The Jogbahn Clan
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I had been wanting to travel to Liberia for many years. My grandfather, Harold Taylor, had lived there for some time during the 1920's, working for a British trading company, buying rubber, ivory and gold from the interior and then selling plastic buckets and cloth from India. Not much seems to have changed really. We exchange things we need for things people want. A thirst for cheap plastic imports from China and electronic gadgets that sell people even more things they think they need, Coca Cola and bars of synthetic chocolate.
I had come over to document the success story of the Jogbahn Clan in the county of Grand Bassa and their land victory against a multi-million dollar palm oil company. The clan is made up of around 20 small communities, all living off the land, cultivating the forests, working with the environment, eco-forestry, harvesting rubber, palm, banana and many other crops over thousands of hectares of fertile and bio-diverse land.
Like so many millions, if not billions, of people around the world, the Jogbahn community relies on their natural environment to survive, not just on the food they are able to harvest but also the soil that enables them to produce substantial amounts of commodity crops. This gives them a valuable income to pay for clothes and education for their children. This system of farming, working with the natural resources rather than against them, has existed for many thousands of years.
One of the main crops produced by the clan is palm oil.
For generations the community has worked with the environment by planting their trees deep within forest. This enables them to maintain their bio-diversity while providing them with a valuable source of income.
By working on a rotational basis, everyone in the community gets a chance to harvest and extract the oils in the traditional ways, with music and muscle power as the engines of this forest factory.
In 1965 the palm oil company Libinco came to the area and took concessions from the then government. Hundreds of thousands of hectares of forest were cleared and thousands of people displaced so the company could profit from the fertile soils. The people who were pushed out never got any land, and they never got schools or the hospital they were promised as part of the deal: they just moved on and dispersed themselves within other communities beyond the new concessions.
In 2012, the new owners of the plantation, the British company Equatorial Palm Oil PLC began clearing beyond the concessions they had agreed upon with the Liberian government in 2007. Even though the company had already been given a further 14,000 hectares, they felt this was not enough, so began surveying and clearing land that was not theirs. As word got out within the community, people travelled to the area and demonstrated against the land grab. The company tried to appease the Clan with offers of compensation but the Clan still remembered the original empty promises made, so they rejected the offers and walked away.
Within months the company decided it needed to change its tactics and decided just to start surveying the land, but as word got out, the community decided to take action and they left their villages to demonstrate against the beginning of another Liberian land grab. Before long the police special unit were call in an attempt to intimidate the community and all hell broke loose. What followed was a two year campaign by the police and the company to convince the community by force to leave their land and allow the company to just keep on expanding.
During this time, police and company employees were responsible for cutting down the forest and beating up the locals. They used pickup trucks to drive through the villages at night with men hanging off the sides, lights and horn blazing as the frightened and confused villagers ran and hid, terrified that it was a return to civil war and the guerrilla fighters.
But instead of turning to violence, the community decided to retaliate in a very different way. Tired of living in an environment of constant violence, the clan decided to come together, strengthen their communities, resolve their differences and take the company on in a more diplomatic way. They worked with Silas Kpanan’Ayoung Siakor and his Golman Prize winning organisation ‘Sustainable Development Institute’ (SDI Liberia), a man who had fought the likes of Charles Taylor, intervening in his illegal timber trade to fund the civil war. A lone voice, now powerful, had arrived to face the increased land grabs and ecocide. Together with Friends of the Earth, the campaign against the company grew, and with their new international exposure they reached out to the current President, Ellen Sirleaf. With mounting pressure, the President invited senior members of the Clan to government and held talks on the future of the community's land. After hours of discussion, Ellen decided that the company had no rights to the land and, then and there, promised the Clan that they could return and remain on the land.
We travelled to the village in Grand Bassa along remote dirt roads. Occasionally huge trucks loaded with timbers being cut from prime forest, would speed past us in the opposite direction, creating dust clouds that would force us to stop until it cleared. When finally we arrived, the clan were in the middle of celebrations.
Members from different communities arrived throughout the day, local gin was drunk and drums and singing filled the air. I had never before experienced such real joy, such elation and happiness amongst a community. For the whole day the party continued, with men, women and children arriving and then returning to their village and their normal way of life.
On the last day we had been filming by the river, where the company had planned to build a factory. As we began our return to the village, word came to us that there was an American woman in the village, “She wants to buy our land” one of the young men said. We rushed back to find two large shinny SUV's parked outside the Chief, Chio's house. In the village meeting room was a young woman, no more than mid 20's, sunglasses on her head and clip board in her hand. "Who are you?" I asked as I shook her hand, “I'm Sarah from the World Bank”, she said. Around her were others, Liberians, well-dresses and with matching clipboards. One from UNDP, one from the government department for home affairs (the department that had interests in the company) and, I was told, an independent organisation called 'Platform for Dialog and Peace'. Within days of the president giving the Clan their land back, the World Bank had activated a group to try and reverse the decision made just days before.
They asked the chief to separate the village elders, men and women and the young: the early stages of rule and divide. They wanted to find out why the villagers did not want to give up their land and see if there was any way they could come to a new agreement where all parties would be happy. The Chief, resplendent in his ceremonial dress sat at the head table and listened to the request of the party. I had to leave as emotions and the World Bank do not work well for me. As I left, I heard Chio address the group, and from the Liberian English being screamed, knew that I had little to worry about. Chio had seen and heard enough of the strategies and techniques used by the so-called development communities. He asked them to leave and, to the relief of all, they headed back to their diplomatic compounds.
I also headed back as I had to edit three short films, two for the community and one for our campaign. Within 10 days the editing was finished, I returned to India and continued working on the project. Last week we were told that the company, EPO has decided to go ahead with the clearing and ignore the President. Once again the Clan finds itself with an uncertain future. I visited the World Banks website to see if there was anything mentioned. All I found of interest was their rather perplexing mission statement on a picture of a healthy, happy African man stating; "End extreme poverty within a generation and boost shared prosperity"!
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