Activist group says Liberians pressured to sign away land

DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — Liberians in the country’s southeast are being threatened into signing away land for palm oil plantations, and in some cases those opposing expansion have been beaten and arrested, activist group Global Witness said Wednesday.

In its report, the group called on Liberia’s government to “investigate acts of violence, pass a law recognizing that rural communities own their land, and regulate the country’s agriculture sector to bring an end to the impunity enjoyed by plantation companies.”

The report accused Golden Veroleum of accelerating operations at the peak of Liberia’s Ebola outbreak last year, saying it encouraged illiterate citizens to sign away their land rights. Residents were encouraged to stay home to ease the outbreak that killed more than 4,800 in the West African country.

Golden Veroleum strongly refuted the allegations in a statement sent to The Associated Press. It said that 70 percent of all land preparation activities took place before the outbreak, and that it scaled back in August 2014 in response to the crisis.

The company said it is working with civic groups to monitor community engagement practices and development agreements.

Golden Veroleum has bought the rights to convert 2,600 sq. kilometers (1,004 sq. miles) of land in southeastern Liberia into a palm oil estate affecting some 41,000 people, the report said.

“It has manipulated villagers into signing away the lands they depend on,” affecting generations of families, said Global Witness’ Jonathan Gant.

Golden Veroleum employs about 4,000 people, the company said.

The report also documented violent assaults and arrests for those opposed to the expansion plans.

However, Golden Veroleum said it “has not been party to any coercion or improprieties.”

Rapid expansion for large-scale agriculture in Liberia means more must be done to protect residents, the group said.

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