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THE NEW SNAKE OIL? The violence, threats, and false promises driving rapid palm oil expansion in Liberia.


Global Witness

July 23, 2015

Urgent reforms needed to protect citizens and regulate plantation companies.

As Liberia emerges as a new frontier market for the cheapest, most popular vegetable oil globally, Liberians report being beaten, threatened, and arrested for taking a stand against one of the world’s biggest palm oil plantations in the southeast of the country.

State officials are said to be helping the palm oil company Golden Veroleum (GVL) harass communities into signing away their land and crush dissent. Global Witness reveals how GVL accelerated its operations at the peak of Liberia’s 2014 Ebola outbreak, holding meetings with hundreds of people and encouraging illiterate citizens to sign away their land rights when community support groups were staying home for risk of contagion. At this time GVL almost doubled the size of its plantation.

This behaviour hasn’t discouraged the world’s major banks from offering their services. Standard Chartered, HSBC, and Citibank alone hold shares in GVL’s parent company – Golden Agri-Resources (GAR) – worth nearly US$ 1.5 billion.

The case of GVL risks becoming the first chapter of a longer narrative of dispossession and abuse. Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has made agriculture a central pillar of the country’s development strategy, making repeated – yet so far unfulfilled – public assurances that palm oil will lift poverty in rural areas. In response to early protests at GVL’s plantation she called those who spoke out against the company “unpatriotic” as they risked discouraging future investors.

Hear from communities about signing deals with GVL, called Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs).

GVL has bought the rights to convert 2,600 km2 of southeast Liberia into an oil palm estate – an area the size of London and Barcelona combined. Its contract is valid for up to 98 years, affecting some 41,000 people.

Public meetings where landowners were encouraged to hand over their land to GVL were watched over by powerful local officials, and in at least one case armed police. Global Witness also documents several accounts of violent assaults and arbitrary arrests of those who voiced their concerns.

The benefits offered by GVL to communities in return have been negligible. Those willing to work for the company are promised access to free medical support and schools. For non-employees, the most tangible negotiated benefits Global Witness could find evidence of were six toilets.

The violence and intimidation documented in Liberia parallels a disturbing global trend of increased attacks on human rights activists who protect the environment and defend their land. Activists are being killed in record numbers, threatened and criminalised for standing in the way of so-called ‘development’. 

Ten percent of Liberia is now earmarked for agricultural plantations – an area three times the size Beijing. This rapid expansion is taking place in a legal vacuum. There are no laws in Liberia to govern how agriculture companies should be awarded contracts, how they should operate, or how they will be held to account.

Global Witness is calling on Liberia’s government to investigate acts of violence, pass a law recognising that rural communities own their land, and regulate the country’s agriculture sector to bring an end to the impunity enjoyed by plantation companies.

Watch the rate of GVL expansion in Liberia from 2011 – 2015 here.  

GVL and GAR have denied wrongdoing. GVL stated that it has played no part in the intimidation of community members in its plantation area and that its operations between August and October 2014 – when the Ebola outbreak was at its peak – were part of its long-term plan. GAR has acknowledged that its operations have experienced “challenges” but that it is working to improve its procedures. Representatives of HSBC and Citibank stated that its shares in GAR are held “in custody” for other ultimate (beneficial) shareholders.

Read full responses from GVL here and here, from GAR here. Communication from one of GAR’s investors Kopernick Global Investors, can be found here.

Read The New Snake Oil report here

Download the press release here 

FIND OUT MORE

Alice Harrison, Communications Adviser

aharrison@globalwitness.org

+44(0)7841 338792

Analysis: New law fails to ease oil concerns in Uganda


IRIN NEWS

KAMPALA/NAIROBI, 13 December 2012 (IRIN) – Uganda’s parliament recently passed a law to govern the exploration, development and production of the country’s estimated three billion barrels of oil, a resource whose extraction will directly affect the livelihoods of tens of thousands of people.

While the law streamlines the burgeoning industry, analysts have raised concerns over transparency and over who controls the sector.

“The new law helps set clear guidelines under which the oil sector is to be run and managed, and makes clear who is in charge of what roles,” said Tony Otoa, director of Great Lakes Public Affairs (GLPA), a Uganda-based think tank focusing on oil and governance. “However, there are some concerns about transparency and too much power within the oil industry in the hands of the president.”

The bill was passed on 7 December after weeks of wrangling over its controversial Clause 9, which gives the energy minister wide-ranging powers, including authority over the granting and revoking of oil licenses, negotiating and endorsing petroleum agreements, and promoting and sustaining transparency in the petroleum sector. Many members of parliament (MPs) felt these powers should be held by an independent national oil authority.

“Essentially, the standoff, which has ended, was about the withdrawal of trust from a government that is battered by corruption scandals. Also the way the cabinet operates is that, in the past, the feeling has been that some key ministries, like finance, are effectively run by the presidency after being stuffed by yes-men or -women. The pushback against Clause 9 also comes as the Central Bank opened its vaults to a large withdrawal in 2010 [US$740 million to buy six fighter jets] only for approvals to be sought retrospectively,” said Angelo Izama, a Ugandan journalist and oil sector analyst.

“Loss of trust”

“This loss of trust is behind the resistance to greater control by the executive,” he added. “The executive has not been a bad shepherd of the process so far. Uganda’s negotiating position has been tougher with the oil companies, ironically, without the oversight of parliament. However, public scandals elsewhere have negatively affected the ability of the president to convince lawmakers – especially of his party – that he means well.”

A number of donors – including the UK and Ireland – recently suspended aid to Uganda following allegations of deep-rooted corruption in the Office of the Prime Minister. The prime minister, the former energy minister and the foreign affairs minister were all accused of taking kick-backs from oil companies in 2011, charges that remain unproven but that nevertheless damage the reputation of the government.

“The country lacks trust in the state… Institutions and officials have lost legitimacy, and for such an important bill to vest too much power into a political appointee is a recipe for disaster,” said Stephen Oola, a transitional justice and governance analyst at Uganda’s Makerere University Refugee Law Project.

“Granting and revoking licenses and negotiations are technical in nature. We need an independent commission or authority made up of people of good competence, technical ability and experience, and good morals to guard our oil,” said Frank Gashumba, a local businessman and social activist.

Proponents of Clause 9 say licensing powers are safer in the hands of the cabinet than under an oil authority. “The authority is open, easy to bribe and manipulate. Cabinet is bigger than the authority – members of the executive are answerable to Ugandans because they are elected leaders,” said Kenneth Omona, a ruling party MP.

Those opposed to it say they will challenge the law, which was passed with 149 votes in favour and 39 against; some 198 MPs did not turn up to vote.

“The fight is not complete; the passing of the bill is liable to be challenged in courts of law,” said Theodore Ssekikubo, ruling party MP and chair of the parliamentary forum on oil and gas. “If we fail to go to court, we shall subject the matter to a referendum for all Ugandans to pronounce themselves on this strategic resource. We want to ensure transparency and accountability in the oil sector.”

Transparency

There are also concerns about the law’s confidentiality clause, which limits the amount of information accessible by the public.

“The law is lacking transparency – it imposes confidentiality on officials working within the sector, even after they leave office, so there is no opportunity for whistle-blowing or for the public to have access to information on, say, production-sharing agreements,” GLPA’s Otoa said.

He noted that Uganda still hasn’t joined the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), an international scheme that attempts to set a global standard for transparency in oil, gas and mining, further compounding the sector’s lack of transparency. As a member of the EITI, Uganda and oil companies involved in the country would be required to publish all payments and revenues from the industry.

While Total and the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC), two of Uganda’s major oil partners, are listed on Wall Street and are therefore subject to the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act – which requires disclosure of payments relating to the acquisition of licenses for exploration and production of oil, gas and minerals – the Irish firm Tullow Oil, another of Uganda’s main oil partners, is not under any similar obligations.

“I am worried we [legislators] and the public can’t access and scrutinize these agreements. You can imagine the recently negotiated and signed oil agreements have not been accessed by the public, not even by members of parliament,” Beatrice Anywar, former shadow energy minister, told IRIN.

The impact of the oil sector has so far been most acutely felt by communities around Lake Albert, thousands of whom have had to move – some willingly and some forcefully – to make room for an oil refinery, which is expected to take up 29sqkm and displace some 8,000 people.

Land issues

“The government is prosecuting the refinery resettlement by the book. However, managing public expectations and the process of multiple decision makers in Uganda’s complex land legal system [Uganda has multiple land systems, including customary, leasehold and freehold] has contributed some volatility to the process… What is adequate compensation? And who determines that? Is it the market or should this be done by the government?” said journalist Izama.

“As a partner to the oil companies, it’s questionable too if the government can make the best decisions for the affected people as it would look to keep project costs fairly low,” he continued. “It is still a dilemma which is jurisprudential as well as political.”

He noted that much of the oil is in game reserves and a sensitive basin with lakes, rivers and a rare biodiversity, and borders the Democratic Republic of Congo, which could also pose challenges for peaceful production; there has already been some tension between the two countries over their boundaries within Lake Albert.

“The process of consensus-building is still weak, and regardless of how it’s arrived at, displacements will create uncomfortable realities, including land and job pressure.”

According to Otoa, Uganda’s lack of a comprehensive land policy makes compensation issues more complex. “We need clear land policies to ensure people are properly compensated – there is a Resettlement Action Plan in place, but it has not been implemented, and a draft land policy has not been actualized, leaving these communities vulnerable,” he said.

He noted that the lack of education among the local population, both in the oil-rich areas and the rest of the country, had contributed to the continued problems in the sector.

“We have focused too much on educating MPs on the implications and importance of good oil governance. We need to move to people-centred approaches and encourage dialogue in the public sphere, which will lead to people demanding accountability from their MPs and the government,” he added.

Ultimately, Izama said, responsible actions by the government will be the difference between Uganda’s oil making a significant impact on the country’s economy or causing conflict and greater poverty.

“Pressure on public institutions prior to commercial oil production is an effective way of counteracting the resource curse. If this public engagement falters, if the transition [from President Museveni to his successor] is volatile, some of the scenarios of the so-called oil curse are possible,” he said. “Overall the tensions are high, but responsible actions by public and political institutions like the past debate show progress is possible.”

U.S. Company Linked to Refugee Abuses In Tanzania


CorpWatch

By  Pratap Chatterjee

July 10th, 2012

AgriSol, an Iowa company, has been linked to plans to evict 160,000 Burundian refugees from Katumba and Mishamo in western Tanzania, according to “Lives on Hold,” a new report by the Oakland Institute.

Kilimo Kwanza which translates as “Agriculture First” is a recent Tanzanian government initiative to promote a “greener revolution” through agricultural modernization and commercialization via public-private partnerships. The program was launched in August 2009 by Tanzania’s President Jakaya Kikwete.

Enter Agrisol Energy LLC’s – an Iowa-based investment company that specializes in agribusiness. The company’s goal is to find “underdeveloped global locations that have attractive natural resources but lack best-in-class agricultural technology, farming techniques, equipment and management.” The company opened talks with the government to start large-scale crop cultivation, beef and poultry production, and biofuel production in three “abandoned refugee camps” – Lugufu in Kigoma province (25,000 hectares) and Katumba (80,317 hectares) and Mishamo (219,800 hectares), according to company business plans.

2011 investigation by the Oakland Institute,  a California based NGO, revealed that the refugee camps were not abandoned but very much occupied by Burundian refugees who have lived in the area for 40 years.

Agrisol does not deny this. Henry Akona, AgriSol Tanzania’s director of communications, says that the company officials were initially told that plans had been made to move the refugees from the settlements. “We were considering those areas a few years ago, but we have suspended any plans because the land is occupied,” Akona told the Daily Iowan. “We should have done better homework.”

Oakland Institute profiled Sembuli Masasa, the father of seven children, who had been farming in Katumba for 39 years who told researchers: “They are giving us $200, ask us to dismantle our own house and to move to a place we have never seen before.”

“Initially promised citizenship, the residents still await their papers, conditional on them vacating their homes and lands in order to make way for the foreign investor,” says Anuradha Mittal, executive director of the Oakland Institute. “The residents have been banned from cultivating crops including perennial crops such as cassava or building new homes and businesses, leaving them with no other option but to consider moving.”

The new report alleges human rights abuses of the refugees “which range from the burning down of houses and crops and violation of their freedom of speech to inequities in social services.”

Akona disputes charges that the company is responsible for the fate of the Burundians. “AgriSol has absolutely nothing to do with the refugees in Katumba and Mishamo,” he told the Daily Iowan.

The Oakland Institute report has created a storm in Iowa, notably for Bruce Rastetter, CEO of AgriSol Energy who worked with Iowa State University‘s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences in Ames, Iowa, to get support for the deal.

Faced with growing questions, the university pulled out in February 2012

Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, a community group in Des Moines, Iowa, has filed an official conflict of interest complaint against Rastetter with the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board, and are lobbying for Bruce Rastetter to be removed as Iowa Board of Regents President Pro Tem.

The Tanzania project is part of a new phenomenon that activists are calling “land grabbing.” GRAIN, a global agricultural think tank based in Barcelona, estimates that at least 50 million hectares of good agricultural land – enough to feed 5 million families in India – have been transferred from farmers to corporations in the last few years alone.

Economists say that governments have to be very careful about inviting corporations to manage vast swathes of land in poor countries. “If it’s done properly, and if African governments take care of their countries and their populations, this can be a big benefit,” says Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University told Dan Rather reports. “If they in effect give away these valuable resources, then what happens is these scarce resources benefit some other part of the world. And Africa is left even worse off than it was before.”

Egypt detains former PM Obeid for illegal land deal


Reuters

Thu Jul 14, 2011 7:25pm GMT

CAIRO, July 14 (Reuters) – Egyptian authorities detained former prime minister Atef Obeid for 15 days to investigate allegations he illegally sold land well below market value, judicial sources said on Thursday.

Since a popular uprising toppled President Hosni Mubarak in February, Egyptian prosecutors have been investigating corruption allegations made against former officials and businessmen connected with his 30 years in power.

Judge Ahmed Edrees, commissioned by the Justice Ministry to investigate corruption in the agriculture ministry, accused Obeid and Youssef Wali, former deputy prime minister, of illegally selling land in Luxor in the south of Egypt.

The pair are charged with selling the plot to businessman Hussein Salem, a close confidant to Mubarak, for 8 million Egyptian pounds ($1.3 million) when the value of the land was 208 million pounds.

The land was also sold illegally because it is a protected nature reserve, Edrees said… Read More.

Mali opposition party demands land lease details


Old bridge in Bamako, Mali
Image via Wikipedia

The Associated Press February 10, 2011 by Martin Vogl

Bamako, Mali

An opposition party in Mali wrote to the country’s president demanding that details of contracts leasing out massive areas of agricultural land be made public. In the letter shared with The Associated Press Wednesday, the Party for  National Renaissance said since 2003 almost 2 million acres of farm land have been leased out in secret contracts to Chines, Libyan and South African firms…Bakary Kante, an adviser to the Malian prime minister on agricultural issues, said the government has been promoting private investment because multinationals can afford to finance-much-needed infrastructure for the country. Read more

South Africa’s new labour policy: an analysis


by Anthea Jeffrey, The South African Institute of Race Relations, February 8, 2011

The Cabinet used the festive season to unveil five new bills: four labour, one on land. All five supposedly aim to help the poor, but their predictable effect will be to worse unemployment and build dependence on the State. Apart from the controversial Protection of Information Bill, these five bills are the firs major legislative intervention by President Jacob Zuma’s administration. They bode ill for South Africa, as the Institute’s in-house legal expert, Dr Anthea Jeffrey, explained at a briefing in Johannesburg on February 2011…In addition, the outsourcing of cleaning and other services has become an important way of promoting the preferential procurement required by the BEE of good practice. Under the bill, however, of a major corporation outsources or sub-contracts its catering needs to a BEE firm, the corporation will be liable for unfair labour practice by the BEE entity. As the RIA warms, this could ‘create a significant disincentive to supply chain diversification and have a negative impact on small business and job creation.’ Read more

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