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October 04, 2012

Malaysian palm oil investment in Liberia causes dislocation crisis

It's now an almost boringly familiar story: the central government negotiates to lease huge chunks of fertile countryside to a foreign investor who promises to bring 'develoment,' jobs and many other benefits. Local communities are told little about the land giveaways until they are displaced. Few jobs or other benefits materialize for the locals and resentment sets in.

In this case its about a Malaysian company developing palm oil plantations in Liberia.  

'Angry villagers accuse Sime Darby of cutting a private deal with the government and failing to consult them. Last December, they rioted against the company, seizing its bulldozers and blocking the plantation project. They say their crops are gone and their sacred lands are desecrated. The jobs, they say, are too few and too poorly paid, especially now that they’re forced to buy their food in the marketplace rather than growing it.'

“Everybody made mistakes on this,” Liberian President Ellen Sirleaf Johnson told the villagers. “More consultations and more talks with the people should have taken place.”

Considering all the publicity about how frequently these sort of "mistakes" have happened in so many other places before, this sounds pathetically weak coming from the Liberian president. 

While dispossessed farmers are clearly victims, that does not necessarily mean they are innocents in the matter. Lump some payments that were offered and eagerly accepted seemed like a fortune "until the money runs out and they realize they’ve got nothing to fall back on."

One farmer was paid $130 for his two acre farm. We are told he is now contract worker for the palm oil plantation, 'getting 3 cents for every hole that he digs for a palm seedling.' Not only is his income now less than what he is said to have earned before, his loss is far more than just financial. 

Blame poverty, lack of education. But where was the government when its citizens were giving away their heritage for a few pieces of silver? Obviously too busy doing deals with the investor to think of more robust protections for its citizens in signing these deals.

Calling it a "mistake" sounds awfully hollow of the Liberian president.

 African Agriculture

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