NewsWest AfricaMaking concessions in Liberia - Agriculture

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Posted on Monday, 20 August 2012 16:05

Making concessions in Liberia - Agriculture

By Tamasin Ford in Monrovia

Firestone plantation still produces the lion’s share of rubber for export/Photo/GEORGE OSODI/AP/SIPAPalm oil, rubber and timber are the keys to creating tens of thousands of low-skilled jobs in Liberia, but investors and the government are still looking for ways to maximise profits, minimise abuses and increase benefits to local communities.

Agriculture is big business in Liberia, and it continues to attract foreign investors – with Asian interest in oil palm plantations the newest dynamic. The government is keen to ensure that the sector generates vital jobs while improving working conditions and respecting environmental norms.

In 1926, Firestone opened one of the world's largest rubber plantations in Harbel in Margibi County in the west of the country. Now owned by the Japanese corporation Bridgestone, the Firestone plantation is still the biggest producer in the rubber sector, accounting for 60% of the country's rubber exports.

In 2008, Bridgestone amended its concession agreement with the government to prolong production for another 36 years. The company now controls almost 48,000ha of land.

The Liberia Agriculture Company (LAC) has 121,000ha in Grand Bassa County, not far from Firestone, but less of its land is under production.

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Belgium's Société Financière des Caoutchoucs, which owns LAC, also has ties to smaller rubber outfits in Salala and Weala. Local residents and non-governmental organisations have accused the management of the LAC and Firestone plantations of human rights violations: the use of child labour, poor living conditions and the eviction of entire villages.

The government and companies are now working together to ensure that there is more community consultation, but the government lacks the capacity to hold companies to their obligations.

Other significant rubber plantations include Cavalla in Maryland County, jointly owned by the Liberian government and Salala Rubber of Great Britain. Cocopa in Nimba County is owned by the US firm the Liberia Company. The Sinoe Rubber Plantation, at almost 243,000ha, is the biggest rubber concession in Liberia.

Rebel forces occupied much of the plantation during the war, and it has been left largely unmanned and unmanaged ever since.

Golden palms

While rubber is still the country's most valuable export, it is Liberia's potential for oil palm plantations that is attracting a new wave of agribusinesses.

Golden Veroleum Liberia, a subsidiary of the New York-based Verdant Fund, signed an agreement in 2010 to develop more than 240,000ha in Sinoe, Grand Kru, Maryland, Rivercess and River Gee counties in south-eastern Liberia. The total planned investment is around $1.6bn.

Equatorial Palm Oil along with Biopalm Energy, a division of the SIVA Group of India, has a 50-year agreement to cultivate more than 160,000ha, also in the south-east. Malaysian company Sime Darby Plantation (Liberia) is another big player.

It plans to invest $3bn over the next 15 years into a 63-year concession that grants access to nearly 223,000ha of land in the west.

Industrial logging has also resumed in Liberia after the United Nations lifted timber sanctions in 2006.

Two of the biggest companies operating in the country, Atlantic Resources and Alpha Logging, are both linked to Malaysian logging giant Samling Global.

While details of the concession agreements are difficult to access, London-based non-governmental organisation Global Witness estimates that those companies are logging in more than 1m ha of forest.

The country has around 4.3m ha of forest, and the latest Global Witness figures claim that the government has granted 3.3m ha for logging.

The challenge for both the government and the concessionaires is to develop Liberia sustainably. Land disputes and tensions between communities have historically been sources of conflict●

This article was first published in our July, 2012 edition of The Africa Report, on sale at newsstands, via our print subscription or our digital edition.



Last Updated on Monday, 20 August 2012 16:42

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