Liberia: Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil hands down decision relating to community complaints against Golden Veroleum

Following a protracted process that included in-country site visits and interviews with NGOs and affected community members, the complaints panel of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) has handed down its final decision relating to complaints against Golden Veroleum's Liberian operations. The decision, related media items, and GVL's response are provided below.

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2 May 2019

Liberia: Lawyer forced into exile after fighting palm oil industry receives Goldman Environmental Prize

Author: Abdi Latif Dahir, Quartz Africa

"How challenging the powerful global palm oil industry forced a Liberian lawyer into exile", 29 April 2019.

...Deforestation has...become a critical issue for the forest cover, particularly with the growing demand for palm oil that is used in everything from cosmetics and food to cleaning products...The efforts to ensure Liberia’s tropical forests remain intact is why Liberian lawyer Alfred Brownell, 53, was among those granted the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in San Francisco today...

In 2010, Liberia’s government signed a 65-year concession agreement to develop over 543,000 acres of land with Golden Veroleum Liberia (GVL), a subsidiary of the Singapore-listed company Golden Agri-Resources. Yet the company was immediately accused of clearing community forests and desecrating burial grounds and sacred sites without notifying residents or adequately compensating them. Because Brownell knew that GVL depended on its certification with the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, he helped launch a community complaint that halted plantation expansion and protected 513,500 acres–or roughly 94% of the forest leased to GVL...Tensions rose after the company failed to deliver the promised jobs and roads to the community, leading to violent demonstrations against it at a plantation in Sinoe County. Brownell again intervened, securing the release of 14 out of 15 community members who were arbitrarily detained. One of them had died in mysterious circumstances.

With his rising profile, Brownell was targeted for his work and found himself at the center of a national manhunt—eventually escaping with his family in mid-December 2016 to the United States...In 2018, he also became the Beau Biden Chair’s inaugural recipient, a fund dedicated to preserving the lives and knowledge base of scholars who are in danger...

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4 October 2015

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

Author: Elaisha Stokes, Al Jazeera America

"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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29 September 2015

Liberia: 'Panel vindicates GVL'

Author: Mulbah, In Profile Daily (Liberia)

'Panel vindicates GVL', 29 Sep 2015: The Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO)…issued its final report on complaints filed against Golden Veroleum Liberia (GVL) by various advocacy organizations…[relating to] claims of illegality of the GVL concession agreement…Free Prior Informed Consent process…inadequate compensation and Community Development Fund…employment, harassment and intimidation, hiring of former combatants, claim of GVL mining, flawed environmental Protections…The RSPO…Panel…[was satisfied] that GVL had satisfied its requirements…

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28 September 2015

Liberia: Golden Veroleum welcomes final decision of RSPO

Author: Golden Veroleum Liberia

'RSPO final decision on Golden Veroleum', 28 Sep 2015: The…final decision…[of] the Complaints Panel of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil has been welcomed by Golden Veroleum Liberia. The…decision…[i]nclude[s]…clarifications on the GVL Concession Agreement, employment, Free Prior and Informed Consent, employment of former combatants, crop compensations…“We thank RSPO for many months of looking into all the details surrounding these complaints and coming up with what they have noted to be evidence-based decisions,” said Stephen Binda, GVL Spokesperson. In each case RSPO conducted a detailed assessment of GVL operations and its community engagements, along with consultations with local communities and NGO and CSO stakeholders, according to Binda…RSPO members completed a field visit to Sinoe and Grand Kru Counties…[and] met with community members and GVL staff and managers… 

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18 September 2015

Liberia: Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil's final decision regarding GVL complaint

Author: Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil

'Complaint - Golden Veroleum Liberia- Final Decision', 19 Sep 2015: ...The [Rountable on Sustainable Palm Oil]  [p]anel has reviewed the responses from the complainant CSO’s…The following is their final decision…RSPO members in Liberia including GVL and stakeholders (NGO/CSOs) are encouraged to play an active role in the formation of a National Oil Palm Advisory Committee in Liberia to address complaints, concerns and issues related to oil palm development… GVL must implement the revised SOPs on FPIC [standard operating procedures on free, prior & informed consent] and the right of communities to say ‘no’ must be respected. Communities must be provided with relevant documents (e.g. concession agreement). Intimidation or coercion is prohibited…Access of NGOs to villages must not be restricted…GVL is provide a quarterly progress report on all of the complaints for a period of 12 months. The Panel shall review the progress at the end of the 12 months and make further decisions as appropriate…

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26 May 2015

Liberia: Protest by Golden Veroleum employees over "low wages, bad labour practices" turns violent; includes company comments

Author: Front Page Africa (Liberia)

'Sinor-country concession area hit by rioting, several fleeing', 27 May 2015:…[W]orkers of…Golden Veroleum…staged a…violent…protest…against low wages and bad labor practices…GVL’s Human Resource Manager was reportedly seized for several hours…property damage is estimated around US$1 million…more attacks are…planned if management fails to address the employees' concerns…Alfred Brownell, who has been providing legal support to the people of Butaw…[said]…“…We hear of mass arrests and detentions but we are preparing…support for the community…”…GVL…[said] [it] will continue to work closely with government and local communities…“We…agree…that there is a need to employ more Liberians in management and professional roles, which we are committed [to] achieving,” GVL Spokesman Stephen Binda said….“GVL takes seriously its management training and career development programs through which several hundred Liberians have benefited…”

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