July 23, 2015 / 7:59 AM / 2 years ago

Campaign group accuses Liberia palm oil firm of exploiting Ebola crisis

DAKAR (Reuters) - Anti-corruption campaign group Global Witness on Thursday accused palm oil company Golden Veroleum of taking advantage of the Ebola epidemic in Liberia to double the size of its plantation.

Golden Veroleum, controlled by Singapore-listed Golden Agri-Resources, signed a deal with Liberia in 2010 to develop a 220,000 hectare plantation. However, the company also has to reach agreement with local communities that have customary titles over the land.

The company denied any wrongdoing.

The Global Witness report published on Thursday alleged that Golden Veroleum exploited the crisis caused by the West Africa Ebola epidemic -- which has so far killed more than 4,800 Liberians -- to press poorly informed communities into signing away land at a time when local non-governmental organisations were not present on the ground to advise them.

The report said that Golden Veroleum held meetings with hundreds of people to encourage communities to hand over their land even after Liberia banned public gatherings to stem the spread of the Ebola virus. It said the company used the Ebola crisis to accelerate development of the plantation, clearing 5,358 hectares between April and December -- double the amount of land it had cleared over the previous three years.

Golden Veroleum rejected the report's findings, saying that the negotiations were envisaged long before Ebola struck.

"Those things were planned way ahead of time, way before Ebola became an issue," Golden Veroleum spokesman Virgil Magee told Reuters, adding that the company used some meetings to inform the population on the risks of the deadly disease.

Jonathan Gant, Global Witness's senior campaigner, said the terms of the agreements were often not even read out and explained to illiterate community members, who were asked to approve them with a thumb print.

“We ourselves, we don’t know how to read, and if you give us a letter we will sign it,” an unnamed community member was quoted as saying in the report.

Global Witness also alleged that Golden Veroleum security staff intimidated and attacked protesters in June 2014 and that the company used its political influence to secure the dismissal of a town chief in southeast Liberia from a government job after he refused to transfer land to the company.

Magee denied that Golden Veroleum staff had taken part in any acts of intimidation or coercion. The company says on its website that it is committed to sustainable development of palm oil in conjunction with local communities and respecting bio-diversity.

Local communities have protested over the loss of their lands and working conditions. In May demonstrators took several employees hostage and injured a government official, leading to the arrest of 30 demonstrators. [ID:nL5N0YI57E]

Global Witness said that some of the demonstrators are still in prison and one has died there.

The campaign group recommended that Golden Veroleum be prevented from expanding its plantation until the government has put in place regulation of the sector and that deals signed during the Ebola outbreak should be revoked.

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