Customary land conflicts are by far the greatest security concern for country level actors in Liberia. Customary lands are being awarded to multinational organisations and companies in response to the ongoing global transformation that is seeing industrial expansion requiring lands for economic development. The process of acquiring these lands has been confusing and leads to tension and conflict between host communities and oil palm companies. Furthermore, the majority of host communities have inadequate knowledge on the national and international laws and best practices that oil palm companies must comply with.
These conflicts put communities in a difficult situation especially in terms of properly negotiating and monitoring compliance with regulated practices that lead to continuous conflicts. From an institutional point of view, the issue in the Liberian oil palm sector was not that companies were not RSPO certified and communities did not know about RSPO and its standards, but that each had a different understanding of what the principles were and how they could be applied. Communication, land rights, and participation are three major issues that characterise conflicts in the oil palm sector in Liberia.
As a multi-stakeholder initiative that promotes the production and uptake of Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO), the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) aims to leverage its impact by making sustainable palm oil the norm through varying approaches. RSPO recognises the need for a comprehensive outreach effort to affected communities and local civil society organisations within palm oil producing countries, with an approach conducted through a network of intermediaries. The Sustainable Development Institute (SDI) was engaged and contracted as the Intermediary Organisation (IMO) to take on the role as the local counterpart to implement the programme for Liberia.
Community engagement programmes are vital to improve the grassroots stakeholder knowledge and understanding of the RSPO Principles and Criteria which will build a cohesive relationship between communities and oil palm companies. With guidance and training, communities can employ peaceful means to address their grievances. Understanding between the two parties can be facilitated, thus eliminating potential conflicts and closing the communication gap. Moreover, effective and efficient community outreach programmes involving oil palm companies and related actors will contribute to the compliance with national and international laws and best practices (Free, Prior and Informed Consent; High Conservation Values and High Carbon Stock concept; and UN Business and Human Rights Principles). On the other hand, communities are clear on their rights that must be protected, such as customary land ownership. This will increase acceptability between both parties about the need to co-exist.
RSPO believes that, for whatever purpose, oil palms should only be grown in a way that avoids deforestation and respects biodiversity, natural ecosystems, local communities, and workers in palm oil producing countries. We need to hear the voices of our communities to make sure that we are recommending the appropriate action towards these goals and supporting those who are driving the change in ways that are useful. Without this, we run the risk of inaction and falling back to business as usual.
The programme carried out in Liberia has two main objectives, to create platforms to train rights-based NGOs and communities affected by oil palm plantations on how to effectively use the RSPO standards and mechanisms, and how to effectively and efficiently engage with RSPO so that their concerns and needs are fully taken into consideration. And secondly, to facilitate information sharing among NGOs, affected communities, and regional partners to increase the pool of actors working to bridge the existing gaps between local communities and oil palm companies in the country.
Based on the independent review that commenced after the programme had been completed, some interesting findings emerged. We can conclude that there is sufficient evidence to show that the training and forums contributed to an increase in knowledge of some of the principles, notably FPIC and respecting the rights of communities. They are now informed on how to effectively and efficiently engage with RSPO to help reduce palm oil related conflicts. One interviewee mentioned, “no more can a concession expand the planting of palm oil without our approval.” The statement demonstrates the understanding of the Free Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) principle. Another interviewee also perceives the intermediary organisation to have successfully created the environment for them to gain knowledge of their land rights and information on how affected communities can engage concessionaires when there are grievances.
Moreover, the lessons learned from this community outreach programme in Liberia have been identified, such as the period of a project. A one year period is apparently not sufficient for such large scale and high impact projects as community outreach programmes. More time is needed to jumpstart planned activities into action, which would have engaged RSPO further in addressing concerns to stakeholders and contributing to RSPO’s mission, vision and Theory of Change. With sufficient time, unaddressed issues and points of conflict get to be discussed effectively. Besides, the period of a project must also consider the number of communities targeted, the accessibility of the areas, and staff involved to ensure activities are effectively done.
Strengthening community resilience
The feedback from communities suggest that there is still a need for more community awareness and implementation of the RSPO Smallholder Scheme, RSPO Principles and Criteria and training related to the grievance mechanism. Moving forward, priority has to be given in making communities more resilient by strengthening and maximising their opportunities while reducing threats and building their capacity to overcome conflicts. Members of the community should be more engaged with the RSPO Standards and Mechanism, FPIC and other International laws. The participation and collaboration of Civil Society Organisations (CSOs), local authorities, strategic government institutions and other national actors will also elevate the impacts of this project. Customary authorities such as traditional chiefs should also be involved to maximise their role in land negotiation.
Furthermore, connected communities are able to make meaningful contributions to determining the values, principles, and indicators of multi-stakeholder driven initiatives, forming modalities to ensure that their voice can be heard and their concerns are addressed.