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Between companies and communities: a challenge in Liberia
Between companies and communities: a challenge in Liberia
News Dec 19, 2013

Training African graduates in the social aspects of sustainable resource management.

We’re training African graduates in the social aspects of sustainable resource management so we can help companies like those in logging and agro industries manage the social issues that come up around their concessions.

The social managers that complete this programme through our Centre of Social Excellence (CSE) then go out and help these companies improve their relationships with stakeholders and their dialogue with communities.

Our students are doing important work so I wanted to share the story of one of them, Elie, about his journey since the CSE.

Elie already had a specialised diploma in forestry and had completed an internship with a national NGO when he applied to be part of the second intake of students at the CSE. He finished the course in 2010 and then went to work for a logging company in Cameroon before joining the TFT team earlier this year. Now, he’s helping guide Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) implementation with a palm oil company in Liberia.

“My key task is to find the best way to involve local communities in the process and make sure their inputs are considered by the company,” Elie said.

All of this involves advising, developing tools and documents and training teams to apply FPIC tools and Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) in the field; work that is challenging for both companies and communities.

The company has developed a set of SOPs to better implement FPIC. Teams within the company are being trained on their implementation and also in other areas like communicating with local communities and meeting management.

As the company implements FPIC, it needs to be supported along the way to make sure that the process is not rushed.

“If the process is rushed, there are things that might not be clearly understood or accepted. The agreement might be refused or the community might withdraw their consent later on, resulting in conflicts that could be more costly for both sides. If it looks like the process is being rushed or not well done, we will ask the company to stop the process until the steps can be clearly achieved,” Elie explained.

Elie’s role is between two worlds: “I’m not in the front line. I’m like an advisor and as such there can be a gap between the SOPs and their implementation in the field. I think this is understandable as the idea of FPIC is quite new over here and the teams in charge of the implementation still need to be trained. To solve the problem, we’ve detailed all the steps that need to be followed in the process. We then continuously train the teams and follow them out in the field.” Sometimes the community has difficulty understanding the information provided by the company. This might be because of language gaps or just poor communication. Addressing these issues requires patience.

“To overcome them, we are working to develop communication tools that are adapted to local communities, like pictures and photos. We also use translators to translate messages into local languages. Soon, we’re planning on translating documents shared with communities into Liberian English and local languages and developing those documents alongside communities.

We also have to be patient with the road conditions, which can be terrible. It’s not easy to reach some communities; some have a track or path and you have to walk for hours to get there.”

“As this is the first time the company is conducting such a process, they’re still learning. They are learning how to be open, how to make sure communities are given the right information, that SOPs are being applied, and that the communities are really involved in the process and that they understand the project and all its different impacts before they give their consent.”

I asked Elie if he’s learning anything new through this experience: “practically, in the field, FPIC is not exactly as studied in theory because it always requires adapting the concepts learnt to local realities. From that I’ve learnt a lot. What really interests me here is to see how the communities are involved in the decision-making at all levels of the process, from the early stages of the project, which includes their right to say “yes” or “no” to the company.”

“For me, the biggest rewards from this work will be to see the oil palm company and local communities living together peacefully. This means that the company is respecting local communities’ customary rights and helping improve their living conditions and local communities are helping the company to develop a sustainable business by protecting their investments.”

Related News:

Centre of Social Excellence

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