WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Malaysian palm oil firm Sime Darby has delayed construction of a mill for its Liberia plantation and has suspended talks to expand its planted acreage there due to the Ebola outbreak, it said on Tuesday.
More than 2,811 people have died from the disease in West Africa since the initial outbreak was identified in March, according to World Health Organisation figures. Liberia has been the country hardest hit with 1,578 deaths.
“Right now, we are maintaining. Anything in addition needs to be put on hold,” said Carl Dagenhar, Sime Darby’s head of sustainability and external relations for Africa and Europe.
Sime Darby has one of the largest palm oil plantations in the West African country, with a planned total investment of more than $2 billion.
A contractor for Sime Darby Plantation Liberia’s (SDPL) palm oil mill has been chosen and preparations for construction - initially due to be completed in mid-2015 - had already begun when the outbreak began.
Dagenhar said it would resume work when the disease was under control.
The company had planted 10,035 hectares of oil palm and 107 hectares of rubber as of early this year.
Though it has signed an agreement with the government to develop about 220,000 hectares of land for 63 years, it must negotiate with local communities before planting on undeveloped areas of the concession. Those talks have now been put on hold.
“Of course we would like to develop more. But I think the most important thing is to survive Ebola first,” Dagenhar said, adding that all 2,881 workers will continue to receive their salaries and benefits, including two 50 kilogramme bags of rice each month.
Sime Darby began planting at its Liberia concession in 2011, and only a small part of its acreage is currently in production, so Ebola crisis will have little effect on output.
Western nations, led by the United States, have pledged to ramp up their efforts to stop the epidemic, which has also reached Sierra Leone, Guinea, Nigeria and Senegal. Washington is planning to deploy around 3,000 military personnel to the region to aid the relief response.
“Our only hope now is Sime Darby. They give us food by the end of the month. We are praying by the day for the Americans and others to help us bring this virus under control,” plantation worker Henry Passawee said.
Sime Darby has donated one million Malaysian ringgit ($308,309) to the Liberian Red Cross and to pay for rubber gloves for health workers.
1 US dollar = 3.2435 Malaysian ringgit