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Natural Resource Watch Newsletter – October 2020

In this edition:

The Criminalization of Land Rights Advocates and Reputational Damage

Makeni People's Forum
Makeni People’s Forum

In the subregion of Makeni, state securities must redeem their image while poor communities struggle with issues of land, natural resources, and environmental governance and protection. It is imperative that these concerns take center stage in the continuation of providing safeguards for the rule of law and addressing lingering grievances that have the potential to undermine the peace and security of the region.

This point must be elevated to national security, beyond a merely regional security level. The Mano River Union Civil Society Natural Resources Rights and Governance Platform (MRU CSO Platform) runs a secretariat from Monrovia, Liberia and has established cross-border relationships with partners in all fifteen West African countries with the intention of focusing on issues of natural resources, land, and environmental governance. Key beneficiaries of the intervention are frontline grassroot environmentalists and land and human rights defenders whose influences have been beclouded over the years due to contrivances of officialdom which make these defenders appear as outcasts. In reality, they are the unsung heroes and heroines, fighting for justice in land grabbing and egregious abuses of human rights and hyper-degradation of the environment caused by multinational companies working in tandem with the governments across West Africa.

The region has witnessed the knowing and willful criminalization and antagonization of grassroot frontline defenders. The MRU CSO Platform has identified that the national security outfit, the police, the army, and other agents of governments have all played a significant role in the mass criminalization of these defenders.

Therefore, there is a need for governments and their national security agencies in the sub-region to redeem their image of the protection of human rights defenders. If the image is not redeemed, the reputational damage that comes with such amenability in taking orders from above will create incidences of national and subregional conflicts.

In the First People’s Forum of 2018, at the provincial capital of Makeni, Sierra Leone, the organizers of the even did not purposely set out to “find the perpetrators,” per se. Rather, the event was designed with the intention of demanding accountability and transparency over a sector that had been shrouded in secrecy.

Information banner from the Peoples' Forum in March of 2019
Information banner from the Peoples’ Forum in March of 2019

Despite that the purpose of the conversation was to hear from those affected by land grabbing, the presence of state authorities, notably the host Paramount Chief of Bombali, Shebora Kasanga, demonstrated the desire to foster collective solution-seeking pathways to safeguard the environment for the good of the generality.

However, those in local communities affected by land grab who campaigned for accountability and transparency were subjected to hassles, persecution, prosecution, and even death. Who are the dominant culprits of this?

Those issues were not purposely asked at the First People’s Makeni Forum, but by the nature of the open and frank discussions that ensued there were persistent and recurring mentions of state security agencies; this offered many narratives of defenders from Mali, Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Niger, and the Ivory Coast.

There are some direct quotes linking state security to acts of violence against grassroot defenders, starting with the Malian experience:

A land rights defender and a community activist (name withheld for protection) from Mali told of gold mining companies in the country that have caused water pollution crises. He cited two main gold mining companies, SEMOS and Morila, as having done little in terms of development. However, he alluded that one of the company’s development fund was set up in the year 2000 with an annual budget of 250,000 USD, but they only came to know about this fund in 2005. A portion of this money, he disclosed, is used by the office of the mayor to pay the police.

He who pays the piper dictates the tune; it suffices to say that where the gold mining companies are paying the police, they are used as instruments of state clampdowns on local dissent against unfair land deals.

We can find similar instances elsewhere in the subregion. In Niger, according to another land rights defender and community activist (name withheld for protection.), “a massive hotel tourism caused serious health hazards for my community after people drank contaminated water… the government and investors used state security to evict people from the land…”

A land rights defender of Bumbuna, Sierra Leone, home to the country’s hydroelectric power plant, recounted how in 2007 state security forcibly evicted people from farm lands to allow African Mineral of Frank Timis to operate. He said 140 of his colleagues were arrested and detained on false charges. One person was reportedly killed in local opposition to this company.

He posted his protest of these actions on social media, revealing that he was banished by the Paramount Chief of Bumbuna and has since relocated to the capital Freetown from where he is now pursuing a university degree at Njala University College.

Ghana shares similar stories of state security criminalization of defenders. A land rights defender and community activist from Saaman (name withheld for protection), was arrested fir his resistance and advocacy against land grabbing. He paid tribute to women activists by staging a constructive protest that ensured his release. He used his experience to send a note of caution to other grassroot defenders encouraging caution in accepting and resisting gifts from land grabbers.

The snippets of instances captured in countries of the ECOWAS about the pattern of state security criminalization of grassroot land rights defenders is becoming pervasive. It is an unfortunate act for which civil society must be voluble in condemning. For the rule of law is at best cultivated in a tranquil context. The state suppression of protests against land rights can best be supplanted by having open negotiations and discussions around concession agreements and building enforceable consensus around such agreements, even at the implementation stage. The politicization of the police must be jettisoned and good judgement must take precedence over serving the few vested interest riding rough shod over public interest in land investments.

MRU CSO Thoughts on Corporate Culpability

Countries in the Mano River Union basin and the wider West African region are gifted with abundant resources. In spite of this rich endowment, citizens of these countries are at the very top of the league of the poorest countries in the world. It should be said that these poor communities continue to suffer various types of violations at the hands of multinational corporations with impunity. These plantations and mining companies operating across the region are unapologetic in their mistreatment of the people – they snub their corporate obligations and social responsibilities; they forcibly displace the people, deny them their livelihoods, degrade the environment, and destroy their properties.

Worst still, governments in the region are complicit in these corporate abuses, They fail to protect their citizens against these foreign corporations and deny them access to relevant information and educations about these so-called investments, even though these indigenous and deprived people are incidentally the ones directly affected by these investments. In some instances, state security agencies (especially the police) are used to violently quell dissent.

From one country to the other in the subregion, the stories are nearly the same. Exploitation of natural resources has triggered conflicts and deepened problems of poverty and undermined development. It is simply a tale of bad governance and corruption. Ultimately, ordinary citizens are left destitute and hopeless.

Thankfully, in April of 2011, the Fund for Global Human Rights (FGHR) awarded Green Advocates a grant to support the work of the Mano River Union Civil Society Natural Resources Rights and Governance Platform. The support was initially for five civil society organizations in five countries in order to enable them to research and publish natural resource rights profiles of their countries, among other issues relating to creating visibility for the platform, as part of its support for Corporate Accountability Program in West Africa.

In April of 2016, the Fund awarded a second grant to Green Advocates on behalf of the MRU CSO Partners to, among other things, expand the scope of the Platform in order to bring in more organizations locally and regionally.

Going forward, Green Advocates International successfully organized the first people’s forum/summit of the MRU CSO Natural Resources Rights and Governance Platform in Makeni, Sierra Leone, with the Network Movement for Justice and Development (NMJD) and the Sierra Leone Network on the Right to Food (SiLNoRF). For four intensive days, 18-21 March 2019, more than fifty environmental rights defenders convened to discuss the theme “Developing Strategies to Educate, Mobilize, and Empower Affected Communities and Indigenous Peoples to Ensure Corporate Accountability in West Africa.”

Kumi Larbi (Ghana), Daniel Fofanah (Sierra Leone), Chima Williams (Nigeria), and Michel Yoboué (Cote d'Ivoire) pictured at the People's Forum of 2019
Kumi Larbi (Ghana), Daniel Fofanah (Sierra Leone), Chima Williams (Nigeria), and Michel Yoboué (Cote d’Ivoire) pictured at the People’s Forum of 2019

The Makeni summit was certainly a huge solution-seeking moment against state-sponsored corporate abuses. For the first time, relatively unknown grassroot defenders, whose voices never had a space to be heard, were mobilized under one roof to cement a solidarity movement. They were environmental and land rights activists who came from informal labor/workers organizations; they were local chiefs, women’s rights groups, poor entrepreneurial organizations, communities affected by the operations of powerful companies and civil society activists. Most of all, they were indigenous people who have been dispossessed of their ancestral inheritance and livelihoods.

The message from the Makeni is all too clear and pointed. The people have had enough – enough subjugation. They are ready to take matters into their own hands. They are resolved that it is not sufficient to weep and protest about their plight, but that they will seek redress through local and international grievance mechanisms and legal actions to restore their rights and hold those culpable to account.

Seeking Justice for Victims: ECOWAS Court Hears Arguments

On February 6, 2020, the ECOWAS Court of Justice heard arguments in two landmark cases that broke new grounds in community rights advocacy. Essentially, the governments of Niger and Guinea are being asked to answer questions about their complicity in allegations of human rights violations against their own people.

Guinean NGO, Mêmes Droits pour Tous (MDT) and Réseau DH-Gouvernance in Niger, working in partnership with Advocates for Community Alternatives (ACA) and other members of the Public Interest Lawyering Initiative for West Africa (PILIWA), filed separate complaints at the ECOWAS Court of Justice in October 2918. The suits related mostly to victims of the Zoghota massacre in the forested regions of southern Guinea, while others were filed for several families whose land was illegally expropriated by the government of Niger. After more than a year, the plaintiffs’ arguments were finally heard in an open court.

In the Guinea case, the plaintiffs accused the State of having ordered and facilitated murder, arbitrary arrest, torture, destruction of private property, and other abuses against the people of the Zoghota community. On the night of 4 August, 2012, just after midnight, agents of the Guinean security and defense forces attacked Zoghota Village, firing at random and killing six residents, wounding several more as well as burning homes, arresting, and torturing many people.

The attack came in retaliation against demonstrations by communities who opposed abusive practices of the international mining consortium Vale-BSG, which was infringing on their fundamental rights. But, to date, Guinea has failed to investigate or hold anyone accountable. Pépé Antoine Lama, a lawyer for the victims and Acting President of MDT, explained that “For us, this trial is an important step to ensure that justice is served for the massacre victims and to end the impunity of the Guinean government in the Zoghota case. We filed complaints against five commanding officers in the Guinean forces and also against Vale-BSG for having given material support to the security forces who committed the massacre. But in more than seven years, the Guinea justice system has made little progress towards holding anyone accountable. The victims demand justice.”

Kpakilé Gnadawolo Kolié, one of the plaintiffs in the case and a representative of the victims of the Zoghota massacre, said:

“For more than seven years, we waited for the case in Guinea to go forward, and we’d completely lost hope. But now that we’re here, I can allow myself to hope again. We’re relying on the ECOWAS Court of Justice to vindicate our rights, and I’m optimistic that justice will be served for us. The Court should require the Republic of Guinea to find and prosecute the perpetrators of the massacre. I cannot close without giving my heartfelt thanks to out lawyers at MDT, to ACA, to Jonathan, and to Lalla. Without you, this case would never have been revived. We have confidence in you.”

In the Niger case, the complaints allege that the State violated national laws as well as international standards about the right to property when, without consultation or compensation, it took land in the fertile valley of Gountou Yena that was the residents’ sole source of livelihood. Their land was given to a Nigerian company, Summerset Continental, for the construction of a luxury hotel. The State took unjustified administrative actions to revoke and retroactively cancel the property rights that it had previously recognized as legitimately belonging to the families of Gountou Yena. “We are convinced that the ECOWAS Court of Justice will render justice to these families whose ancestral land was illegally expropriated, and who have lost faith in the process of justice in Niger,” declared IDrissa Tchernaka, counsel for the victims and President of the Réseau DH-Gouvernance (Human Rights and Governance Network).

In spite of a local judge’s order requiring the company to stop construction while the land dispute was pending in court, the Nigerian state provide military and police force to Summerset Continental to expel the residents and destroy all homes and buildings on the site. According to Seydouo Mamane Hamidou, a plaintiff and representative of the families of Gountou Yena:

“Under the protection of the security forces, bulldozers sent by Summerset Continental destroyed everything in just a few hours. They razed all our fruit trees, vegetable gardens, crops, temporary structures… nothing was left. WE lost everything and never received anything for our losses. We hope for the restitution of our lands or just compensation.”

“The members of PILIWA hail the opening of this trail and hope the judges for of the ECOWAS Court of Justice will render justice for communities that are traumatized by the actions of governments that prioritize interests of foreign companies over the rights of their citizens,” said Barr. Chima Williams, the spokesperson for PILIWA. “We hope for a swift decision from the court that soothes the suffering of the plaintiffs,” said Jonathan Kaufman, Executive director of ACA.

Testimonials of Lamentations

Women representatives of NRWP

Monrovia 15th October 2020: Women representatives from three counties affected by the operation of oil palm and rubber plantations (Bomi, Cape Mount, and Margibi) have stated that their pitiable conditions have not changed for the better, but rather worsened in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Their testimonials were made possible by the courtesy of the Alliance against Industrial Oil Palm and the use of a virtual conferencing tool that brought together multiple countries in the subregion.

The Natural Resource Women Platform (NRWP), an affiliate of Green Advocate International (GAI), mobilized the Libera women representatives from the affected plantation communities in order to highlight their various plights including: deprivation of land to farm, lack of access to safe drinking water because of chemical pollution, denial of employment for women and firing of men from the workforce, incidents of secret killings of grassroot land rights defenders, insufficient schooling opportunities for children, and state-sponsored brutality with the purpose of protecting the companies which have in some cases lead to miscarriages among pregnant women, among other things.

Speaking on behalf of the women representatives from Margibi, Finda Bengo used the occasion to laud the support of GAI in ensuring that they have some level of access to swamp farming and fishing. However, she lamented that the company causing issues in Margibi is abusing labor to slash grass for pittance in the plantation and have also denied access to the bush to burn coal for their livelihoods “because of our continues reliance of GAI in defending our rights” against the exploitation of subsidiary of SOCFIN, Salala Rubber Corporation, SRC. According to her, SRC is accusing them of inviting GAI in and cause the suspension of work in the plantation.

Massa Turay of Grand Cape Mount said, “We now go to neighboring towns and villages and pay for plots of land to farm cassava at the cost of 50 USD.”

Tenneh Varney from Bomi County said they find it risky to go into the bushes as women because there are incidents of secret killings, as many community members have discovered unidentified graves in the near forest. She added: “even if when we report these disturbing situations to our political and local leaders, they cannot take any action to protect our interest against the new company, MANCO, that took over from Sime Darby.”

Policy Adviser of NRWP, Radiatu Sherriff, provided an overview of the session as an engagement initiated by their partner, Alliance against Industrial Oil Palm Plantation, to use the virtual meeting tool to hear from the constituents about the emerging issues caused by the pandemic. She said the essence is to find solutions to problems that abound the sector.

Head of the NRWP Secretariat, Veronica Gray, traced the establishment of the NRWP that was initially the Forest Women Platform in 2010. The organization evolved to have a broader outlook, reflecting the wider spheres of natural resource livelihood engagement of women. She said it was to reflect this that the group underwent a name change in 2012, now referred to as Natural Resource Women Platform. They have since been working with the grassroot women representatives who attended the virtual meeting which involved multiple countries including Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Cameroon, Congo, and Sierra Leone.

It was disclosed that the Alliance against Industrial Oil Palm Plantation advocates were to curtail corporate land grabbing that puts women in disadvantaged situations. In 2013, the Alliance hosted a meeting in Calabar, Nigeria to come out with a clear roadmap, identifying three key objectives: understanding the nature of land grabbing corporations and their financing agreements, mapping communities affected by industrial land grabbing, and strengthening those affected by the land dispossession trend of multinational companies.

In response to what is required to address the situation, the women made a passionate appeal. They called for the strengthening of their advocacy skills, support that will lead to alternative economic empowerment, compensations for their land, and effort from land grabbing companies to disclose land agreements in order to ensure that communities’ benefits and entitlements in such agreements are honored.

The Alliance has taken note of these concerns and recommended solutions with assurance that actions will be considered for short, mid, and long-term interventions.

Making Grassroot Human Rights Defenders Count

They are the “first responders – the nameless and faceless, our Firewall. And they are sometimes among the first casualties as they are in the frontline raising their voices and defending the environment, land, natural resources, history, culture, tradition, customs, livelihood, innovations, entrepreneurship, and cause of their communities when abuses are being committed” says Alfred Brownell, lead campaigner of Green Advocates International (GAI). They hardly get notice for their advocacy. No, they do not make headlines simply because they are designated as grassroot activists or anti-development or anti-government protesters. Come to think about it, they are the ones getting their hands dirty and giving up their rights and lives for the rights and lives of others; rarely do they get the credit they deserve. They have no staff, and no offices; they hardly get donor grants, yet they are the most prosecuted.

But things are about to change for the better, at least in the minimal. A baseline assessment on the Economic Social and Cultural Rights (ESCR) of Frontline Grassroots Environmental, Land and Human Rights Defenders (HRD) in West Africa is being conducted across the region in preparation for a West African regional conference which will seek to elevate and give visibility to those we call frontline grassroot human rights defenders.

The Baseline Assessment is being conducted by GAI, based in Liberia and in collaboration with the Mano River Union Civil Society Natural Resources Rights and Governance Platform and supported by the Open Society Foundation (OSF). The project aims establish a basis for support, protection, and response mechanisms for frontline grassroots environmental land and human rights defenders across West Africa. Additionally, it aims to create an opportunity for networking, solidarity, experience sharing, training, and other supports including protection and psychosocial, cyber, and data security in order to advance the work of the defenders.

The 2000 Declaration of Human Rights Defenders puts the responsibility of implementing and respecting provisions onto the governments of regions. These responsibilities serve particularly to protect HRDs from harm they may face due to their work. However, most governments fail to do so. HRDs are often viewed and referred to as anti-investment, anti-business, anti-country, and solely troublemakers.

In 2016, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of HRDs recommended to states, business enterprises, NHRI, donors, civil society organizations, and other stakeholders that they focus on creating a safe and enabling environment for HRDs to their work.

The Cotonou Declaration of 2017 also calls for the protection of all HRDs at risk in the region, specifically those working in conflict and post-conflict states on issues relating to land, healthy, HIV, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and sexual and reproductive health rights.

Despite this global recognition of the problem and the implementation of policies and conventions that attempt to address the issues, there remain serious challenges to solving the attacks on HRDs in West Africa. There is a troubling regional trend towards shrinking civil space that allows HRDs to operate independently. It also reveals that HRDs are being threatened, stigmatized, harassed, subject to government surveillance both on and offline, and in some cases murdered. The deterioration of the situation of HRDs in West Africa reflects a lack of adequate protection for HRDs. “In many instances, arbitrary arrest and detention, frivolous criminal charges, false accusations, unfair trial, and conviction of HRDs are commonplace,” says Alfred Brownell, the 2019 Goldman Prize winner for Africa, lead campaigner of Green Advocates International, and senior policy advisor to the Project.

In 2018, the UN Special Rapporteur recommended that West African countries review, amend, and repeal laws that restrict the right to freedom of opinion, expression, association, and assembly in order to take steps towards ensuring that HRDs can exercise these rights without interference or punishment.

Yet, significant gaps in the region’s policy framework still persist. Cote d’Ivoire, Mali, and Burkina Faso are thought to be the only countries that have passed laws that recognize and protect the rights of HRDs, though that is not to say their HRDs are free of challenge. Ensuring that laws and policies exist in the rest of countries in West Africa is the first step, according to the Project document. The next and greater challenge is ensuring that these governments investigate crimes committed against HRDs promptly and impartially in order to bring justice to the situation.

Given the enormous barriers and risks HRDs face in their work, there is an urgent need to better understand who is at risk, evaluate strategies to keep themselves safe, identify where gaps are, and expand on existing approaches to provide HRDs with tools and strategies that are easy to use, effective, accessible, and sustainable. According to Brownell, that is the prerogative of this project.

The project covers the 15 countries in West Africa and Equatorial Guinea. Though Equatorial Guinea is not part of the region, it is included because of the many human rights issues the country faces. At least 10 grassroots activists are being profiled and documented in each of the countries across the region.

Liberia, Sierra Leone, Cote d’Ivoire, and Guinea Bissau have had their share of violent conflicts and instability. The dictator in the Gambia was removed in 2016, but the region remains in the spotlights because of violent extremist groups, such as Boko Haram and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, terrorizing Nigeria, Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mauritania.

Added to the equation of drivers of conflict in the region are the disputed elections that often times ignite violence, conflict over natural resources, ethnic divisions, and economic and social exclusions. Recent electoral violence in Guinea and Cote d’Ivoire and protests against police banditry in Nigeria has been troubling to say the least.

The region is also host to hundreds of multinational corporations which are intended to boost foreign direct investment under the guise of creating jobs, transferring technology and skills, generating revenues, and building the infrastructure of the region. Yet, the scars of poverty conspicuously permeate widely across the region while they instigate and ferment conflicts in the communities these corporations are operating within. Various accounts show how foreign companies, with the backing of their host and home governments, violate local community rights with impunity. Poor people are subjected to a range of violations including displacement, denial of their livelihoods and destruction of property. The situation makes the work of front line grassroots HRDs nothing if not risky.

Digesting Slices of Bread of Development Partners and State Actors

Echoes from the First Peoples’ Forum/Summit in Makeni, Sierra Leone must serve as a source of inspiration in holding firm to the ideal of protecting local interest against the land grabbing overdrive of multinational corporations. It is refreshing to look back at that event. If you like, our thoughts are on the proverbial finely sliced buttered bread that was served by eminent persons- sharing the zest and commitment of the MRU CSO Natural Resources Rights and Governance Platform.

“We believe that the community and people should be at the forefront of what happens to the valuable things beneath the ground.” This comment is attributed to Mr. Patric Mucus, a representative from German Development Corporation – GIZ.

He was actually speaking to the negative trend of state collusion with corporate bodies in plundering land for industrial agriculture and mining purposes. These collusions have become onerous to communities in the subregion.

He alluded to the fact that it is a core mandate of GIZ to work towards ensuring that local interests in natural resources are protected, which gels well with the object of the first people forum of the MRU CSO Platform in Makeni.

One may want to test the level of commitment from the support areas of GIZ in the subregion to translate statements of policy value in natural resource governance on the realities on the ground. Specifically, the agenda of Mano River CSO Platform values the disclosure by Patric Mucus when he said “…one of the goals of the German Development Corporation is providing voice to the people, as one of the indicators for the next three years in community-based monitoring…” He added that the impacts of multinational companies in land use must be subjected to local scrutiny.

Rightly so, it could be gracious enough for the GIZ to share with us what has been coming from their end in grassroot empowerment to hold corporate bodies and local authorities accountable to terms of concession agreements.

The entire discourse of corporate land and environmental context of the subregion holds a dimension of corruption that must not be lost on us.

And when the northern provincial head of the Sierra Leone Anti-Corruption Commission, Abubakar Kamara, took the podium to speak, he cited the evidence of wanton degradation of the environment as a result of corporate investment ventures.

Even as he supported the initiative of the People’s Forum, he stopped short of bringing out the prosecution and liability linkages of such actions of multinational companies. This can be read into. He was certainly not authorized to make such strong statements that could grate the feelings of the political leaders at whose behest such state institutions are set up. Rather, even as anti-corruption arrangements in specific contexts see these crimes, they expect the affected people to come forth with evidence.

There is evidently weak capacity of grassroot defenders in digging out these corruption dimension of the corporate bodies using local laws. This represents the paradox in the commitment to fighting grand corruption involving natural resource diversion at the national level which would necessitate the recourse to sub-regional court of ECOWAS using the Public Interest Lawyering arm of the MRU CSO Platform.

If these finely couched rendering of supports from state and non-state actors at the Makeni people’s forum/summit can be reduced to slices of bread served, then we would be compelled to ask some hard questions: how easily could these slices of bread be masticates into bolus-talking about the taking in of small rounded mass of a substance, especially at the moment of swallowing. What are we saying here? That we must take stock of our stewardship; what is happening farther field in terms of tangibles that are coming from places of obligations to identify the cause of distraught land affected community people down there.

CAO Conducts Complaint Hearing in Liberia

Indigenous communities uprooted by Socfin’s operations in Liberia are retaining some hope that justice of some sort will be served in their situation no matter how long it takes. They can be hopeful because they have had the pleasure of having the Compliance Advisor Ombudsman (CAO) hear their complaint.

CAO is the independent watchdog and accountability mechanism for the International Finance Corporation (IFC) and the Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency (MIGA) of the World Bank Group.

Without the free prior and informed consent of the indigenous peoples, the communities alleged in their complaint of 27 May 2019 that the Salala Rubber Corporation (SRC) seized and forcefully evicted the people from their farmlands, destroyed their ancestral graves and sacred sites, dislodged and dispossessed them of their livelihoods, polluted their waters, sexually harassed women and girls, and instituted reprisal and intimidating attacks, all designed to subdue the poor community members.

For background, SRC was established by a merger in July 2007 between the rubber processing factory called Weala Rubber Company and a standalone rubber plantation called Salala Rubber Corporation. The plantations were granted concession rights by the Liberian government in 1959 with a land area of 40,000 hectares. Socfin acquired the merged plantations in 2007 after the Liberian civil war.

In June 2008, IFC committed a $10 million USD loan to Socfin to finance the rehabilitation and optimization program of the SRC. IFC told the CAO investigative team, “the Project was intended to complement SRC’s management plans to rehabilitate and expand the plantation, which had been neglected during the civil war.”

But the rehabilitation plan appears to have breached the terms of the Performance Standards of the IFC and acceptable national and international norms. The company is accused of violating the human and inheritance rights of nearly two dozen communities in Gleagba, Bloomu, Old Dokai, New Dokai, Bondolon, Massaquoi, Martin Village, Dedee-ta 1, Deedee-ta 2, Kuwah-ta, Jorkporlorsue, Gorbor, Kolledarpolon, Monkey-tail, Ansa-ta, Lango, Garjay, Kolongalai, Sayue-ta, Tarteeta, Varmue, and Pennoh, in Margibi and Bong counties.

With the IFC loan, Socfin would go on an expansion spree, bulldozing towns, clearing farmlands and destroying crops with little or no adequate compensation. And the negative impact has had a toll on the religious, cultural, social and economic rights of people.

Green Advocates International-Liberia and three local partners, Alliance for Rural Democracy (ARD), Natural Resource Women Platform (NRWP), and the Yeagbamah National Congress for Human Rights (YNCHR), have been representing the legal interest of the affected communities.

Characteristically, SRC/Socfin dismissed all the claims of the people, arguing that it followed all the legitimate steps to acquire the land. The company could not, however, show documents to support its arguments and the wanted CAO team to believe that records were destroyed during the Liberian Civil Wars.

The CAO team created room for the parties to negotiate, but the Company waived the option to submit to any negotiation with the affected communities, under the watch of the CAO team, according to the CAO assessment report of March 2020. In fact, Socfin went on to attack the credibility of the team, strangely accusing it of bias.

The Company said it had “significant misgivings” regarding the form and manner in which the CAO conducted its assessments and did not trust, impartial outcome, alleging in a statement said “Both mediators selected by the CAO to assist with the assessment process had prior links to Green Advocates International and its founder, Alfred Brownell, in violation of the CAO’s Operational Guidelines.”

On 29 June 2020, the CAO released a communique acknowledging receipt of the Company’s concerns about the partiality of CAO’s local mediators. “To ensure appropriate action was taken to address these concerns, CAO’s vice president reached out to the local consultants in Liberia and considered input from before responding.” CAO noted its satisfaction that the assessment process had been conducted “in accordance with its operational guidelines.”

MRU CSO Platform Alarms Over Political Insecurity in the Region – Condemns the Killing of Protesters in Nigeria

21 October 2020: The Mano River Union Civil Society Natural Resources Rights and Governance Platform (MRU CSO Platform) is alarmed over the rising political insecurity in the West African sub-region and calls for prompt actions to prevent any potential conflict. Of specific concern is the prevailing situation that has marred the election in Guinea, the killing of protesters in Nigeria, and the looming fears in anticipation of elections in Cote d’Ivoire and Liberia.

The MRU CSO Platform is a network of environmental and human rights defenders, indigenous people and grassroot activists, women and workers’ unions that represents nine countries in West Africa. They are committed to improving and defending the lives of communities affected by corporate and government operations relative to land and natural resource exploitation.

In separate letters written to ECOWAS Commission, UN High Commission on Human Rights, and the Secretary General of the Mano River Union Secretariat, the Platform recalls past rowdy elections in the region, repetition of which must be nipped in the bud.

The MRU CSO Platform also recalls the protests against the constitutional review of 22 March 2020 in Guinea that allowed the current president, Alpha Conde, to run for a third term, resulting in considerable material damage, injuries, and deaths.

Guinea has been on the edge since; authorities have deployed troops and closed borders on the frontiers with Sierra Leone, Senegal, and Guinea Bissau. Following the 18 October polls, gunshots were heard in the capital, Conakry, as supporters of opposition candidate, Cellou Diallo, took to the streets to celebrate after he declared himself winner of the first ballot.

We are further reinforcing our appeal for ECOWAS to act swiftly in forestalling a bloodbath in the region by activating the ECOWAS Early Warning and Response Network consistent with Article 58 of the revised 1993 ECOWAS Treaty as defined by the Protocol Relating to the Mechanism for Conflict Prevention of December 1999.

Our concern is especially about the humanitarian situation that comes with these political tensions, the loss of the lives of ordinary citizens, physical injuries, destruction of property, the displacement and movement of refugees across the borders. It is in this vein we are calling for early and robust interventions and monitoring.

The Lead Campaigner for Green Advocates International (GAI), based in Liberia and the 2019 Goldman Environmental Prize Winner for Africa, Alfred Lahai Brownell, Sr. lamented that “many defenders of the 2010 constitution that opposed a third term bid of the incumbent Guinean leader were arrested, imprisoned, tried, and convicted on frivolous criminal charges; we therefore called on the United Nations and the Office for the High Commission for Human Rights (OHCHR) to help prevent the continuous violations of the rights of environmental and human rights defenders, including journalists, bloggers, and political activists.”

Dote d’Ivoire is also concerning as the country heads towards the presidential election scheduled for the 31st  of October 2020. The opposition has threatened a boycott of the polls, to be followed by actions of “peaceful civil disobedience.” There are worries about a relapse into widespread crisis in the country. Sadly, the situation in Cote d’Ivoire is sparked by another case of incumbent: President Alassane Ouattara, who is controversially seeking a third term in office.

“We are encouraging the Mano River Union Secretariat and other stakeholders to act now to preven these countries from undermining the peace, security, and stability of a region that has suffered from historic conflicts,” Dr. Michel Yoboue, executive director, Extractive Industries Research and Advocacy Group of Cote d’Ivoire, added.

Elsewhere in Liberia, the MRU SCO Platform is equally wary of the growing incidents of electoral violence and dispute over the voters’ roll clean-up prompting a planned opposition protest, ahead of the mid-term senatorial elections on 8 December, 2020.

These combined power plays in an already fragile region could potentially explode and destabilize the region and, therefore, require the immediate attention of stakeholders in the region and the international community.

Abu Brima of the Network Movement for Justice and Development (NMJD) of Sierra Leone submits: “Our worries are not just about the lives of the struggling citizens across the borders who are grappling with the socioeconomic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, but also about the long-term political stability and development aspirations of the sister countries.”

West Africa is a classic example of how conflicts and instability startying in one country can spill over across borders. Urgent steps must be taken to stop any possible conflict that would further worsen the human sufferings in the region.

Meanwhile, the MRU CSO Platform unequivocally condemns the shooting and killing of protesters who were demanding police reforms in Lagos, Nigeria. “The reported use of live bullets by Nigerian security forces on citizens protesting against police brutality is simply an act of banditry and a crime against humanity that should not go unpunished,” insists Chima Williams, acting executive director of Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria.

The MRU CSO Platform urgers Nigerian authorities and the Office for the High Commission for Human Rights (OHCHR), specifically the Special Rapporteur of Extra Judicial killings to launch an immediate investigation to identify and hold accountable the perpetrators of those killings.

The Natural Resource Watch is published by the Secretariat of the MRU CSO Platform, with headquarters at Green Advocates International (Liberia).