Arrests and Harassment of Community Leaders in Liberia Must Stop, Says Rights and Resources Initiative

  Arrests and Harassment of Community Leaders in Liberia Must Stop, Says
  Rights and Resources Initiative

     Recent Punitive Actions Undermine the Legitimacy of 300,000+ Hectare
                   Acquisition by Golden Veroleum (Liberia)

Business Wire

WASHINGTON -- December 20, 2012

Four community leaders in Sinoe County, Liberia have been arrested by local
authorities over the past few days, calling into question the government’s
commitment to protecting the rights of the country’s indigenous communities.
The arrests came after the community met with an international journalist to
discuss how they lost their homes and cropland to Golden Veroleum (Liberia)
(also known as GVL) for a 350,149 hectare oil palm plantation.

“As the eyes of the international community are drawn again to yet another
conflict in Liberia, local authorities need to stop the punitive arrests and
extralegal harassment,” said Andy White, coordinator of the Rights and
Resources Initiative (RRI). “We are deeply disappointed at the lack of
response by the national government, which has promised to protect citizen
rights, yet has allocated over half the lands in the country to industries,
often without the consent of the landowners.”

“There is an urgent need for a moratorium on GVL’s land acquisitions and an
independent assessment of the crisis in Sinoe,” White added. “To its credit,
the government has recently prepared a new land policy that would recognize
and clarify the land rights of local people. This crisis highlights the
importance of the Liberian government’s rapid action on this policy.”

Sinoe County police arrested Butaw community members Calvin Bloh, Dexter
Gleeka, and Anna Tue without charge on Friday, 14 December, but released them
the following day, according to Alfred Brownell, the community’s legal
advisor. Benedict Manewah, another community member who lost his home to the
GVL plantation, has been arrested this week without a warrant or formal
charges filed.He has not been released yet.

“What is taking place on the ground in Liberia mirrors a similar situation in
Cameroon and many other countries, where local authorities side with national
or international corporations to seize the communal lands of indigenous
communities,” noted White. “Tragically, these affected communities would
greatly appreciate economic development as long as it respects their land
rights and does not decimate their livelihoods. There are plenty of examples
in the world where corporations have done so and maintained profitable
operations and good community relations.”

Liberia’s government, led by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, has come under
increasing scrutiny for land deals that ignore the rights and tenure of its
poorest citizens. A recent report by the United Nations Panel of Experts on
Liberia to the Security Council, for example, found that land conflicts
created problems across agricultural and logging concessions and permits, and
focused particularly on the case of GVL.

Last month, the Indonesian company Sime Darby suspended operations at a
separate 311,319 hectare concession for a palm oil plantation in Grand Cape
Mount County in response to similar complaints. The pressure to respond to the
complaints came not from the Liberian government, but from the Roundtable on
Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), an international trade association whose members
include GVL, Golden-Agri Resources Limited (a major investor of GVL), Sime
Darby, PepsiCo, Con-Agra, General Mills and Nestle (which just committed to
purchasing palm oil from plantations that “respect the free prior and informed
consent of local and indigenous communities”).

In the Liberian communities’ complaint to the RSPO, they stated: “We are
living under constant fear of threats, harassments, intimidation and arrest
because we have refused permission for Golden Veroleum to take away our
customary lands left to us by our ancestors.”

“These tragedies will continue as long as national governments keep handing
out community lands, and are silent when their own laws are not respected,”
White concluded. “These are communities with very little except for the land
under their feet. And even that is being taken away in the remote corners of
the world where no one is standing guard on their behalf.”

The Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI) is a global coalition of
international, regional, and community organizations advancing forest tenure,
policy, and market reforms. RRI leverages the strategic collaboration and
investment of its Partners and Collaborators around the world by working
together on research, advocacy, and convening strategic actors to catalyze
change on the ground. RRI is coordinated by the Rights and Resources Group, a
non-profit organization based in Washington, D.C. For more information, please
visit www.rightsandresources.org.

Contact:

Rights and Resources Initiative
Jenna DiPaolo, +1 202-470-3894
jdipaolo@rightsandresources.org
or
Dan Klotz, +1 301-280-5756
dklotz@burnesscommunications.com
 
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