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GVL Violates Villagers’ Rights Then Sues Them For Palm Theft


Top: (L-R) Two Men suspected of stealing palm nuts carry a handheld palm oil mill. Lincoln Weah, a villager suspected of stealing palm nuts is detained by the police. Bags of palm are wasted on the ground. Picture credit: Sustainable Development Institute (SDI)

By Mark B. Newa

BUTAW, Sinoe County – Things were about to change for Lincoln Weah and his friends but he did not know.

It was July 7, 2022. Weah had just returned from setting up his palm oil production worksite in a palm farm around the Bellehful village. Suddenly, a group of guards of Golden Veroleum Liberia (GVL) and armed police arrested him.

Wearing palm-oil-stained clothes, they accused Weah of stealing palm nuts from GVL’s plantation and demanded he took them to the worksite.

“When we reached there, they began to beat me, forcing me to call the names of my friends in the village,” Weah tells The DayLight. “They promised that when I showed the people who are making palm oil on the farm, they would let me go.”

Weah believed the guards and police officers and named his three workmates. But it was a trick. As soon as he disclosed their names, the beating intensified, according to Weah. A picture obtained from the NGO Sustainable Development Institute (SDI) shows the 32-year-old sitting on the blackened ground of the worksite, surrounded by guards and policemen. Other pictures show metal drums of palm nuts, the men carrying a handheld palm mill and Weah detained by a police officer.   

They led Weah back to Belleh-ful and arrested the other men, who had been there all long. He, Shelton Wawoe, Tolou Kamara and Timothy Tarpeh were shoved in a vehicle and taken to jail in Butaw. Not long after Moses David, 43, a GVL worker and owner of the farm the suspects produced palm oil, joined them.

GVL`s security guards and state security forces manhandle one of the villagers in Bellehful, Sinoe County.  Picture credit: Sustainable Development Institute (SDI)

The arrest is the beginning of a series of ordeals the men face that continues today: prolonged pretrial detention, loss of properties and a threat to their livelihood. David risks a possible forfeiture of his benefits for a decade of service to GVL.

‘They stopped us’

Following their arrest, four of the men spent five nights inside the police cell. They were later transferred to the Central Prison in Greenville, according to the men and court records. The other man was transferred the next day, the records show.

“Since we were arrested and beaten, I am not feeling well in my body. Sometimes when I wake up, my knees and the rest of my joints can be sticking. I do not have money to go to the hospital,” Weah tells this reporter.

“They stopped us from getting medicine,” says Wawoe, 55, the oldest of the men.

Detaining a person beyond 48 hours without charge is a violation of their rights, according to   Liberian Constitution. Diggs Drunwille, Sr., the police commander of Sinoe County declined to comment on the matter. A GVL spokesman justified the actions of the guards and police.  

“GVL has the responsibility to protect its personnel, properties and rights utilizing legal means, including the involvement of police and other authorities where appropriate,” Alphonso Kofi, tells The DayLight in an email.

Weah, Tarpeh, Wawoe and David were released on bail on July 13, according to documents from the Kaisieh Magisterial Court in Butaw. Kamara, a Sierra Leonean,  remained there until October, as no one filed his bond. The court release him only after local rights campaigners and townspeople intervened.

One day after their release, the court charged the men with theft of property. They used a motorcycle to steal loose palm nuts worth US$1,550, GVL alleges as per court records. The police seized six containers, four metal drums and other items from their worksite. All five men deny any wrongdoing.

In separate interviews, the suspects allege that the guards and police made away with their money and other belongings. Wawoe says he lost L$120,000, US$650 and a cell phone that costs US$150. David claims he lost US$600, mattresses, clothes and other properties during his arrest.

GVL has, meanwhile, suspended David, who works as a fieldworker for the company. Theft is a ground for the termination of an employee’s contract under the Decent Work Act. David’s suspension came nine months after GVL paid off 16 of its workers over their wrongful dismissals in October 2021.

Lincoln Weah, Moses Karnuah, Tolou Kamara, Timothy Tarpeh and Shelton Wawoe. The five men are accused of stealing palm from GVL plantation valued at US$1,500. They deny any wrongdoing. The DayLight/Mark B. Newa

David accused GVL of trying to deprive him of years of service to the Indonesian company. Kofi refutes David’s accusation. He says his suspension had nothing to do with severance pay. “His suspension is dependent on the court’s ruling,” Kofi says.   

The accused men say they are finding it difficult to survive. The guards and police have prevented the men from accessing their worksite on the farm, according to them. Kofi dismisses these allegations.

David owns the two-acre palm farm where the accused men worked. The farmland lies between an abandoned plantation owned by Equatorial Palm Oil (EPO) and GVL’s Butaw plantation. Known in the oil palm industry as an out-grower, villagers’ farms are an important part of a plantation’s development. It is one of the principles that govern the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), the global watchdog for the commodity.

GVL has a 65-year agreement with the Liberian government for up to 350,000 hectares in Sinoe and Grand Kru and Maryland Counties. The 2010 deal was worth US$1.6 billion.

It is Liberia’s largest producer of crude palm oil, exporting US$31.7 million worth of the commodity between 2020 and 2021, according to the Liberia Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (LEITI).  However, land-grab, deforestation and labor offenses have marred the concession for its 13 years.

Golden Veroleum Liberia (GVL) has an agreement with Liberia, covering 220,000 hectares of land in Sinoe, Grand Kru and Maryland. The DayLight/Derick Snyder

Slow Case

The magisterial court has not heard the case yet. It has postponed the proceedings several times, in July, October, December last year, and January and February this year,  court documents show.  

Moses Karnuah, who stood the bond for Weah, Wawoe, Tarpeh and David, says the delay was taking a toll on him.

“Everyone has an activity to attend to,” Karnuah told the reporter. Karnuah, 45, says “When the people I stood for are not here, the court will hold me responsible, or I will go to jail. I want the case to… reach the final decision, then I will be free.”

“This is giving us hard time to do other things for ourselves,” Weah says, via phone on his way back to Butaw from Saclepea, Nimba County.   

The court has rescheduled the case from February 1 to a later date.

Funding for the story was provided by the Green Livelihood Alliance (GLA 2.0) through the Sustainable Development Institute (SDI). The DayLight maintained complete editorial independence over the story’s content.

Fourteen Dismissed GVL Workers Fight To Get Back Their Jobs

A signboard welcoming visitors to the Butaw estate of GVL in Sinoe County. Harry Browne/The DayLight

Banner Image: A Golden Veroleum Liberia signboard in Butaw, Sinoe County. The DayLight/Harry Browne

By James Harding Giahyue

  • Golden Veroleum Liberia (GVL) dismissed 14 of its workers for their alleged involvement in a riot in Butaw in May 2015
  • The former employees lodged a complaint against the company for constructive dismissal and unfair labor practice with the Sinoe County Labor Office in February last year
  • GVL lawyers have failed to attend seven out of 10 pre-investigation hearings and case has been moved to a full investigation
  • Sustainable Development Institute (SDI) and Friends of the Earth Netherlands accuses GVL of “trying to deny the dismissed workers justice”. Golden Agri Resources (GAR), GVL’s investors, denies the accusation

BUTAW, Sinoe County – Fourteen former workers of Golden Veroleum Liberia (GVL), have challenged their dismissals by the company at the Sinoe County Labor Office, and are demanding reinstatement and retroactive pay or a payoff.

The former employees, mainly fieldworkers, were accused by the Indonesian company of participating in the infamous May 25, 2015 riot in Butaw, according to documents from the Labor Office on the case. The riot left  one dead and over US$7,000 of the company’s properties destroyed. The former workers were all jailed without trial and released a year later. One inmate died in prison and another shortly after their release in 2016.

The 14 complainants are Sunday Okusu Sackor, Vincent Koon, Adolphus Tarpeh, Otis Chea, Franklin Duaryenneh, Luton Snohtee, Edwin Palay, Obie Karbah, Josephus Weagbah, Rufus Tiawroh, Titus Teah, Fred Henry and Samuel Yabbah and Erick Dayklee. They all worked in GVL’s palm plantation in Butaw. They are being  represented by Atty. Sagie Kamara of the Heritage Partners and Associates Inc. (HPA).

They filed the “constructive dismissal and unfair labor practice” case on February 18 last year, more than four years after their release. In it, they allege they were verbally told of their dismissals and denied access to their workplaces, the case documents show.

“GVL has not only refused to permit us to return to work but refused to pay us our salaries and other benefits we are entitled to by virtue of the contracts of employment,” they say in the complaint.

“Allow us to resume work in our respective positions and places of assignment, pay us our salaries and other benefits for the period of our detention up to and including the date and time we are recalled,” they say in the complaint, adding they would accept a payoff.

GVL, Liberia’s largest oil palm company, holds 220,000 hectares of land in Sinoe, Maryland and Grand Kru for 65 years in a 2010 deal worth US$1.6 billion. The company was  reprimanded in 2018 by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO)—the certification body for oil palm companies across the world—for land-grab and labor breaches.    

NGOs Urge GVL Investors to Take Action

GVL’s legal team headed by Jones and Jones law firm and the company’s inhouse lawyer, Atty. Garpeh Wilson, has attended only three of 10 pre-investigation hearings, according to minutes of the proceedings The DayLight analyzed. Between October 22 last year—when the first hearing took place—to April 29—the last one—GVL has given an excuse for bad roads, asked for the recusal of the hearing officer Elwoods Monger, and denied it received the former workers’ complaint. 

Some GVL employees at work in Butaw, Sinoe County. Harry Browne/The DayLight

The Sustainable Development Institute (SDI) and Friends of the Earth Netherlands, who are supporting the complainants in the case, have written Golden Agri Resources (GAR)—GVL’s majority shareholders—on the company’s alleged stalling of the proceedings.  

“We are constrained to, however, draw your attention to the dilatory tactics being employed by your investee GVL to frustrate the ends of justice and deny members of the indigenous community their right to be heard as well as fair and fast trial,” the two nongovernmental organizations said in the letter to the world’s second largest palm oil company last week.

“Given that you have significant management of and other control over GVL, including the obligation for GVL to adhere to your social and environmental policy, we request your timely intervention to promote, protect and ensure the rights of customary communities and GVL workers,” it added.  GAR prohibits firms it invests in from violating the rights of workers.

GAR, however, denies its Liberian subsidiary did anything wrong but said it was investigating the matter.      

“Based on the information available to us right now, there is no evidence to confirm that GVL has intended to delay the legal proceedings,” said Dr. Götz Martin, the head of the Singaporean company’s sustainability implementation, in an email. “GVL is keen to seek an amicable solution with the complainants.”   

An amicable solution might be possible but the case has been moved to full investigation. Christian Tababo, Sinoe County’s Labor Commissioner, has replaced Monger, who recused himself from the rest of the case.  Once the Labor Office concludes its investigation, the matter could be moved to court.

The next hearing is yet to be announced.