Illegal logging is reducing globally, but deforestation continues as land is cleared for commercial agriculture. In Liberia, oil palm concessions were welcomed by the Government as a means to create jobs and infrastructure after the long civil war. Oil palm concession agreements handed over parcels of land from communities to companies on an extraordinary scale, without the involvement of those affected. The two largest concessions were granted to Sime Darby, a Malaysian company operating in the Western part of Liberia, and Golden Veroleum (GVL) in the Southeast. Equatorial Palm Oil has a smaller concession in the centre of the country. Fern interviewed James Otto of the Sustainable Development Institute to discuss the situation on the ground. He explained that Liberian forests are at risk from oil palm plantations and companies such as Sime Darby, Golden Veroleum Liberia and Equatorial Palm Oil.
James outlined that in Liberia the laws regulating agriculture or agri-businesses are weak. This means that communities depending on forests for their livelihoods are at risk. Indeed, when oil palm plantations come to their areas they have little or no say in whether and how their land will be used. Oil palm companies may also give them false hope about potential benefits from the plantation, such as jobs.
So what needs to happen?
The first move is to work with communities, empowering them to estimate how much they get from their local forests in terms of food, medicines, materials, and the oil palm that already grows there naturally and can be used to make palm oil which they can sell to buy other commodities. Communities should map their customary land and if they have accepted the oil palm companies on it, they should work with oil palm companies through a mediator who can ensure their free, prior and informed consent of any agreement.
The second move is to introduce a system similar to Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade Voluntary Partnership Agreements (FLEGT VPAs) for products grown on deforested land. This would ensure the government, local people, private companies and communities work together through a multi-stakeholder process to ensure previously untouchable companies cannot avoid the concerns of empowered and informed communities.
Independent mediators are essential to both moves as they work with communities, the Oil Palm Sector and the government to find solutions that work for all parties. These mediators could also provide legal advice to the communities and guidance to all sides.
James has a vision of a future that would see Liberian communities growing oil palm on small holdings where they retain the majority of the proceeds. Communities would be able to decide where to grow oil palm, thereby using less forest but achieving greater direct benefits for those who live in and around it.
Fern believes that the EU should create an action plan to protect forests and respect rights. Such a plan would facilitate community management of natural resources and help the EU meet the UN sustainable development goals (SDGs) it has signed up to. It would particularly help meet SDG15.2 “Sustainable management of forests, halt deforestation, restore degraded forests and substantially increase afforestation and reforestation globally.”