Is Liberia's president going cold on the palm oil industry?

Earlier this month, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, told villagers who had travelled from the country’s rural hinterland to see her in the capital Monrovia that the international company they’ve been locked in conflict with for two years would not be allowed to expand its palm oil plantation on their land.

To the nation’s lively independent FrontPage Africa newspaper, this intervention was “remarkable”. To Goldman Environmental Prize winner Silas Kpanan’Ayoung Siakor it was “a victory for community rights in Liberia”.  And to those at the heart of this protracted and bitter saga - the hundreds of people in Grand Bassa County who said their survival was threatened by the expansion of a palm oil plantation owned by the UK-listed Equatorial Palm Oil (EPO) - the president’s positive response to their plea was cause for serious celebration.

“We were being ill-treated, we were beaten, we were taken to prison for this same land and so for the mother of this country to come in and say 'Look, I will make sure that the company stops where it is, until we can go into a dialogue’ is joyous news,” said one resident, Deyeati Carter.

Johnson Sirleaf’s decision appears to signal a dramatic change of heart for a leader who has signed 30 percent of Liberia’s land over to foreign investors - with 1.5 million acres allotted to palm oil companies - in a country where, as one NGO worker put it, ministers seem “drunk with the idea that international investment will bring economic recovery”.

The dispute with EPO, which began two years ago, was the latest clash between rural Liberians and companies rushing to acquire land to feed the growing global market for palm oil – a product found in around a third of products on supermarket shelves, according to one jaw-dropping estimate.

Widely reported complaints have been made against the Singapore-controlled Golden Veroleum (GVL), which holds a 350,000-hectare oil palm concession in south-western Liberia, and the Malaysian corporation Sime Darby, whose 311,187 hectare operation is in the north, and was recently the target of a suspected arson attack.

Allegations against EPO surfaced in 2012, when villagers living by the company’s Palm Bay Estate in Grand Bassa County accused the company of clearing their land and planting oil palm there without their consent. EPO insists all the land it has used has been legally acquired.

On September 18 last year - the same day a complaint was filed against EPO with the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), the industry’s voluntary certification body – events took an ominous turn.

For the complete article, please see FERN.