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Wrestling with World’s Largest Oil Palm Company

The Tale of Mustapha Foboi, a Grassroot Frontline Defender

Mustapha FoboiThere has been a recent uproar at an oil palm plantation outside the capital Monrovia. It was characterized by irate youths setting up of road blocks and grounding of work over ‘compromised local employment deal’ as a transferred problem from Sime Darby to Mano Manufacturing Company, MANCO that since last year bought out the Malaysian company.

Amidst the furore, one name has resurfaced to hopefully save the fluid situation-that is, if prejudice is cast aside to drink from his sagely cup of water. He merits the accolade of dogged grassroot human rights defender. He is Mustapha Foboi 65, of Gbaa Foboi town, Grand Cape Mount county. 

Mustapha Foboi made history and brought the Government of Liberia to its knees when he took on the world largest oil palm conglomerate, Sime Darby. Assisted by Green Advocates International, Mustapha mobilized his indigenous Vai people from Garwula District in Grand Cape Mount County and filed the first ever complaint from Liberia on behalf of indigenous communities against a Multinational Corporation before the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).

The complaint preceded months of campaigning and complaining with both local and national government officials including local law makers to come to their aid and stop the egregious violations being meted against them by Sime Darby to no avail. After Mustapha realized that the government official including lawmakers they had elected would not come to their aid and were ignoring their grievances, he led his people to the offices of Green Advocates International, a public interest law organization, based in the Capital city, Monrovia and requested assistance. After series of field investigations and gathering of evidence including robust consultation with the Project Affected Communities, Mustapha on behalf of his people mandated Green Advocates to proceed with the Complaint.

According to the PAC 4th October 2011 letter addressed to Technical Director Salahudin Yaacub in Kuala Lumpur Malaysia, the important local grievances were stated: 

“We have gathered evidence and are prepared to show you places where crops were destroyed, shrines were desecrated, villages uprooted and graves sites besmirched. We are also prepared to take you on a transect walk and field visit to verify sites and areas where crops have been destroyed by Sime Darby, spots where towns and villages have been swept-away to grow oil palm, sites where ancestral graves, Sande and Poro societies sacred sites were dishonored using Bull dozers…”

RSPO Yacoub replied October 14th 2011 and stated the following: “… we have submitted your complaints to Sime Darby Plantations and I am glad to inform you that we have received a response from Sime Darby regarding the issues brought up by you in your letter. Accordingly, Sime Darby has expressed commitment to cease their operations immediately said operations sites.”

The Government of Liberia could not believe that a group of indigenous communities and subsistence farmers could launch such a powerful complaint that momentarily stopped a 2.7-billion-dollar investment based on a moratorium from an international palm oil sustainability body. It sent wave of jitters in the corridors of powers. All of a sudden local and national Liberian Government officials including lawmakers who had ignored the legitimate grievances of the indigenous communities, started to engage the communities. Then President (Ellen Sirleaf) of Liberia announced the establishment of a number of inter-ministerial Task forces to mediate the disputes between the communities and Sime Darby. Even the President of Liberia visited the Projected communities. During her visit she told the community members: “When your government and the representatives sign any paper with a foreign country, the communities can’t change it…”

She argued that the Liberian Constitution granted the government — and no one else — the right to negotiate with foreign investors. She accused them of trying to undermine her government, noting that their action was going to make other foreign investors flee the country. This situation she pointed out was going to make the country slide back to the old days.

The President then apologized, admitting errors for not consulting the indigenous communities and giving away all of their customary lands for an oil palm concession. 

However, despite the admission of errors and the apologies from the president, there was no political commitment to resolve the grievances of the communities. At series of meetings with Government officials, they demanded that the indigenous communities must withdraw their complaints filed against Sime Darby because the complaint was undermining the sovereignty of Liberia.

In desperate scheme to undermine the indigenous communities’ unity and cohesion, a number of high-ranking Government officials from the Internal Affairs, Agriculture and Justice Ministries first attempted to disrupt meetings between the indigenous communities and Sime Darby.

Violence was setting in acts of disrupting community meetings. When that reactionary move failed the government then drafted a letter and coerced one of the traditional leaders to sign informing the RSPO, that the communities were withdrawing their complaints. At the time, these high-ranking Liberian Government officials did not even know that the said traditional leader had requested that he be replaced because he was being harassed by these officials.

The withdrawal letter was ignored by the RSPO and Mustapha Foboi led his people to series of face to face negotiations and discussions leading to several bilateral and trilateral agreements between the communities and Sime Darby. It was the first time that indigenous communities were holding accountable a trans national corporation for the impact of its operation. Even though he was making progress and winning victories on behalf of his people, Mustapha Foboi would later at a future date face the wrath and reprisals of the Government of Liberia and Sime Darby.

 Foboi is now aging, but his strength and conviction in defending the rights of 17 communities affected by recent job loss at the oil palm plantation remains unflappable. He has been fighting to ensure the release of seven youths arrested that day of the protest action. A mediation effort involving the County Commissioner and some other stakeholders has secured the release of the youths that were incarcerated at the Grand Cape Mount county capital Robersport Police cells.

Asked if the matter is resolved; old man Foboi says it is a sham-intended to cower the boys from asserting legitimate claims to their jobs. “But you see I always tell those boys they should not be afraid of going to jail in defending their rights, they will never remain in jail for this kind of action in defending their rights…”

Feelers from Cape Mount suggests that it is a momentary subdued calm; fear is pervading the air. The problem as already disclosed, dates back to 2009, marking the genesis of Foboi’s resolved to fight for the land, 220,000 hectares that the then government of erstwhile President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf had offered in a concession agreement for 63 years. Such a vast swath of land space taken away from the local population meant deprivation of livelihood and cultural underpinnings including access to potable drinking water, sacred sites, subsistence farming space. It is thus imaginable how such a deal could have grated the feelings of many locals.

Initial local resistance to the lack of local prior consent in the deal witnessed the impounding of two yellow caterpillar machines. Armed Police crack squad acting on authorization of the government, zoomed-in to disperse the protesters and retrieved the machines. This was a turning point in local resistance to the Sime Derby land grab. It was a time for the Project Affected Community, (PAC) that Foboi had spear-headed its formation to be recognized for a string of mediation dialogues that a tad simmered down tension.

Foboi recalls the supportive role of Green Advocate International in terms of providing them the advocacy and negotiation skills that paid-off in a deal that ensured that the company submitted to setting up of US$ 1Million dollars endowment fund. In addition, Sime Derby made an undertaking to provide 579 jobs to households in 17 communities of the project affected area. Households that had no employable somebody were to nominate a proxy to work and trickle the benefit of employment to the entitled family.

Then something dramatic happened to lend credence to the fact that the company and the government were half-hearted in their concession made to the PAC. As leader of the PAC campaign, Foboi suffered a litany of clandestine acts of aggression and victimization. His son was terminated by the company, fear tactics was employed by the powers that be and his family deserted him, someone stealthily tampered with his motorbike so that he would have ran into a fatal accident. He says he was lucky to have detected the gimmick and chose to fix the motorbike, making sure that it was now even better protected from wicked manipulation.

Hard-pressed by the covert wicked schemes- from powerful hands in government and the company-working behind the scene Foboi says, “I decided to slow down my advocacy… my family members were getting increasingly worried about their own safety…”

Then there was another twist of event. It reeked of Sime Derby’s divide-and-rule tactics to create fissures within the PAC. It followed the company’s initial disbursement of US$,90.000, (it was actually supposed to be USD 100,000) into the endowment fund- the Green Advocates had helped negotiate for the PAC. Some members of the PAC were bought-over to write and renounce all support in legal representation and advocacy guidance of Green Advocates International. And Green Advocates International back-out of all PAC dealings; something that Foboi says was a sad moment for him. He was now an isolated man.

In due course members of the compromised PAC would realize that they have erred in sidelining their foundational chairman and made moves to appease him with the position of advisor. Foboi says that position is nominal because all his pieces of advice are ignored; culminating to the tension that has erupted; forcing him to get on his legs; retracing the route to the office of Green Advocates International with a plea “kindly stand by us to ensure that those seven arrested boys could not go to jail…”

Yes, those seven boys arrested have been released, yet their jobs have been sold-off by the new management of the PAC. Foboi says the agitation for a just cause-economic empowerment of households that “we struggled to achieve for the stability of the county cannot be denied by any means…”

Clearly, it is a false start in the action of MANCO, not trying to unite the people but seemingly standing aloof to see the tearing apart of conflict sensitive frameworks crafted at the offing of Sime Derby plantation.

For Mustapha Foboi: “when you take away the means of survival of the people, there can be no peace…I can just caution that without uniting the people the future is just unpredictable…” Whatever that means remains a matter of wait and see…