— Standing in his garden, Alex Wloh wistfully cradled a few ears of corn in his hands. A mile or so away, field workers had been planting palm seedlings where he and his fellow villagers used to grow crops like rice, cassava, and vegetables.
Mr. Wloh, 35, comes from a long line of farmers and has been working the land since childhood. But last year, during the height of the Ebola outbreak, his community signed an agreement turning over large swaths of land to Golden Veroleum Liberia, a palm oil company that operates in remote parts of southeastern Liberia
. The agreement was signed in September and a few months later large tracts of land were cleared to make way for palm oil plantations.
Mr. Wloh said he was saddened by the thought of his community giving up its farmland. But he and other villagers, faced with poor infrastructure and limited access to even domestic markets, said that growing food and vegetables had reaped few benefits for the community aside from feeding it.
The government has “got a whole lot of tasks to perform but they not doing it, so when they are not doing it, we will call for other people to help us,” Mr. Wloh said.
Kabada was among seven communities that signed agreements with Golden Veroleum during the Ebola outbreak.
Mr. Wloh and other villagers said they were enticed by the potential economic benefits and jobs. But international and Liberian nongovernmental organizations, as well as some local officials, say Golden Veroleum took advantage of the communities.
Global Witness, an advocacy group focused on natural resources, says the communities did not understand what they were getting into.
Golden Veroleum Liberia, which is a subsidiary of Golden Agri-Resources, a palm oil plantation company based in Indonesia, was awarded a concession by the government in 2010 to develop plantations across the southeastern part of the country. Community land rights are only vaguely recognized in Liberia, with current laws granting the government powers to seize land for concessions.
Golden Veroleum had acquired land without the consent of local communities, but the company says it cannot operate without their approval and works hard to sign agreements before starting operations.
The agreements promise the development of roads and infrastructure, jobs with the company and access to education, as well as rent for the land. But there are no timelines mentioned or details of how many community members will be employed or will benefit from the agreements. There are some signatures on the documents, but a large number of illiterate villagers have approved deals with their thumbprints.
In a report last month called “The New Snake Oil?” Global Witness said that Golden Veroleum made use of the Ebola outbreak and doubled its areas of operation during the crisis. The report accused the company of holding mass meetings to convince villagers of the agreements’ merits at a time the country was in turmoil. It also said Liberian government officials quashed opposition to the company, in some cases supporting violence against protesters and arresting them.
“Ebola is transmitted through human contact, a fact that kept Liberians at home and eventually resulted in a ban on public meetings,” said John Gant, a lead campaigner for the advocacy group. “What could justify holding massive meetings during the outbreak?”
While Sinoe County, which includes Kabada, had only a handful of Ebola cases, Global Witness accused Golden Veroleum of capitalizing on the scaling back during the epidemic of environmental organizations in the region — groups that would have otherwise helped explain these deals to the communities.
“We were more focused on trying to protect communities from Ebola,” said Alfred Brownell, the founder of Green Advocates, an environmental rights organization that operates in the region.
Kabada, a small town of several hundred people, is made up of mud brick houses with thatched roofs and dusty mud floors. Women cook over coal in open-air kitchens. Like many people in Liberia, residents of Kabada have no running water. There are just a couple of hand pumps, given to the village by Golden Veroleum. The mobile phone network is patchy, and many residents have limited education.
“Because of poverty we waive our rights,” said G. Milton Chea, a former farmer in the village, referring to the agreement with Golden Veroleum Liberia, or G.V.L. as the company is widely known. “That is why we allow G.V.L. to be here.”
Mr. Chea, like a handful of others in the village, now works for the company as a field worker, six days a week. He does not have a formal contract and earns a little over $5 a day. Mr. Wloh makes $120 a month as a vaccinator at a nearby clinic.
Golden Veroleum has denied using the Ebola crisis to take advantage of the communities.
“These allegations are simply wrong,” said David Rothschild, the company’s managing director, in a telephone interview. “We developed expansion plans well in advance; our 2014 plans were developed in 2013.” He said the company reduced operations during the outbreak and educated employees and community members on Ebola prevention.
However, a local official said that the agreement should not have been pushed through while Ebola was raging across the country, because people were not “in the right frame of mind.”
“As a country we were all in a state of pandemonium,” said H. Sneh Johnson, the assistant superintendent for development of Sinoe County
. “How would people sign an agreement to do with their future?” Mr. Johnson added that he did not know that the agreements were being signed during the outbreak.
Mr. Rothschild denied that Golden Veroleum had held gatherings that contravened the government’s Ebola regulations, and said the company had investigated claims of intimidation cited in the Global Witness report dating back to 2013 and found no evidence of wrongdoing by its staff. The government has also denied using heavy-handed tactics against protesters.
Agriculture has long been seen as a potential source of economic growth in Liberia, but the sector has been hampered by poor infrastructure, a lack of government commitment to food production and a focus on short-term projects that fail to have a lasting impact, economists say.
According to Liberian environmental groups and some economists, large-scale concessions, like the ones awarded to Golden Veroleum, have also undermined the development of Liberia’s agricultural sector.
“Liberia is chronically food insecure, yet major investment has been in nonfood agriculture like rubber and palm oil,” said Sam Jackson, a Liberian economist and consultant. The Agricultural Ministry and nongovernmental organizations “have focused too much on providing support to subsistence farming rather than developing a food agriculture industry,” Mr. Jackson added.
While farmers in Kabada have so far reluctantly welcomed Golden Veroleum, the company has faced opposition in other communities.
In May, there was a riot in Butaw, a nearby village with a Golden Veroleum plantation, over a perceived lack of jobs and benefits from the company.
While companies like Golden Veroleum say they follow the rules and respect the communities in which they work, an independent audit of Liberia’s concessions released in 2013 found that almost $8 billion worth of resource contracts signed since 2009 did not adhere to Liberian law, including regulations on competitive tendering, tax rates and equity stakes to be held by the government. The Golden Veroleum contract was cited for being awarded without a competitive bidding process.
J. Milton Teahjay, a superintendent of Sinoe County when the original Golden Veroleum deal was signed and now a county senator, said investment by such companies was important for Liberia, where 85 percent of the population is not formally employed and the majority live on less than a dollar a day.
However, he acknowledged that “the necessary steps that should have been taken in community engagement before G.V.L. entered on the ground were not taken.”
Global Witness accused Mr. Teahjay of involvement in arrests of people who have spoken out against Golden Veroleum, a claim that he denies. He also said that Golden Veroleum needed to earn the confidence of the community.
“G.V.L. has to work on keeping promises they make,” Mr. Teahjay said. “If they work on that they will do well.”
For Mr. Wloh and others in Kabada, it is still early days. They will wait and see what benefits the company will bring.
“To say something and do something are two different things in the Liberian setting,” Mr. Wloh said.