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Palm Oil Action Australia | July 17, 2018

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Proposed sale of timber from palm oil concession sparks alarm in Liberia

  • On November 15, 2016
Proposed sale of timber from palm oil concession sparks alarm in Liberia

But in 2011, Liberia took its first step toward reforming its forestry industry. The country signed a Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) with the EU to begin cleaning up the logging sector. The VPA ensures any logs exported to the EU can be traced directly back to the source.

Three years later, Liberia supported the New York Declaration on Forests and signed an agreement with Norway that it would issue no new logging concessions and would gazette 30 percent of its forest as protected areas in exchange for $150 million in financial help. Liberia is also a signatory of both the New York Declaration on Forests and the African Restoration Initiative (AFR100), the latter of which pledges to restore 100 million hectares (about 247 million acres) of forest across the African continent by 2030.

Today, timber can only be legally exported from three logging concessions in the country – none of which are connected to the growing and controversial palm oil sector in the West African country.

‘A backdoor opportunity’

Louise Riley, a campaigner with Global Witness, said Liberia has come a long way from being a forest pariah.

“Liberia [now] has a robust legal framework for managing logging… This makes us very concerned at the lengths palm oil companies appear to be going to find ways around the law, not to mention their own public commitments to zero deforestation,” Riley told Mongabay.

The problem is that around the same time that Liberia was cleaning up its logging sector, it was handing out monster concessions to palm oil companies. A number of these concessions, including GVL’s, were located in largely forested areas. Yet GVL also operates under a zero deforestation policy and is a member of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), making much of its 2,600-square-kilometer concession supposedly off limits. Or is it?

The company, a subsidiary of Singapore-based giant Golden Agri-Resources worth $1.5 billion, denied that it ever tried to undercut Liberia’s logging laws with its request to sell timber. But in October 2015, GVL reached out to the government to ask if it might be possible to sell timber from one of its new concessions on behalf of the local community, Tarjuowon in Sinoe County. Any money made from the timber would go directly to the Tarjuowon District, not GVL, according to the company.

“GVL made a request to the [FDA] on behalf of one community to permit the community to collect logs from an area that had already been agreed for development of oil palm,” the company said in a statement. “GVL did this so that, if it is legally possible, the community might extract maximum value from its own land before oil palm development began.”

The company’s statement claimed their request did not fly in the face of its zero deforestation policy, which only applies to high conservation value forest. It also wrote in the same statement that it had been completely transparent about the matter with both the FDA and the environmental group, SDI.

But James Otto, an environmental campaigner with SDI, said GVL’s response was a “knee jerk” reaction to the environmental NGO’s campaign. Otto said the law and regulations on community logging were clear and that the Tarjuowon case did not fit the current laws. Moreover, he said, such logging should never be pushed “by a third party” like GVL.

He said the company’s real intent was to “create a backdoor opportunity” to allow logging in an area of forest where it hopes to expand operations. According to Otto, this would make it possible for them to get around their own high conservation value and high carbon stock standards by intentionally degrading the forest, albeit at the behest of the local community.

SDI’s suspicions were raised by a report that Forest Ventures, a logging company linked to Malaysian company Samling, has been seen in the district even though it doesn’t have a legal permit to log there.

“It has become clear…that GVL’s implementation of its Forest Conservation Policy in Liberia will not protect forests and the cumulative impact of its plantation expansion on forest could be devastating,” SDI wrote in a briefing paper in May of this year. “What is alarming is the real possibility that the company will destroy forest while promoting itself as a supplier of deforestation-free Crude Palm Oil.”

But the company disputes these allegations.

“All the areas proposed by the community were in areas that had been assessed in accordance with the High Carbon Stock Toolkit and judged acceptable for development,” Leroy Kanmoh, Communications Coordinator with GVL, told Mongabay.

He said that “following almost a year of discussion with the FDA and the SDI,” the government turned the request down.

Kanmoh said GVL told the Tarjuowonc community “that they will not be able to extract timber for their own business purposes.”

However, at the same time, the FDA provided a small, but possible, loophole, telling the company that it could still assist the community “in all legal ways possible, including small-scale extracting and milling activities.”

Such a statement raised concerns among SDI that the government was also trying to have it both ways, including possibly developing a new regulation that would allow the sale of conversion timber. The FDA did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

The ongoing dispute – splashed over the pages of Liberian newspapers – highlights just how fraught the issue of palm oil has become in Liberia. And it’s not just logging. Local communities complain of strong-arming, violence, and unmet promises. Conservationists fear the loss of Western Africa’s last great forests and a number of threatened species, while the palm oil industry contends its business is the economic future in a poor country recently shattered by Ebola following a decades-long civil war.

A short but controversial history of palm oil in Liberia

The rise of palm oil in Liberia has divided communities and kick-started what Global Witness called a possible “land grabbing crisis” in a scathing report last year. Like many developing countries, locals in Liberia largely don’t own the land they have lived on and farmed for generations, though a long-touted Land Rights Act, if ever passed, could change that. But the current situation makes it possible for the Liberian government to lease out vast areas of communal land to palm oil companies, sometimes with contracts intended to last as long as 98 years.

GVL is one of the biggest of these palm oil companies, holding concessions spanning 2,600 square kilometers – nearly the size the U.S. state of Rhode Island – and impacting some 40,000 people who have utilized these lands for generations, according to the Global Witness report entitled The New Snake Oil.