Climate & Energy Blog

When our land is free, we’re all free: Liberian communities (almost) kick out Equatorial Palm Oil

Posted May. 12, 2014 / Posted by: Jeff Conant

It is all too rare that communities in the global south -- or anywhere -- win recognition of their rights to say 'no' to extractive projects on their lands. So when we received news a few weeks ago that Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf stood up for communities there to kick out a major palm oil company called Equatorial Palm Oil, we were extremely excited to share the following article about it by Sustainable Development Institute/Friends of the Earth Liberia, this set of gorgeous photos, and this short video telling the story.

Sadly, the story changed quickly, when EPO pressed ahead to begin establishing plantations. Friends of the Earth International is circulating an update and a petition to tell EPO to get out and stay out of Liberia. (Sign the petition here.)

Before you watch the video or read the article, however, here's a primer in 4 steps on how a Malaysian company destroying Liberian rainforest under the name of a British firm is connected to ordinary people in the United States:

> 1. EPO's majority shareholder is the Malaysian company KLK, which, itself, is widely known to use child labor and other egregious practices.

> 2. In turn, U.S.-based investment company Dimensional Fund Advisors holds over US$12 million in KLK. DFA also holds over $2.5 billion (yes, billion), in companies with significant stakes in the palm oil sector.

> 3. DFA, as it happens, is partly owned by Arnold Schwarzenegger, and also manages money for a wide range of U.S. clients, from cities' endowments to pension funds.

> 4. So, as you read about this struggle against palm oil in Liberia, consider the role that we in the US can play to continue helping communities win their rights, by working to move our money out of investments tied to social and environmental destruction. -- Jeff Conant, International forests campaigner, Friends of the Earth

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When our land is free, we’re all free: Liberian communities kick out Equatorial Palm Oil

The sense of jubilation in Blayahstown is palpable. People come from surrounding villages to join in the celebrations and the town is filled with singing and dancing. The Jogbahn Clan is celebrating its victory as it has stopped Equatorial Palm Oil a British palm oil company from grabbing their land. This is no small feat in a country where over 50 percent of the land has been given to a corporation without the consent of the communities who own customarily own the land.

The sense of accomplishment is not lost on Chief Elder Chio Johnson who looks like he hasn’t stopped smiling since he returned from the Clan’s meeting with the president of Liberia where 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 up our forest?”

Walking through the forest Deyeatee Kardor, the Clan’s chairlady 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. Although the land might hold 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 with vegetables, wild palm and sugar cane growing all around. Like other rural communities in Liberia they make their livelihood from the land which they manage collectively. The clan are self-sufficient and manage the land sustainably. For the Clan to lose their land is to lose everything.

The communities’ resistance began in 2012 when EPO began to expand their plantation onto their land. The Government of Liberia and EPO had signed a concession agreement allowing the company’s plantation to engulf the communities’ land amounting to over 20,000 hectares. Communities all over Liberia are facing the same threat as their lands are given to companies without their consent. As a result conflict between communities and companies has been common.

The Clan organised and came together to resist their land being grabbed. Men, women and youth 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 object to the company’s expansion. In spite of this towards the end of 2012 EPO began clearing and planting 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 unit of the police 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 as 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 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 Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf where she recognized their right to say "no" to the company.

“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 to come. I will stay on this land and plant crops for my children so future generations can live off the land”

With their land secure the community is thinking about the future; “We want the government to support us to be self-sufficient on our land instead of giving it to a company who 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 mass of Liberia is grabbed from communities around the world. The Jogbahn Clan show that stopping it is possible when communities stand together, mobilise and resist. It has been a privilege to work in solidarity with the Clan and their drive and resilience has been a constant source of inspiration for everyone in SDI/FoE Liberia. The Clan are preparing to share the lessons of their 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”.

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