At the request of the citizens of Butaw District, Sinoe County, environmental activist and engineer, Morris T. Koffa, traveled to southeastern Liberia to “inquire and gain a better understanding of the growing dispute between the multinational company, Golden Veroleum Liberia (GVL), and the people” living in that part of the country.
The three-day ‘assessment’ visit brought an end (at least for now) to the potentially explosive dispute that could’ve costs the region jobs and other economic benefits.
Even though the conflict between the two groups has been contentious throughout the many years it played in public, the stakes were high; and for prevailing reasons, there had to be a reason to end the dispute.
“If the dispute drags on into the next couple of months and no resolution is reached, GVL will lose millions of dollars, and the company will stop its operations in Butaw District,” the Koffa report noted.
It is worth noting that the people of Butaw District needed a neutral and independent broker to help resolve the lingering dispute, which continued for three years without any end in sight.
As is already known, previous negotiations with multinational companies that were supposedly done with the collective cheerfulness of the rural population (Firestone Rubber, Bong Mining Company, LAMCO, B. F. Goodrich, etc) did not benefit the residents.
Firestone Rubber still holds the undisputed record for signing a 99-year contract in Liberia in 1926, for a million acres of land at 6 cents per acre; with a one percent income tax on Firestone’s annual gross earnings.
Golden Veroleum also signed a 65-year concession agreement in 2009, with the Liberian government. According to Golden Veroleum’s agreement with the Liberian government, the oil palm developer will develop 500,000 acres of land to plant palm trees, and will also support the development and cultivation of 100,000 acres of land for smallholders of oil palm in the Butaw District area.
With a combined total of 1,700 employees, Veroleum Liberia is one of the largest foreign investors to ever set foot on the Liberian soil.
The spectacularly dreadful incidents of the past, which included lies and exploitation has hunted disillusioned Liberians, who blamed various Liberian governments for their failure to negotiate and provide benefits for workers, to spur growth and economic development in the regions.
That said, it is a known fact that another multinational gold and diamond company is operating in Bokon Jadae, Sinoe County (southeastern) Liberia.
The history of the past has led most Liberians to believe that the current Liberian government’s negotiation tactics with the Bokon Jadea mining company, even though slightly enhanced to minimize criticism, isn’t any better than past negotiations that left the communities and its people impoverished.
Skepticisms of this kind often give rise to reasons why an independent public advocacy voice is needed in the Bokon Jadae mining area, and other areas in Liberia where multinational companies are operating.
The concerns expressed by the community activist group, A-Bloteh, and the Butaw District citizens are legitimate concerns that needed an unbiased professional attention.
So as not to be seen as a one-sided mediator, the Koffa team, led by Morris Koffa, invited the community activist group, A-Bloteh, local, county and national political leaders, to “achieve a balanced and unbiased observational assessment through public meetings and one-on-one conversation.”
The dispute centers on three contentious points.
(1) A creek was polluted by GVL’s operations. (2) Historical burial sites and shrines compromised by GVL’s operations (3) farmlands unavailable and inaccessible due to GVL’s operations.
In a wise strategy to get to the bottom of the lingering crisis, Mr. Koffa and his team were able to drill deep down into the crisis, and successfully got groundbreaking commitments from GVL, which needed Butaw District just as Butaw District needed GVL, in this historic marriage of economic convenience.
(1) Golden Veroleum agreed to construct wells for the community that meets UNCEF standards. (2) Golden Veroleum agreed to identify and protect burial and historical sites, and agreed to erect fences and other enclosures (3) Golden Veroleum also agreed to provide training, advice, seeding, tools and fertilizers, to begin in three years.
The dispute had the possibility of driving GVL away, and would have created more crisis in terms of jobs. According to the Koffa Report, “The dispute lasted over a year and led to the laying off of over 500 employees – one third of the workforce.”
This is a victory for the locals. It also shows that Golden Veroleum is not only interested in making money, but is committed to its corporate social responsibility, and the welfare of the people of Butaw District, Sinoe County.
Kudos to team Koffa for traveling afar to rural Liberia to listen to the complaints of the grievous parties, who got much-needed assurances from Golden Veroleum, that it will implement its part of the agreement.
This is a teachable moment for the Liberian government and other multinational companies operating in Liberia. It just cannot continue to be business as usual.