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Liberia: Land deals with foreign firms ‘could be sowing the seeds of future conflict’ (AllAfrica, Guardian)

Villagers and town residents in northwestern Liberia’s Grand Cape Mount County are trying to recover land they claim was seized from them and turned over to a Malaysian company.

In January, the people’s political representatives sent a petition to President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf demanding the return of their land.

May Freeman is a 42-year-old woman from Sinje Town. She said, “This is unbearable. Our government must care for us and don’t allow these people to kill us silently … This land belongs to us. We were born here and we give birth to our children here too. This is the only place we know.”

Pa Sando is the town chief of Konja. Looking out across farmland, he says, “I used to pick cocoa on this farm for more than 30 years. My grandfather planted it for us. All this area here was mine, and now it’s all gone.”

Mr. Sando said he was never asked whether he wanted to give up his land. He saw bulldozers in the bush and then his land was taken.

Much of rural Liberia’s population lives on land that has been in the family for generations. Most can’t afford the complicated process of acquiring land deeds, and under Liberian law the government owns all public land. Mr. Sando’s land was not registered, and therefore it belonged to the government.

Sime Darby Plantation (Liberia) Inc. is owned by the Malaysian-based multinational Sime Darby. In April 2010, the government granted the company a permit to cultivate 10,000 hectares of palm oil in Bomi and Grand Cape Mount counties. The land was leased for 63 years. The company has since applied for an additional 15,000 hectares in Grand Cape Mount County, and another 20,000 hectares in Gbarpolu County.

Residents of the village of Singhiam are quick to explain what the problems are, and where they feel the government and company have failed in their promises to provide jobs for local people and not to harm local agriculture. Their main grievance is lost livelihoods. Farmer Fakaomoh Touray explains, “There is no work here now. Everybody is just sitting down. It’s no joke. That’s why you see people running to Madina for meeting after meeting. They have got no food here.”

Villagers pointed disdainfully at a block containing four latrines, arguing this has been one of the few concrete benefits from the company’s presence.

In January, an article in The New York Times, published just four days after President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s inauguration, warned that the new government “may now be sowing the seeds of future conflict by handing over huge tracts of land to foreign investors and dispossessing rural Liberians.”

The President reacted immediately to Grand Cape Mount County concerns by visiting the area and meeting residents. She admitted the government should have gone about the negotiations differently. However, she told residents that when government signs documents with foreign companies, these cannot be changed.

Sime Darby has strongly denied the charges made against it. Company statements have stressed its commitment to sustainable agriculture and “regular and direct engagement with communities, adherence to national laws and regulations, environmental stewardship and the use of best agricultural practices.” The company argues that its Liberian concession area “is mostly abandoned agricultural land neglected during the civil wars, and degraded forests.”

Helmy Basha is Sime Darby’s plantation senior vice-president of the agribusiness division. He says, “For the next 15 years, we’re scheduled to invest in infrastructure like roads, bridges, electricity and piped water. We’ll also put up the mills.”

Liberia has signed natural resource deals with foreign investors which amount to a projected value of $19 billion. According to a report from Columbia University’s Center for International Conflict Resolution, an official from the Ministry of Planning said these deals cover almost half of the country’s total land area.

In Grand Cape Mount, Mr. Sando points to an area that used to be rich marshland full of mangroves. It is now filled with dirt, ready for the planting of more palm trees. Villagers are left with nowhere to fish or plant rice. Without the swamps, homes were flooded in the rainy season, and the only creek has almost dried up.

Farmers have been compensated, but the compensation generally covers only one harvest. Fatu Kamara said she was given $200 U.S. for the land she grew cassava on – just $3 for every year Sime Darby occupies it.

Here are some news stories related to the Liberian story on land investment:

-Liberia: The Plantation Blues http://allafrica.com/stories/201203010084.html

-Liberia: Land grab or development opportunity? http://allafrica.com/stories/201202171018.html

– Liberian land deals with foreign firms ‘could sow seeds of conflict’ http://www.guardian.co.uk/global-development/2012/feb/29/liberia-land-deals-could-seed-conflict

Here is a photo essay on the Sime Darby mining controversy in Liberia: Photo essay: http://allafrica.com/view/photoessay/post/post/id/201202290002.html

Here is the report referred to in the Liberian story: Center for International Conflict Resolution, 2012. “Smell-No-Taste”: The Social Impact of Foreign Direct Investment in Liberia. http://www.cicr-columbia.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/Smell-No-Taste.pdf

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