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UK’s Equatorial Palm Oil accused of human rights abuses in Liberia

20th December 2013

UK–based company Equatorial Palm Oil (EPO) is accused of involvement in the arbitrary arrest and assault of Liberian community members who claim that they were resisting EPO's efforts to take their land. Investigations by a coalition of international and Liberian NGOs (1) reveal allegations that EPO security personnel and members of the elite Liberian Police Support Unit (PSU) (2) assaulted and arrested unarmed civilians who were objecting to the expansion of EPO’s plantation onto community customary-owned land in September 2013. The company denies these allegations, stating that it is “a responsible company and committed to sustainable oil palm development.”(3) However, EPO admitted to Global Witness that it provided logistical support to the Liberian police who are accused of intimidating villagers on the plantation.(4)  

“These communities appear to have had their land taken and cleared without their consent, and when they object it looks like they’ve been beaten up and arrested. The Liberian Government and EPO must both immediately carry out investigations into these allegations and ensure that those responsible are held to account and prosecuted,” said Natalie Ashworth of Global Witness. “The Liberian Government needs to start standing up for its people and environment.” In a letter to Global Witness, EPO promised to take appropriate action against staff if given sufficient evidence. (3) 

EPO, which is listed on the Alternatives Investment Market (AIM) of the London Stock Exchange, holds two palm oil concessions in Liberia covering a total of 89,000 hectares. In recent months, it has taken steps to expand its operations in Liberia’s Grand Bassa County to plant palm oil trees on community customarily owned land, which would be contrary to protections in international human rights law and EPO’s commitments to the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), an industry body.(5) This expansion threatens to destroy the farms, forests and wetlands that the local Jogbahn Clan rely on for their food and livelihood, and regard as their spiritual home. In a response to Global Witness on 17 December the company stated that they “respect the Liberian community rights and land, and have followed the law and procedures laid-out and agreed internationally.” The company further stated that they have "taken strict steps" to ensure that they only plant oil palm on their concession land and legally-acquired community land. (3)

According to Jogbahn community members, their failure to cooperate with EPO’s plans to expand onto community land triggered increasingly severe intimidation by company security staff and PSU officers. (6) This includes driving through villages at night flashing their emergency lights which allegedly led to women and children fleeing to the bush. In a letter to Global Witness, the company responded that it has been "falsely accused" and does not “condone or encourage such described behaviour," and have “never instructed or directed any of its staff or PSU officers to intimidate Jogbahn community members in September or at any time.”(3)

On September 18, community members were reportedly accosted and some were beaten by EPO and PSU forces as they walked to the county capital, Buchanan, to lodge a protest with authorities. Seventeen people are understood to have been arrested, but were promptly released after the government’s County Attorney found there were no grounds for their detention. (7) The County Attorney confirmed that people had been accosted, but Grand Bassa’s police commander denies that his forces attacked any community members.(8) EPO representatives deny any knowledge of the incident, and said that no complaint had been made directly to them about the behaviour of the EPO security or abuse by the police. EPO further stated that they had asked for the police to be removed from the survey but the request was refused.(9) EPO sent a detailed response to Global Witness and its letter is published in full on the organisation’s website here: www.globalwitness.org/Liberia/EPO (3)

“These abuses bring back memories of the Charles Taylor era,” says Andrew Tokpa of the Liberian NGO Save My Future Foundation (SAMFU). “There’s a real risk of a bigger conflict if Equatorial Palm Oil tramples on the rights of Liberia’s rural communities. If the company won’t stop, the Liberian Government must act to stop it.”

On September 18, the Sustainable Development Institute (SDI), a Liberian NGO, filed a complaint against EPO with the RSPO (10) on behalf of 363 households from the affected community. This alleges that the company has cleared and planted on community land and is seeking to expand the plantation further without the free, prior and informed consent of those who live on the land. (11) The company responded to RSPO that it holds “a valid concession agreement signed and endorsed by the Government of Liberia,” and that its operations are within the law and RSPO rules. (10)

These allegations of assault and land grabbing should cause alarm amongst EPO’s investors. Malaysian palm oil giant Kuala Lumpur Kepong Bhd (KLK) recently became the majority shareholder of the company although it was not a shareholder at the time of the alleged violence. Negotiations for KLK to buy out the rest of EPO are ongoing. Communities have requested that the RSPO complaint be extended to KLK as the new majority shareholder. (12)

“As the majority shareholder and possible new owner, KLK must make investigating the human rights abuse and land grabbing allegations its number one priority,” says Silas Kpanan’Ayoung Siakor of SDI. “Conflict over land played a key role in Liberia’s civil wars, it’s critical to our country’s future stability that community rights are respected. Allowing unscrupulous companies to do as they please will be disastrous for the environment and for development.”

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Notes to editors

(1)          This press release was issued by a coalition of international and Liberian NGOs comprising of Global Witness, Friends of the Earth, FERN, Save my Future Foundation (SAMFU), Social Entrepreneurs for Sustainable Development (SesDev), and Sustainable Development Institute (SDI).

(2)          The PSU were formed to respond to rioting and violent crime. UN Security Council, “Ninth progress report of the Secretary-General on the United Nations Mission in Liberia,” S/2005/764, December 7, 2005, http://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol =S/2005/764, p. 7, para. 30.

(3)          EPO, “Letter to Global Witness,” 17 December 2013.  EPO’s full response can be found on Global Witness’ website at: www.globalwitness.org/Liberia/EPO

(4)          Meeting between Global Witness and EPO in London on 14 November, 2013. EPO, “Letter to Global Witness,” 17 December 2013. 

(5)          Customary land rights are protected under a range of international human rights laws applicable to Liberia, including the African Charter on Human & Peoples’ Rights (1981), the International Covenant on Economic, Social & Cultural Rights (1966), the International Covenant on Civil & Political Rights (1966), the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (1965), as well as principles of customary international law expressed in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (1948) and UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007).   

(6)          SDI Press Release, “SDI calls on the Government of Liberia, Equatorial Palm Oil to immediately cease land survey in Grand Bassa District #4,” 25 September, 2013.

(7)          It was confirmed in a letter on 25 October 2013 that those arrested were released because “I was not convinced that the arrestees had committed a criminal offense as to warrant their arrest in the first place.” Office of the County Attorney Grand Bassa County, “The reasons why I ordered the release of those arrested in connection with the Palm Bay land resurvey controversy,” 25 October 2013.

(8)          Meeting between Global Witness and the Buchanan County Attorney and the General Commander of the Liberian National Police in Buchanan, both on 9 December 2013.

(9)          Meeting between Global Witness and EPO in London on 14 November 2013.

(10)       http://www.rspo.org/en/status_of_complaint&cpid=44

(11)       The requirement that decisions concerning community land and resources only take place with communities’ Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) is a requirement of international and regional human rights law, as well as being a key principle of Liberia’s Community Rights Law with respect to Forest Lands (2009) and the RSPO’s Principles & Criteria. FPIC has been identified as a key procedural safeguard for respecting and protecting the human rights of communities whose physical and cultural survival is dependent on maintaining their strong connections to lands, resources and place. This is particularly important in countries such as Liberia where community rights over land and resources are largely undocumented and based on customary law and long-standing possession.

(12)       On 7 November 2013, Malaysian palm oil giant Kuala Lumpur Kepong Bhd (KLK) entered into an agreement  for the sale and purchase of 20.1% stake in Equatorial Palm Oil plc and a 50% stake in its subsidiary Liberian Palm Developments Ltd, both from Singaporean palm oil producer and exporter Biopalm Energy Ltd. (http://www.klk.com.my/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/Transaction-with-BEL-Pr...).  This made KLK the majority shareholder with 54.8% of EPO. KLK made an offer on 29 November 2013 to buy out EPO but this offer was rejected and negotiations with the company are ongoing. (http://www.klk.com.my/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/KLKs-EPO-Offer-Ann-Rule-2.7-final-29.11.13.pdf)

SDI Press Release, “Liberian communities continue to resist land grabbing by UK company Equatorial Palm Oil,” 10 December 2013.

(13)       The UN’s Panel of Experts on Liberia reported on these events in November 2013, concluding that:  “The Panel remains concerned that large-scale palm oil development continues to pose significant challenges to peace and security in rural areas. …Unless communities are provided with adequate guarantees regarding employment, social development and a sustainable future for their land, and the independent legal and technical support to ensure these outcomes, the risk of conflict in concession areas remains high.(United Nations Security Council, “Final report of the Panel of Experts on Liberia submitted pursuant to paragraph 5 (f) of Security Council resolution 2079 (2012), S/2013/683), 25 November 2013, para 120 and 182)