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MOPP Lied It Paid Over US$4K Community Fund

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Top: The headquarters of Maryland Oil Palm Plantation in Pleebo, Maryland County. The DayLight/James Harding Giahyue


By James Harding Giahyue

PLEEBO, Maryland – The Maryland Oil Palm Plantation (MOPP) told the Liberia Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (LEITI) it paid US$4,774 to communities affected by its project between 2020 and 2021

The LEITI, which publishes public payments, reported the fee in its latest report on agriculture, covering the period.

But that payment did not take place. MOPP has not paid a cent to project-affected communities since 2018,  records of a bank account through which the company pays the communities reveal.

Activities of the communities’ account at the International Bank (Liberia) Limited detail the communities’ transactions from January 2017 to February this year. It further reveals that MOPP has made just two payments in the 12 years of the concession with the Liberian government. The company paid the communities US$35,390 and US$35,570.20 in March 2017 and 2018, respectively, according to the document.

In 2011, MOPP signed the concession with Libera, covering 8,800 hectares of farmland in Maryland and Grand Kru with a total value of US$203 million in the course of 25 years.

A screenshot of the LEITI report that highlights the mystery US$4,770 payment

As part of the agreement, MOPP must pay the communities for portions of the land they develop at a rate of US$5 per hectare. That means the company has outstanding payments for the last years.

Residents from MOPP-affected communities who manage the fund corroborated the bank details.

Amos Quoh, secretary general community development fund MOPP, said the company had staff issues.   

“They said they are in transition, some key officials are leaving,” Quoh said. We invited them and they told it was going to see [a] reason to put money into the account.”

MOPP did not respond to emailed queries The DayLight sent since February.

Funding for this story was provided by the Green Livelihood Alliance (GLA 2.0) through the Community Rights and Corporate Governance Program of the Sustainable Development Institute (SDI). The DayLight maintained complete editorial independence over the story’s content.

The Farmer Defending His Land Against A Palm Plantation

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Top: Saturday Wilson has defended his farmland against the Maryland Oil Palm Plantation (MOPP) for nearly 13 years. The DayLight/James Harding Giahyue


By James Harding Giahyue    


PLEEBO, Maryland County – One day in 2016 policemen arrested Saturday Wilson at his farm. Wilson had been accused by the Maryland Oil Palm Plantation (MOPP) of stealing fertilizers, a court document shows.

Wilson spent two days in a police cell and after a relatively short case, the Pleebo Magisterial Court sentenced him to three and a half months in prison. It said he prevented the company from clearing the land the government had leased to it.

“I told [the judge], ‘For me, I am not embarrassing the concession but that is my land,’” Wilson tells The DayLight at his home in Gewloken in the Gbolobo Chiefdom of Pleebo Sodoken District.

“I will serve my sentence but when I come, the land will remain there. I will meet it there. It will still be for me.”

That was not Wilson’s first ordeal with MOPP, and not his last either. In the last 13 years, the 47-year-old farmer has been embroiled in a battle with the company over his farmland. It has placed him behind bars three times. However, he still owns the land.

MOPP had come to Pleebo in 2010 and began clearing some 15,200 hectares of land ahead of its agreement with the Liberian government. Many people, including some of Wilson’s relatives, lost their villages, farmlands, ancestral graveyards and shrines. The following year, MOPP signed an agreement worth US$203 million for 25 years, stretching as far as Grand Kru.

But Wilson would beat all odds to defend the remaining portion of his ancestral land. His family and the people of Gewloken had lost a huge swathe of land to Decoris Oil Palm Company, a previous Ivory Coast-based firm that operated in that region from 1980 to 1987. As a matter of fact, MOPP inherited the ruins of Decoris’ plantation as the result of Liberia’s first and second civil wars.

This Drone photograph shows Gewleken, Saturday Wilson’s hometown, engulfed by the Maryland Oil Palm Plantation (MOPP). The DayLight/Derick Snyder

Wilson was a teenager back then but still remembers how Decoris wiped out his Gewloken town. Several generations of the Wilson clan had lived on the land as far back as the 1800s when Maryland was a territory in Africa. In 1978, tribal chiefs and elders presented the family with a paper for the land, seen by The DayLight. In those days, customary land rights were not recognized but people were issued tribal certificates as a process leading to a formal title. Decoris, however, did not recognize that document.  

Now a full-grown man, Wilson could not afford to lose an inch of the land once more. “As a child when you coming up that land becomes part of you,” says the father of six.  

Wilson’s first encounter with MOPP happened in October 2010. MOPP had sent workers to clear land they claim is part of its concession area. They destroyed banana shrubs and rice stalks on his farm. Still haunted by memories of Decoris’ land grab, Wilson was furious. A scuffle ensued, with men from Gewloken joining the fray.

Then the police arrived on the scene.   

“They went and arrested us, we were 16 persons, took us to Harper,” Wilson recalls. “So, after two days we were released.”    

After that encounter, Wilson and MOPP tried to resolve their issue but it would only lead to more tension.  Bowing to pressure from some of his relatives, friends and local officials, Wilson agreed to give up his land with the agreement that MOPP would compensate him for his crops. In 2015, MOPP counted some of the crops on his farmland but abandoned the process after the first day, according to Wilson. His half-torn handwritten record of the count shows 2,259 plantain shrubs, 327 palm trees and 25 pineapple plants.  

Though frustrated over the failed crops compensation deal with MOPP, Wilson remained calm. In fact, he regretted having agreed to give out the land in the first place. Nearly all of the people who started the advocacy with him five years ago had given in. The ones in MOPP’s employ complained of alleged bad labor practices, including low wages.

This photograph shot with a drone shows Gewloken, the hometown of Saturday Wilson,  just next to the Maryland Oil Palm Plantation. The DayLight/Derick Snyder

“I wanted to compromise with them… because of the tension,” Wilson says. “I am looking at other things to come. It’s better to maintain my piece of land than to work with the company. So, I am not willing to give it.”

After Wilson returned from prison, he sought permission from the court to get back to his farm.

The court arranged a hearing between Wilson and the company’s legal team. Then came the big news:  MOPP told the court they had no land case with him, according to Wilson. The DayLight could not verify that claim. Wesley Kortor, the magistrate of the Pleebo Magisterial Court said it could not locate the case file due to a burglary incident. Efforts to obtain the documents from MOPP and Wilson did not materialize.

Wilson returned to his farm, happy that his struggles with MOPP were over, but his celebration would be short-lived once more. On Friday, June 8, 2018,   MOPP workers made away with 180 bunches of palm nuts Wilson had harvested. He filed a complaint with MOPP’s community liaison committee, a body set up by the company to look into community grievances. It has been crucial in restoring calm to the region after MOPP’s controversial deal with the Liberian government.  

The Pleebo Magisterial Court, where Saturday Wilson was tried and convicted for stealing Maryland Oil Palm Plantation’s fertilizers. The DayLight/James Harding Giahyue

“I am therefore using this medium to register these cases to your office and request your timely intervention and [a] peaceful resolution,” Wilson said in the complaint to Olando Karbeh, the chairperson of the committee. He was citing an incident just a month before where an MOPP staff took 40 of Wilson’s palm bunches, according to his handwritten letter featuring witnesses from the company, seen by The DayLight.

Kouakou Bah, MOPP’s general manager at the time, accused Wilson of harvesting the palm nuts on MOPP’s side of their boundary. During the proceedings, Wilson argued that MOPP  unilaterally demarcated boundaries. (Communities’ participation is a key concept in the global oil palm industry.) An investigation by the community liaison committee and county officials found Wilson was right, according to Karbeh. However, MOPP did not return Wilson’s harvests nor gave him any compensation. After that controversy, Wilson planted plantain trees on the widely accepted boundary between his 25-acre farm and the plantation to avert any future harvest rows.

While that move has protected his estimated 2,000 palm trees, his relationship with MOPP has remained frosty within the last six years. In a meeting late last year with county officials and citizens, MOPP representative complained about Wilson’s farmland, people, who attended the meeting, say.   

“In the meeting, they said they were having problem with Saturday Wilson,” says Thomas Wilson, his brother and paramount chief for the Klebo Chiefdom under which Gewloken falls.

“The City Mayor in Pleebo Wellington Kyne came out and said ‘Saturday is not with us in here… maybe he has something to say.’

“I said in the meeting that the land that Saturday has is not even for him. It is for the.. Gewloken community,” Thomas Wilson adds in an interview at his home. Kyne corroborates his account in a phone interview.

The Community Liaison Committee has asked MOPP to resolve its conflict with Wilson more than once but the company declined,  says Karbeh, calling for an end to more than a decade of hostilities. 

It does not stop there. MOPP has refused to recognize him as a local palm farmer, also called a smallholder or an out-grower in the industry worldwide. The Maryland Oil Palm Outgrower Association has disclosed MOPP would begin purchasing local farmers’ harvests soon but Wilson is excluded, despite being a member of the group. He sells his harvests to Sopalm, a company more than 40 kilometers away in the Ivory coast, based on a receipt seen by The DayLight. He fears it would not change even if local farmers begin selling to MOPP. 

Kwia Nelson, the president of the association, says  MOPP is retaliating against Wilson. “It seems to be that human being heart will never leave things, so MOPP looks at it that the area is still for the company so at the end of the day they don’t want to do business with him,” Nelson tells The DayLight in an interview at his home in Pleeboy City.

“That is the information I have gathered as head [of the association].”

Saturday Wilson stands at the boundary between his farmland and the Maryland Oil Palm Plantation (MOPP). It covers 25 acres and has about 2,000 palm trees, according to Wilson. The DayLight/James Harding Giahyue

Outgrowers are crucial to MOPP’s concession with Liberia and the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), which sets the standards for the global industry. The concession agreement requires MOPP to buy outgrowers’ palm bunches at a set price and quality, among other things. The RSPO mandates its members to include smallholders in their development plans. Is one of seven principles the watchdog operates on. MOPP is Owned by the SIFCA Group, an Ivory Coast-based firm owned by the Singaporean multinational Wilmar International, a member of the RSPO.

James Otto, a lead campaigner at the Sustainable Development Institute (SDI) that advocates for the rights of communities adjacent to the plantation, praises Wilson for defending his rights. Otto says Wilson’s ordeals discourage smallholder farming but show that people can stand up against powerful investors. 

“Saturday needs to be a hero,” Otto tells The DayLight in Monrovia of Wilson, who is captured in a new report by SDI. “I call him the hero of the southeast.”   

MOPP did not respond to a set of questions The DayLight emailed to them nearly two weeks ago.


Funding for this story was provided by the Green Livelihood Alliance (GLA 2.0) through the Community Rights and Corporate Governance Program of the Sustainable Development Institute (SDI). The DayLight maintained complete editorial independence over the story’s content.

Report Accuses MOPP of Land Grab, Pollution and Labor Abuses

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created by dji camera

Top: The entrance of the headquarters of Maryland Oil Palm Plantation (MOPP) in Pleebo Sodoken District. The DayLight/James Harding Giahyue


By Mark B. Newa


MONROVIA – The Maryland Oil Palm Plantation (MOPP) is involved in bad labor practices, land-grabbing and pollution, a new report by the nongovernmental organization the Sustainable Development Institute (SDI) alleges. It accuses MOPP of wiping out local communities’ livelihood in violation of Liberian laws.  

The “Social and Environmental Impacts of Maryland Oil Palm Plantation in Liberia” report alleges the company of abusing the rights of locals to their land, and pushing them into poverty by polluting water sources and reneging on its concession obligations to develop their farms or smallholders program.  

“Today, we bring you compelling revelations… an open disregard of the rights and dignity of local communities affected by MOPP,” James Otto, a lead campaigner at SDI, told a press conference marking the launch of the report.  

“The SDI has worked to bring… issues impacting communities and environment, blatant violations of our laws and lack of respect for local communities on whose land whose land and resources company operates in our country,” Otto added.

SDI said it interviewed 23 people placed in 10 groups from seven communities for the report. It also interviewed the head of the local office of the EPA and local authorities, and photographs relevant places with global positioning system (GPS) coordinates.

MOPP did not answer queries for comments.

MOPP signed its concession agreement with the Liberian government in 2011 for covering 15,200 hectares of land in Maryland County and Grand Kru and worth US$230 million over the 25-year period. Owned by the Ivorian SIFCA Group, MOPP took over the ruins of Decoris Oil Palm Company, also based in the Ivory Coast after the end of the Liberia civil wars.  

Following in Decoris’ footsteps, MOPP with the aid of armed police, cleared communities’ lands, destroyed their ancestral graveyards dishonored traditional shrines and sacred sites, leading to riots.

Land-grab

MOPP abused communities’ rights to their ancestral land, the report says. The company did not get the consent of of local communities—including some that legally documents—before developing its plantation. It accuses the company of illegally including 6,400 acres of land on which it is obligated to develop farms for villagers, and that the company has no individual agreements with communities.  

Findings of the report are similar to a 2015 report by the Social Entrepreneur for Sustainable Development (SESDev) and Forest Peoples Programme.   

“Communities have the right to a formal and legally binding agreement with the company on the use of their lands,” Otto said. “MOPP urgently needs to start negotiating and listening to communities agree on terms and conditions of a lease, provide loss and damages and give back land to communities where requested.”

“If the employee or contractor is sick or even if he/she is hurt at work it will be noted as an ‘absence’ and the day salary is not paid – or employees receive only half of their due payment,” according to the report.

Criminalization

Citing unnamed sources, the report alleges that MOPP harasses and intimated citizens.

One woman said MOPP security guards arrested and beat her daughter who they accused of stealing palm nuts. The woman said “I had to pay L$3,000 to the MOPP security to free her.” Her comments are backed by a civil society actor.  

The report narrates an account of a local named Saturday Wilson, who it says has been frequently intimidated by MOPP for over a decade for a farmland in Gewloken, the town closest to MOPP’s headquarters.

“I am being threatened again and again repeatedly for the small piece of land owned by my family on which I planted palm. MOPP still wants to use the LLA agents and the court to take it away from me. As I speak, they are still after me.

Labor Issues

MOPP pays it contractors below the minimum wage (US$5.50 per day), cutting some contractors’ wages when they are sick or injured, the report alleges. The company does not permanently employ contractors even after three years.

“Contractors receive no payment for the day if production goals are not met. Production goals include the number of palms cleared of weeds as well as harvest volumes,” it says.   

A new report by the Sustainable Development Institute (SDI) accuses Maryland Oil Palm Plantation (MOPP) of bad labor practices. The DayLight/James Harding Giahyue.

Pollution

The report accuses MOPP of planting in swamps, a breach of its environmental and social impact assessment (ESIA), the Environmental Protection and Management Law of Liberia, and principle of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, the global watchdog for the commodity industry.  

MOPP’s mill waste and fertilizers are seeping into creeks used by locals for drinking water, it says, citing several locals.

“They planted palms in all the swamps around here. And when the palm started growing, they used to apply fertilizers and it really used to affect our water,” one says.  

And another, “They are still dumping the palm butter in the Swanpken river and people downstream are finding it difficult to use the water now.”  

In 2017, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) fined MOPP US$10,000 for importing several chemicals into the country without acquiring the requisite approval from the agency.

Livelihoods

Communities told SDI researchers that their livelihoods have been heavily compromised due to pollution, forest degradation and a shortage of land, according to the report.  

As the result, farmers have no access to herbs and firewood, forest to hunt, and waterfronts to fish, it says, adding grass the company had planted to control weeds are destroying their crops.  

“Reduced access to farmland increases food insecurity and less cash crops to support family incomes. Villages literally find the oil palms on their doorsteps. They have no living space or only degraded or poor areas where they can try and provide for their families,” the report added.

“The little farmland that we secured is no longer good because we have used it over and over again,” one farmer says in the report.

The report calls on MOPP to halt its expansion until it signs memoranda of understanding with communities, pays compensation for land-grab, completes the development of the mandatory smallholders’ program.

MOPP did not reply a set of questions from The DayLight on the issues raised in the report. The company did not respond to follow-up emails.

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