Buchanan, Grand Bassa County - A concessionaire which recently left Liberia after poor performance, dismally failing to live up to the investment it promised in the post war country risk lawsuit over human rights violations and labor abuses.
Buchanan Renewable Energy (BRE) signed a multi million agreement with the Government of Liberia promising to use decay trees to produce energy in Liberia and also replant trees.
The company’s operations were greeted with high hopes amongst Liberians, many of whom wanted jobs and electricity, but a while later the company failed to live up to expectation as it changed nomenclature from Buchanan Renewable Energy (BRE) to Buchanan Renewable (BR) before later departing Liberia without realizing the investment it promised.
BR is still being haunted by the ghost of its operations as affected communities of its operations have complained BR and its Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) to the Green Advocate, a team of Environmental Advocates in Liberia for possible legal action because of what the complainants termed as OPIC negligence to redress the issue of neglect, Human Rights and labor malpractices carried out by the company during its operations in Liberia.
Between 2008 and 2011, the U.S. (“OPIC”) approved three loans to biomass company Buchanan Renewable (“BR”) totaling US$216. 7million. The project ultimately failed, and BR abruptly withdrew from the project area in early 2013, devastating local communities including charcoal producers.
BR employees were accused of abusing subsistence charcoal producers by demanding bribes – or sex from women– to access wood the company had promised to give them for free. As a result, OPIC’s allegedly climate-friendly investment drove charcoal producers to degrade nearby natural forests, causing negative climate impacts.
“When he came across me and said he wanted me, I did not want to do it because I was under age, but He told me if I refused, I won’t burn coal on the field again and he won’t give me any stick and he will not allow anybody to give me stick again, so I was afraid and forced to do it because it was my first time and I did not know anybody,” Says a female resident and a victim of sexual exploitation from one of BR’s employees.
“I did not want him at first, but when he decided to take my stick from me, I was jammed, and was forced to agree because he said he was going to help me and I wanted money and needed to go to school, so that made me have sex with him.”
The aggrieved inhabitants further explained that BR’s harvesting of old rubber trees at the Firestone plantation ran into direct conflict with charcoal producers, who used the same trees to produce charcoal, Liberia’s most important fuel source.
That within a few years of BR’s arrival in Liberia, the cost of charcoal production had nearly tripled, and those living on burning charcoal have struggled to make a living.
“BRE came and fooled us, they said they wanted to cut down the old rubber trees and replant new trees but all of the rubber they planted died. And since BRE damaged the farm, we are catching hard time and for our children to go to school, because it is not easy, no money,” Says Gabriel Brown, a farmer.
These Liberian is now saying, they are living worse life than they were when BR arrived in 2007.Indigenous, smallholder farmers who had subsisted on income from their mature but still producing rubber trees prior to BR’s interventions, have been left without critical income and struggling to maintain their farms and satisfy basic needs.
“BRE spoil our property and cut down all of my rubber trees, most especially my life time tree, and our lifetime tree, our children and grandchildren can eat from it. I had 25 acres of land that had 2500 trees planted on it and was given US$ 965.00”, Says James Glay, an affected farmer.
Additionally, many adults and children have suffered as a result of contaminated water linked to BR’s activities on the farms.
“BRE wood chip has made our drinking water to spoil because when it rain, the water from the chip can mix with our drinking water and it can make our children sick. So we have no safe drinking water” Says Old man James Glay.
Some full time workers on jobs for BR were unpaid and called “volunteers” for up to two years. Several female agricultural workers reported that their male supervisors sexually abused them and retaliated if they refused their supervisor’s sexual advances. The US$216. 7 in loans OPIC approved for BR’s projects represented nearly 70% of total project costs.
“Most of our bosses were having sex with women in our department, they said if you did not agree to have sex with them, you would be the first person to get on the list to be sacked,” Says a female worker of BR.
Many workers suffered debilitating and permanent injuries from workplace accidents – including being trapped under fallen trees and having limbs broken – and did not receive adequate medical care or compensation.
“They cut the tree and it fell on me and one of my leg and arms got broken. The man who did it said he did not see me when he cut down the tree, and now I cannot work physically”, Says Aderlyn D. Barnard, a handicap victim. Cllr. Alfred Brownell of Green Advocate believes the company did not act alone in abusing the rights of the locals.
“The Government of Liberia conspired with BR to cut and run, without leaving anything behind and it is sad that the government even allowed that to happen, because when a Company comes and settle and has liabilities, the only way is to go after the company’s access.
The assets of such company should be seized, but the government assigned police to safeguard the assets until BR pulled out of here and sell. Right now BRE is a complete shell,” says Brownell, of Green Advocate.
“Therefore OPIC shares a substantial responsibility for the desperate situation in which farmers, charcoal producers and workers now find themselves. We are going after United States Investor OPIC, with a lawsuit because of their failure to conduct appropriate due diligence regarding these issues.”
Moses Flomo another victim says BR had created an untold burden for people living in the communities in which it operated leaving them to bear such burden.
“BRE came into our community and marginalized our women that many of them are now carrying baby without fathers, because BRE workers had sex with our sisters and impregnated them, and leaving us with burden”, says Flomo, member of the Charcoal Union.
“We at the charcoal Union are suffering now because the price of coal is gone up because BRE violated the charcoal Union agreement and did their own thing.”