Mary’s Meals is yielding laudable results in the bush, writes Janet Christie
UP IN the rolling slopes of Liberia’s Grand Cape Mount County, where lush tropical bush used to cover the slopes, the vegetation has been cleared and replaced with uniform rows of palm plants as far as the eye can see.
This is the Sime Darby plantation, Malaysian-owned and the world’s largest conglomerate oil palm company, and typical of the wave of investment that has occurred in Liberia in recent years. In the middle of it sits the PAC (Project Affected Community) school, Senii, one of 28 schools on oil palm plantations where Mary’s Meals operates its feeding programme.
Faced with crippling foreign debt, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has been on a mission to attract investment, and Liberia has natural resources to sell, mainly iron ore and palm oil. Deals with foreign investors are reported to amount to a projected value of around $19 billion (£11.6bn) and, according to the International Monetary Fund, corporate taxes and royalties from these deals could bring in US $2bn (£1.2bn) in the next ten years.
However, the IMF also reported inadequate compensation to villagers who thought they owned the land, few jobs for local people and a disregard for community interests. In this part of Grand Cape Mount County there were riots this year over the compensation paid to farmers and tribal chiefs.
Much of Liberia’s population lives in the countryside, in bush villages where the land has been in the family for generations. Possession of deeds is rare, so under Liberian law the government owns the public land and argued that the money received for it will be spent on education and health through the whole of the country.
Before the land was cleared for the oil palm plantation, villagers survived by making charcoal and tapping the rubber palms for latex, as well as growing their own crops and hunting in the bush. Now the families are entirely dependent on the plantation for their income.
Critics claim that what has happened here is a land grab for oil palm to be used for food and bio fuels, following a pattern across the whole of the tropics. They also point out that International Labour Organization convention 169 calls for prior and informed consent of native indigenous people who live in an area with natural resources and argue this wasn’t obtained here.
Such is the controversy and concern caused in government by protests and road blocks in the county this year, that the ministers of justice, agriculture and education have all visited to quell the fears of villages whose land was leased to Sime Darby for the next 63 years.
Meanwhile Sime Darby has committed to employ one person from each of the households affected by the development. The company and government also announced a scheme whereby smallholders are allowed land to grow palm trees themselves and keep the income generated.
Today at the newly-opened PAC school, there are 157 students, many of them offspring of those now working on the oil plantation. There will be 399 when they all enrol, but today is market day and their help is needed at home.
At the school, Principal Austin Gray is diplomatic about the changes and says: “In the absence of controversy you will not have a way forward. People express their differences and they will come to some agreement. The children are happy they can come here instead of to the town hall, to a new school.”
When asked about the villagers’ lost ability to make charcoal and hunt in the bush, he replies: “Sime Darby will provide household improvement. Anywhere that has change, there will always be those not sure about it.”
When it comes to Mary’s Meals, he’s full of enthusiasm for the charity’s presence. “It will make a very big difference having Mary’s Meals, improve the nutrition of the children and encourage enrolment. Hungry children do not concentrate well.”
As far as Mary’s Meals founder Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow is concerned, it’s up to the Liberians to decide on the land issue.
“I don’t know a huge amount about it,” he says. “Before the civil war, Liberia was a relatively prosperous country because of the rubber, and that may have been controversial in some ways too, so it’s complex.
“When I went to the village this year I was shocked by the enormous swathes of land turned over to palm oil, and there are precedents in other parts of the world that are not good for local people. But I don’t pretend to be an expert in terms of weighing up the economic balance. Palm oil is not always a good thing and not always bad. We don’t see ourselves as a political organisation. It’s their country to decide.”
Siatta, aged 14, who lives in the nearby village, is just glad to be in school and getting a bowl of rice and beans today. “It makes me want to come more. Before Mary’s Meals came here, I ate nothing all day and it makes it hard to think. When I leave school I want to work for Mary’s Meals, as a monitor, riding around to different schools on a motorbike, to help.”