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The Koffa Report, regarding dispute between Golden Veroleum and Butaw District, Sinoe County, Liberia

Morris__T__KoffaBy Morris T. Koffa, ABD

 

October 22 to 24 2013

 

Overview

This report dubbed “The Koffa Report,” is an assessment of a three-day observation visit to the Butaw District in Sinoe County where Golden Veroleum Liberia (GVL) operates. The purpose of the visit was to inquire and gain a better understanding of the growing dispute between GVL and the Butaw District regarding environmental issues within the context of “Corporate Social Responsibility” (CSR) as enshrined in the Concession Agreement.

Investigation revealed that the dispute has lasted well over a year and has led to the laying off by GVL of over 500 employees – one-third of Butaw District’s 1,700 total workforce; almost 500 more workers  could be laid off if the dispute drags on into the next couple of months. GVL continues to lose millions of dollars as a result of the dispute and has threatened to stop its operations in the Butaw District completely if no resolution is found.

The urgency of an amicable settlement for both the Butaw District and Golden Veroleum Liberia to the growing crisis cannot be overemphasized because of social and economic reasons. In order to proffer an amicable and peaceful end to the situation, the visit helped to identify, from each party, their own understanding of the cause (s) of the dispute. Any solution to be put forth should, under no circumstances, compromise any significant environmental issue which could present the parties with life threatening scenarios.

The visit to GVL operations and the Butaw District was voluntary and personal for me, not just as an environmental professional, but because I have ancestral roots in Sinoe and neighboring Maryland and Grand Kru Counties. The overarching reason for my visit is to provide professional advice towards the resolution of the dispute for the benefit of the people of Butaw District in the context of their social and economic wellbeing, and by extension, for the benefit of Sinoe County. The assessment is based on objectivity via discussions with stakeholders to seek a permanent solution to the problem. The findings and recommendations as appendix in this report are non-scientific and should be treated as such.

Method of Inquiry:

For the purposes of achieving a balanced and unbiased observational assessment, the following individuals/institutions formed part of my interactions, either through public meetings or one on one conversation:

1. Hon. Jeremiah McCuley, House of Representative, District #2 Sinoe County and Acting Chair, Sinoe County Legislative Caucus

2. Hon. Togba Bestman, Commissioner, Butaw District

3. The Butaw District/citizens, in a mass gathering

4. Leadership and membership of Butaw Youth Association (BYA)

5. Hon. J. Milton Teajay, Superintendent, Sinoe County

6. Hon. Romeo Quiah, Asst. Superintendent, Sinoe County for Development

7. GVL officials on the ground in Butaw

8. Environmental Protection Agency of Liberia (EPA-L)

9. Mr. Alfred Brownell of Green Advocates

10. Officials of the A-Bloteh Association

11. Hon. Varney Sirleaf, Deputy Minister for Administration, Ministry of Internal Affairs, and the Government of Liberia focal person on the Butaw District-GVL conflict

12. Mabutu Nyanpan, Senator, Sinoe County

Introduction:

Concerns over the prolonged dispute between the Golden Veroleum Liberia (GVL), and the Butaw District were brought to my attention by Hon. Jeremiah McCuley, District #2 Representative, House of Representatives, R.L. and Acting Chair of the Sinoe County Legislative Caucus, during a brief visit to the United States, and from other well-meaning Sinoe County citizens who spoke about the environmental crisis and economic hardship, which the dispute is having on the majority of the citizens of Butaw District, and by extension, to Sinoe County as a whole. As a citizen of Sinoe County, and as an environmental professional, the information received; coupled with further research, set the basis to undertake a more in depth investigation.

Upon my arrival in Liberia for the Second International Environmental Conference, organized by the Environmental Protection Agency in Liberia (EPA-L), I contacted GVL’s headquarters in Monrovia to better understand, from their perspective, the cause (s) of the growing dispute. Following my conversation with GVL the three-day assessment visit from which this report derives, was planned.

About the parties in the dispute:

Butaw District, in Sinoe County, is the entry point of GVL operations in Liberia, and is comprised of four townships with a total population of about 6,000 residents; it lies within the southeastern quadrant of Liberia. Butaw District possesses, as does the entire Sinoe County, a natural resource potential for activities such as logging, as well as gold and diamond mining. Moreover, Butaw District, vis-à-vis the county, also has a rich and fertile soil which makes it an ideal location for GVL’s oil palm operations. Butaw District has suffered social and economic paralysis, and has been idle for decades as a result of the civil crisis.

GVL is an oil palm developer committed to long term investment in Liberia. As one of Liberia’s largest foreign investors, it brings employment, housing for the staffs, infrastructure, education, training/scholarships, healthcare, among other amenities in the communities in which it operates. In 2009, GVL signed a 65-year concession agreement to develop approximately 500,000 acres of land with oil palm plantings, and support development of 100,000 acres of land being cultivated by smallholders of oil palm within the Butaw District and other areas where GVL is to operate. The arrival of GVL in Butaw District has provided an opportunity for economic relief and enhanced social benefits to help revitalize the area.

The trip to Sinoe:

On October 22, 2013, my colleague, Dr. William Hare (Associate Dean for the College of Agriculture, Environmental Sciences and Sustainability, University of the District of Columbia (UDC), Washington, DC, USA) and I traveled to Sinoe County. Our first stop was at the GVL’s operations in Butaw District, where we met with several officials of GVL; one of whom was Mr. Flomo P. Molubah, Senior Manager for Environmental Sustainability. We also met with the Butaw District and Sinoe County leadership, which included the Superintendent, Assistant Superintendent for Development, the Commissioner of Butaw District, paramount chief, town chief, elders, opinion leaders, Butaw Youth Association and a cross section of the district, to gather their views about the dispute and its impact on their District. We were taken on an extensive tour by Mr. Molubah. Areas toured included the housing units for the staffs, a clinic, schools, offices, and a recreation area, among others. These facilities appeared as a genuine manifestation of GVL’s commitment of good faith towards the District of Butaw.

From information gathered, the dispute centered on environmental concerns regarding the pollution of a creek from sediments believed to have been generated from GVL’s operations in Jaryenneh Town, which has a population of less than 20 people. It was also reported that certain historical sites, such as burial/gravesite, shrines and other sensitive sites have been compromised or encroached upon as a result of GVL’s operations. Another concern expressed is one of land use, where some of the residents find farming land unavailable and inaccessible, due to GVL’s operation.

As a result of these mounting concerns, the Butaw District decided to form an organization called the “A-Bloteh Committee” to work with GVL on resolving the matter amicably. The Committee comprises of two members representing each of the four communities that makeup the Butaw District. The mandate to the ‘A-Bloteh Committee,’ according to the District, was to report to the Butaw District periodically on progress and updates as may be deemed necessary. To enhance its work, the A-Bloteh Committee sought the professional advice of an independent consultant, Mr. Alfred Brownell of Green Advocates. Upon advice from Mr. Brownell, the A-Bloteh Committee forwarded their concerns to the appropriate GVL’s authorities for redress. Mr. Flomo Molubah, GVL’s Senior Environmental Sustainability Manager, indicated that GVL made every effort and demonstrated willingness to work with the A-Bloteh Committee and the community to address these concerns through their appropriate representatives.

According to GVL, it offered to resolve these concerns in good faith with the District at every given opportunity to the extent that GVL hired the service of an international non-governmental organization, “The Forest Trust” (TFT) that conducted an assessment of the conflict and made recommendations to have them resolved as contained in TFT’s final report of February 2013. The recommendations from the assessment were sent to and endorsed by RSPO, and GVL implemented all of the recommendations except the issue related to the shrine; because the ownership was been debated among some citizens of the Butaw District. In spite of all these efforts to resolving the issues explained by Mr. Molubah, there have been minor issues such as the lack of proper communication and understanding on the part of A-Bloteh to the Butaw District which have escalated the issues to the level of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). A letter was sent to the RSPO for a “hold” on GVL’s operation in the Butaw District, until the alleged issues are resolved.

RSPO, a global certification body for the palm oil industry, of which GVL is a member, is an international body established in 2004 with the objective of promoting the growth and use of sustainable oil palm products through credible global standards and engagement of stakeholders. It is composed of different organizations from different sectors of the palm oil industry (oil palm producers, palm oil processors or traders, consumer goods manufacturers, retailers, banks and investors, environmental or natural conservation NGOs and social or developmental NGOs) for the purpose of developing and implementing global standards for sustainable palm oil. RSPO is represented in over 50 countries including Liberia and strongly emphasizes harmonious relationship between communities and its members the “Free Prior Informed Consent (FPIC).

Some of the measures taken by GVL to resolve the issues include:

 Construction of wells for the community of about 20 persons. According to UNCEF standards, each well should serve at least 250 persons, therefore GVL exceeded the UNICEF standards. GVL has constructed the wells while it promises to study the condition of the water body scientifically and decontaminate any pollutants, thus remediating it to a useful state for consumption and recreation;

 Identifiable historic grave/burial sites were protected by erecting fences and other enclosures. For those claimed to have been encroached upon, but not easily located, GVL has agreed to provide appropriate financial compensation to the claimants. However, even within the community, it has become difficult to provide compensation to claimants since there sometimes seem to be more than one claimant to a particular grave/burial site; for these, GVL must work with the community to agree on a community trust fund where compensation can be deposited and used for the benefit of the entire District. Additionally, to preserve the memories of those sites encroached upon but not located, GVL has expressed willingness, with the consent of the community, to build a memorial site;

 To provide redress for those unable to farm due to GVL’s operations, as is enshrined in the MOU, GVL promises to support what is known as the “supported out-grower farms” and (that of the Community Oil Palm area will be in the ratio of 1 acre to every 5 acres the communities have assigned to GVL. Furthermore, GVL has agreed to provide training, advice, seeding, tools and fertilizers to begin in 3 years of development). It will also, provide ½% each year of annual sales of oil palm products sales into an Oil Palm Development Fund for the community. There are numerous other benefits to which GVL has committed in an effort to co-exist in the communities in which it operates in Liberia.

It was revealed during the investigation that part of the confusion which has led to the escalation of the conflict is the fact that the A-Bloteh Committee leadership has not updated the community on progress made, which raised questions as to whether the issues were being given proper redress; the laying off of more than 500 workers did little to appease or allay the community’s fears.

The A-Bloteh Committee’s refusal to meet with the District and its decision to attend negotiation meetings without providing progress and updates to the community members has caused dissatisfaction and frustration among the entire Butaw District who are also disenchanted with the A-Bloteh Committee’s negotiation strategies. Meanwhile, GVL continues to lay off employees and has begun relocating earth moving equipment to other jurisdictions. Proper dissemination of information and the lack of shared understanding within member communities of the A-Bloteh Committee have created a tense situation with undesirable rippling effects.

Information gathered indicated that the RSPO is aware of all the issues surrounding the Butaw District-GVL dispute and has placed a moratorium on GVL’s operations in the conflict area until measures are put in place to resolve the dispute between the two parties as ascribed in the RSPO guidelines. The moratorium was requested by the independent consultant working with the A-Bloteh Committee, Mr. Brownell of Green Advocates.

For all stakeholders, the issue of major concern is the protracted period of non-resolution which is inflicting economic hardship on the citizens of Butaw District with more than 500 workers already laid off and the threat of more layoffs to follow by the end of November, 2013; the District citizenry. Due to millions of dollars in losses since the dispute started and seeing no forthcoming resolution, GVL has begun to move most of its equipment to Grand Kru County.

The Environmental Protection Agency of Liberia (EPA-L), after carefully evaluating the alleged environmental concerns, has determined that findings do not suggest significant environmental problems with immediate life-threatening potential. However, EPA-L has agreed that such concerns can and should be addressed to avoid long term problems; at the same time EPA-L recommends that GVL operations continue in Butaw District.

The Butaw District finally unified with one voice to address and end the dispute which has dragged on for well over a year and has caused financial setbacks for both the community and GVL’s operations. After several meetings held by the Butaw Youth Association (BYA) and the Butaw District under the gavel of the Commissioner, Paramount and Clan Chiefs as well as elders, opinion leaders, women within the entire community in which they expressed dissatisfaction with the miscommunication and misdirection by the A-Bloteh Committee which exacerbated the dispute, the parties have decided to resolve their differences. Moving forward, the District has unanimously agreed by writing to the appropriate parties (Hon. Varney Sirleaf, Mr. Alfred Brownell and GVL) requesting Mr. Alfred Brownell to officially withdraw from the RSPO the request for a moratorium on GVL’s operations.

Hon. Varney Sirleaf, Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs (MIA) and the Government of Liberia focal person on the Butaw District-GVL Conflict explained that all issues of the dispute have been resolved internally by the concerned parties and signatures on the withdrawal letter to the RSPO will lift the moratorium and GVL and Butaw District can begin operations. Mr. Alfred Brownell of Green Advocates and legal advisor to the A-Bloteh Committee has agreed to write

and sign the letter for submittal to the RSPO. He however admits that there have been delays from all sides of the dispute, making it difficult to complete the resolution process. It is reported that Mr. Brownell has committed to working assiduously with all parties to finalize the discussions; arrangements are also being made for a delegation from the Butaw District to travel to Monrovia for the signing ceremony.

All Efforts to reach Mr. Alfred Brownell:

Let it be noted that every attempt through emails and phone contacts for about a month to Mr. Alfred Brownell of Green Advocates and legal advisor to the A-Bloteh Committee to get his view on this matter failed. Therefore, this report is concluded without Mr. Brownell’s views; due to the essence of time, the report has to be compiled and shared.

Professional Analysis:

After carefully reviewing and analyzing the matter on a professional level, I find no significant environmental problem with immediate life-threatening circumstances to have generated such intensity of the issues when all indications have shown and demonstrated willingness and commitment by GVL to resolve all concerns. However, I do concur with the Butaw District for all of the environmental concerns as enumerated within the context of being proactive in protecting its environment. Such a bold move certainly demonstrates a clear indication that the district cares about its well-being and environment and that it will hold GVL to the terms and conditions as contained in the concession agreement.

I applaud the creation of the A-Bloteh Committe or any appropriate representative of the Butaw District to engage GVL on matters of concern in a manner that promotes the spirit of peaceful negotiation and cordiality. The A-Bloteh Committee can serve its communities well on relevant issues that may impact the District through education and awareness in the general interest of the District. The major issues of environmental concerns have been addressed or are in the process of being addressed by GVL; both parties are cognizant that prompt and effective intervention, via communication and trust, from the onset of the conflict, would have prevented its escalation to the level of the RSPO.

Conclusion:

The overarching concern focuses on the social and economic well-being of the people of Butaw many of whom, if not all, have been economically impoverished for decades. The presence of GVL has brought economic relief and other social capacity for the Butaw District especially the youths. It should also be noted the presence of GVL also brings economic support to the local and national economies. There are economic ripple effects that unemployment has on almost every sector of the community.

For example, for the 500 employees laid off by GVL, each of whom in most instances has a family of eight dependents, the impact are felt by at least 4,000 persons; income, which would have provided food, clothing, medical care and education for these individuals, is lost. This is a serious social and economic impediment for a district or community that has been impoverished for decades particularly for issues that are not immediately life-threatening and can be easily remedied.

Regardless of the economic relief provided by an investor, there is no excuse for environmental degradation and abuse of cultural values. A lack of understanding of environmental issues by a group should not encourage environmental vandalism by any investors in any manner. It is necessary to carefully analyze and understand all the issues and concerns and solicit the advice from experts in the environmental field before actions are taken. Moreover, national bodies responsible for monitoring concession agreements must be proactive to ensure that all parties to an agreement are in full compliance. It is extremely necessary and important that the national government intervenes quickly in dispute of this magnitude to ensure the protection of the community and entity involved; ultimately the national interest of the government. Avoiding economic casualties and social discontent serve the interest of all.

Recommendations:

That the Butaw District Community, in collaboration with the A-Bloteh Committee, withdraws the letter of hold for GVL for begin full operation,

 That Butaw District maintains the A-Bloteh Committee but re-orient the leadership structure with a clear vision and responsibility;

 That GVL considers rebuilding and re-cultivating its relationship with the A-Bloteh Committee and provide relevant training to better understand and effectively articulate the relationship between GVL and the Butaw District through the Committee to avoid similar situation which has created distrust;

 That GVL revisits the concerns raised by the Butaw District, particularly on matter such as the gravesites, shrines, land use and creek contamination; scientific studies and restoration of the creek’s usability be conducted as well as other areas that may be deemed questionable by the people of Butaw District;

 That GVL works with the district to establish a trust fund where compensation can be deposited and used for the benefit of the entire District’s development, and/or come to an agreement with the district for funds to be used to build a memorial site;

 GVL conducts an environmental and corporate social responsibility audit to ensure that all needs are in place to protect and promote a harmonious relationship while protecting GVL’s investment;

 That GVL strengthens its relationship with Butaw District by having periodic meetings with the district and communities and the A-Bloteh Committee for updates and any other issue that may be of relevance in order to prevent the reoccurrence of what is unfolding now – use the conflict as lesson learned from which things can be done differently for better outcome;

 Strongly recommend that GVL considers hiring a consultant that understands the environmental science, corporate and community understanding and cultural background of the communities of operation to clearly articulate and educate the community on the benefits and challenges in all its operation in Liberia. This would be a good attempt to soften any potential tension before it gets out of control as in the case with the Butaw District situation;

 That the Government of Liberia constitutes a committee to quickly intervene to resolve concessional issues before it gets out of hand. Any uncontrolled issue can have a crippling effect on the national economic, social discontent, threat to investors’ investment and can create a losing situation for all.

Morris T. Koffa, ABD, Environmental Engineer & Community Advocate/Conflict Resolution and Disaster/Emergency Management Practitioner. Mr. Koffa is a doctoral candidate in Public Policy and Administration (PPA), with concentration in Emergency Management (EM). Koffa can be reached at 240-417-2545.

 

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