them go!" she says.
The father of Sando’s children died in the 2014-2016 Ebola epidemic, and she provides for her family by selling cassava and charcoal.
"We’ve got no jobs, and Sime Darby put a stop to us planting our pepper and bitterball because they said our garden can infect their farm," she says.
Lovetee Kamara, 32, adds: "Before, there were three, but now only one person from this community is working for Sime Darby.
"We were expecting the men to work so we could live a better life, but our husbands and brothers are just sitting doing nothing."
The companies, for their part, complain of demands that fall beyond the scope of their agreements.
Sime Darby was unavailable for comment due to ongoing exit negotiations, but GVL, in its response to the FM, describes unrealistic employment expectations and "unplanned expenses", such as "support for repairs and upkeep of public infrastructure including roads and bridges … [that] can divert company resources and add up to significant drains on the investment".
Community pushback isn’t the only hindrance. Companies that commit to sustainable palm oil production are subject to strict forest conservation principles.
Liberia has more than 40% of West Africa’s remaining primary forest — and there is strong international pressure for this to be preserved.
"Even if the community gives you the forest, you cannot tear it down," says former concessions bureau chief Coleman.
The issue has been particularly significant for Sime Darby, which has been able to develop only 5% of its concession area. This is in large part due to the presence of trees storing high levels of carbon, which would be released into the atmosphere once felled, contributing to global warming.
The RSPO forbids the clearing of high-carbon stock forests — but Liberia has yet to agree to a definition of what constitutes a forest, and thus the carbon threshold that would trigger conservation. A satellite survey to determine the carbon content of the area also needs to be completed.
Until these questions are answered, development of the concession is severely restricted.
The Zodua clan in northwestern Liberia has been eagerly awaiting Sime Darby’s expansion after consenting to give land to the company.
"We want Sime Darby to come here because we want development in our area," says Fali town chief Momoh Zodua. "But the carbon study has stopped them, so we’re asking for [the hold on development] to be lifted."
The companies’ inability to expand is due largely to strong campaigning by civil society organisations. They have in some ways assumed the government’s role by acting as a watchdog over concession activities and representing community interests.
But civil society activism falls short of creating an enabling environment for sustainable investment. As a result, the promised human development has not occurred and ordinary people, like the inhabitants of Gaya Hill, remain poor.
There is also concern about whether Sime Darby’s successor, a local Lebanese-owned company called Mano Manufacturing Co, will adhere to the same voluntary sustainability principles that govern interactions with communities and protect the forest.
Asked whether it sees a long-term future in Liberia, GVL says that, "like the remaining companies, [we continue] to face significant challenges. GVL accepts that its original plans for Liberia have to be reassessed. It remains committed now but … also needs to be responsible to its investors."
Plans have been under way for several years to launch an outgrower scheme, under which communities would manage their own oil palm farms and sell their produce to the companies. This would boost communities’ incomes, and is expected to reduce demands for direct employment.
The outgrower model also contains provisions to conserve portions of primary forest. However, there have been numerous bottlenecks, including disputes about financing, as well as reticence among companies to participate before their core plantations have been fully established.
For that to happen, the companies need more land.
"The root issue is respect [for] the rights of the people," says Coleman. "We need to follow a bottom-to-top process."
It’s a sentiment echoed by Gaya Hill chief Mannah Deno. "We love Sime Darby," he says. "But Sime Darby doesn’t respect us. It only respects the big people. We are the ordinary people."