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Liberia: "Riot on the Plantation" - in-depth account of May 2015 protests at Golden Veroleum site, causes & aftermath

Author: Elaisha Stokes, Al Jazeera America, Published on: 4 October 2015

"Riot on the Plantation", 4 Oct 2015

In Liberia, palm oil has set off a dangerous scramble for land... When [Golden Veroleum Liberia] planted its first oil palm seedlings in 2010, villagers hoped they might find employment with the company. But for most the jobs didn’t materialize... They were farmers by trade, but farmland had become scarce since the company came to town. Now villagers had no land and no jobs, and they were angry... On May 26, [with] senior GVL Butaw...[local people protested and] hundreds of young men and women wielding rocks and sticks ran through the property... A police contingent sent to restore calm was quickly overrun... The plantation’s operations were shut down and the grounds completely evacuated, save for a few staff to keep watch...

“In awarding a contract, mistakes were made,” says Walter Wisner, the current vice chair of the Land Commission, a government agency that was created to address the issue of ownership. “There was no consultation with local people..." ...Prior to the riot, local leaders were scheduled to walk the boundaries of their land with GVL staff to determine where the company might plant its seedlings next... The community members desperately wanted the jobs that an expansion could bring, and GVL had 3 million seedlings ready to be sown. But after the riot, that meeting was postponed.

When GVL came to Butaw, Manewah was elected to speak for A-Bloteh, the group that represents the Butaw people in negotiations... Almost all of the correspondence regarding the riot and its immediate aftermath notes that Manewah was not involved. Yet his name remained on the writ of arrest [relating to responsibility for the riot], in which GVL is listed as the plaintiff...

Eighteen young men crowd [a small, windowless cell]... Most have physical injuries: cuts and bruises, swollen faces... All of these were received from the police, say the detainees, who insist that they were not among the rioters... In total, 35 villagers were arrested... [By] mid-August at least 15 of the men were still in custody [but had not been tried]... [One, Fred Thompson,] was incarcerated for 49 days before dying of unknown causes. He was quickly buried, without an autopsy...

In the future, the company hopes, [the] number [of Liberians it employs] will rise to 40,000... [Villagers'] children will attend company schools. They will...complete their university educations. And when they return home, they will manage the plantation where they grew up.

Manewah is less convinced.

[also refers to Kraft (now Kraft Heinz), Nestlé, Unilever, Procter & Gamble]

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Related companies: Golden Veroleum Liberia Kraft Heinz Nestlé Procter & Gamble Unilever