Q&A with Liberian rights defender
Radiatu H.S. Kahnplaye took part in several events during Stockholm+50 in June 2022, including Swedwatch´s panel discussion about the right to a healthy environment and the role of defenders.
As a part of the launch of the report Prerequisite for Peace, Swedwatch asked Radiatu H.S. Kahnplaye, a Liberian environmental and women´s rights defender at Swedwatch’s local partner organisation Green Advocates International, to share her insights of how large-scale land acquisitions have impacted women’s rights in Libera.
Can you briefly describe the policy for economic development in Liberia, and especially as regards to attract investments?
A central part of the government’s strategy for economic development has been to attract foreign investments, and the past 5-13 years we have witnessed an influx of international corporations into Libera, as well as to other countries in our region. The promise has been that the investments will take people’s life to another level, deliver jobs and a better day. But what we have seen so far is rather that it has added to existing problems and worsened the situation for local communities, especially women who depend on land and natural resources for their livelihood.
In what way has the situation worsened?
When lands have been grabbed, due to large-scale land acquisitions by big corporations, indigenous communities in those areas have lost their rights to access the forests and rivers that form the basis for their livelihoods.
At the same time, local communities have experienced forceful evictions, economic displacements, destruction of villages and farmland, desecration of sacred places and pollution of water sources. Moreover, rivers have been dammed or taken over by private companies, depriving local communities of vital water sources for drinking, fishing, and washing.
In which ways are women in the communities affected differently to men?
Women in these communities are the most affected. For example, women gather medication from forest herbs and plants for their children and depend on access to water to run the households. What we experience now, as a result of the acquisitions, is that women have to rent land far away and travel to get access to clean water and other natural resources. As the travel takes time, women have less time to do farming activities.
Pollution from the business operations also affects the air. In some areas the pollution is so bad that you “don’t know where to turn your nose”. As a way to stand the smell, women that have to remain in air polluted areas have started to drink alcohol. This is adding to the drug addiction problem.
Has there been any positive, effects such as new job opportunities?
It is difficult to point out any positive effects, or at least that have benefitted local communities. As regards job opportunities, the majority of the people working on rubber plantations for example are from outside the local communities. This has partly to do with that the locals don’t have the skills needed for the jobs.
Besides, the jobs that were mainly used as justification for Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) are now threatened and unstainable. Big corporations are surprisingly laying off workers. Yet, for many workers allowed to stay on their jobs, they find they are no longer considered “employees” but mere “contractors” without the anticipated benefits that employees are normally entitled to. And, with farmlands destroyed along with forest resources, many community members find they are trapped as there is nothing to return to.
What kind of reactions have you seen from local communities, standing up for their right to land?
When people have protested in concession areas, they have been attacked and criminalised, even put in jail, and the military and police have protected the companies instead of the people.
When people face the risk of being sprayed with teargas that can make their eyes to blind, they have been discouraged to speak up, even if they want to. Women, running the households and with babies on their backs, are especially vulnerable to attacks if they speak up. This is far from what a sustainable investment should look like!
What is your idea of a sustainable land acquisitions?
It is key to involve the communities at an early stage of the investment, especially women, and to discuss what part of the rivers, land and forests are crucial for their livelihoods. To guarantee the communities the rights to those areas should be part of the decision to give out the concessions. Another important thing is that the companies should provide skills training to the local people – like how to drive a tractor or take up managerial roles.
What are your recommendations to investors or businesses with a supply chain relation to the corporations involved in large land acquisitions?
Put pressure on those corporations to follow international regulations! The reality is very different from the corporate sustainability documents, so you need to ensure due diligence and compare the online narratives with the stories from the people on the ground. This means ensuring that investment should not only be about the business case but also the social case – the protection of people and the environment.
About Radiatu H.S. Kahnplaye:
Radiatu is a Liberian environmental rights defender working on issues around business, human rights, and environment, and women’s rights. She is the Head of Administration and Finance at Green Advocates International, Swedwatch´s local partner organisation in Liberia. Radiatu is also a Policy Advisor for the Natural Resources Women Platform in Liberia.
About Green Advocates International (GAI):
GAI is a Liberian-based non-profit, public interest law, environmental and human rights organisation. It works to advance a wide range of rights-based issues through legal aid, consultation, and support for the victims of environmental and human rights violations, including support for business-affected communities to participate in decision-making processes in the management of Liberia’s natural resources and its economy. GAI also work to promote transparency and accountability in governmental activities and assistance in strengthening and enforcing environmental and human rights standards. See more at: www.greenadvocates.org.[/gt_module_text][/gt_column][/gt_row][/gt_section]