Campaign group accuses Liberia palm oil firm of exploiting Ebola crisis
By Makini Brice
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. Continued...