Back to Story List

'No Means No' - Jogbahn Clan, EPO, and the Fight over Land in District 4

(Part Two)
Published : January 29, 2022 | Updated: February 23, 2022

Once Jogbahn Clan formally requested assistance from SDI in writing, the first step was to document the community's resistance to EPO’s expansion plans. EPO and the local government had taken the offensive in what would be a long PR battle, claiming that the vast majority of communities in the area welcomed EPO’s expansion, and that a ‘loud minority’ was to blame for the tension. EPO suggested that the communities had already given consent, and proclaimed their innocence in the LNP’s violent assault on demonstrators.

A few days after the assault, SDI returned to District #4. This time, EPO security allowed the team passage to enter into the plantation and travel east to Jogbahn Clan’s towns. SDI had asked for towns to call meetings so that SDI staff could explain the process of submitting an RSPO complaint and gather signatures that would be included as evidence. The meetings were crowded and electric. People who couldn’t find seats or fit inside the palava huts peered in from outside as clan leaders formally welcomed SDI, who led question-and-answer sessions that were translated into the local dialect.

Primary Source
Meeting between SDI and Jogbahn Clan in September 2013
September 4, 2022

September 5th, 2013 meeting in Tarloe Town between SDI and members of Jogbahn Clan to discuss EPO’s activities and the way forward.

Discussion is partially in the Bassa dialect.

The community is resolute and clear about their desire not to be pushed around or have their land stolen by EPO.

The 2nd video features Silas Siakor, senior campaigner for SDI at the time.

View full report
Primary Source

Meeting between SDI and Jogbahn Clan in September 2013

September 4, 2022

September 5th, 2013 meeting in Tarloe Town between SDI and members of Jogbahn Clan to discuss EPO’s activities and the way forward.

Discussion is partially in the Bassa dialect.

The community is resolute and clear about their desire not to be pushed around or have their land stolen by EPO.

The 2nd video features Silas Siakor, senior campaigner for SDI at the time.

For the next few days, SDI staff slept in the towns as they carried out the painstaking process of collecting signatures and fingerprints for the complaint. There was concern internally that space had to be created so that self-appointed leaders didn't dominate the discussion. To make sure that the decision-making process was representative and fair, each of the 11 towns was asked to nominate two people – including at least one woman – to serve as representatives for future meetings.

Primary Source
SDI sends information about EPO to the RSPO
September 18, 2022

The Sustainable Development Institute (SDI), a Liberian non-governmental organization, writes to file a complaint on behalf of three hundred and sixty-three (363) households in eleven (11) villages

affected by the expansion of the Equatorial Palm Oil (EPO) plantation expansion in District Number 4, Grand Bassa County. The complainants, with a total of two thousand and one hundred

(2,100) dependents claim as follows:

Equatorial Palm Oil (EPO) has already cleared some of their customary land and planted oil palm on the cleared land without their consent.

EPO plans to survey additional land within their customary land area in order to clear it and plant with oil palm. EPO wants to expand its plantation further onto their customary land.

This complaint is linked to RSPO Criterion 2.2 which states:

“The right to use the land can be demonstrated, and is not legitimately contested by local communities with demonstrable rights” [emphasis added]; and

RSPO Criterion 2.3 which states:

“use of the land for oil palm does not diminish the legal rights, or customary rights,of other users, without their free, prior and informed consent” [emphasis added].

In view of the above, they have resolved as follows:

1. EPO should not conduct any survey or clear any more of their customary land.

2. EPO should stop where it has already cleared and planted oil palm.

3. EPO should not extend any further onto our customary land.

View full report
Primary Source

SDI sends information about EPO to the RSPO

September 18, 2022

The Sustainable Development Institute (SDI), a Liberian non-governmental organization, writes to file a complaint on behalf of three hundred and sixty-three (363) households in eleven (11) villages

affected by the expansion of the Equatorial Palm Oil (EPO) plantation expansion in District Number 4, Grand Bassa County. The complainants, with a total of two thousand and one hundred

(2,100) dependents claim as follows:

Equatorial Palm Oil (EPO) has already cleared some of their customary land and planted oil palm on the cleared land without their consent.

EPO plans to survey additional land within their customary land area in order to clear it and plant with oil palm. EPO wants to expand its plantation further onto their customary land.

This complaint is linked to RSPO Criterion 2.2 which states:

“The right to use the land can be demonstrated, and is not legitimately contested by local communities with demonstrable rights” [emphasis added]; and

RSPO Criterion 2.3 which states:

“use of the land for oil palm does not diminish the legal rights, or customary rights,of other users, without their free, prior and informed consent” [emphasis added].

In view of the above, they have resolved as follows:

1. EPO should not conduct any survey or clear any more of their customary land.

2. EPO should stop where it has already cleared and planted oil palm.

3. EPO should not extend any further onto our customary land.

Back in Monrovia, SDI staff worked to compile evidence and information to include in the RSPO complaint. The complaint detailed the events of the previous month, arguing that EPO had failed to carry out an adequate ‘Free, Prior, and Informed Consent’ process that would have allowed Jogbahn Clan to make an independent decision about whether the expansion was in its best interests.

While Liberian law afforded little to no protections to Jogbahn Clan, international attention on the oil palm trade had forced producers to design the RSPO’s “Principles and Criteria” to reassure consumers that they weren’t complicit in the type of abuses that were unfolding in District #4. The RSPO has a reputation for being a shaky mechanism for protecting community rights among activists across the world, but losing its certification would be a devastating blow to EPO. SDI’s staff calculated that negative attention which would accompany the complaint could force EPO to halt its plans - at least temporarily. 

Because the RSPO’s guidelines had been set through an international process, the Liberian government would not be able to push EPO to ignore Jogbahn Clan’s protests without ensuring that the company would be subjected to a flood of negative publicity and the potential loss of its RSPO certification.

The complaint was finalized and submitted on October 2, 2013.

Primary Source
RSPO Complaint against Equatorial Palm Oil filed in October 2013
October 2, 2022

This document is SDI’s official complaint to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) on matters related to Equatorial Palm Oil‘s actions in District 4, Grand Bassa County, filed in October 2013. SDI "details specific instances of violation of RSPO Principles and Criteria". The document also provides suggested "remedial actions and corrective measures," claiming that EPO did not secure consent from areas in Jogbahn Clan in 2012 before clearing and planting. It asserts that EPO’s proposed actions in 2013 to clear new land in District 4 did not have the consent of the community and would therefore constitute a violation of RSPO principles.

View full report
Primary Source

RSPO Complaint against Equatorial Palm Oil filed in October 2013

October 2, 2022

This document is SDI’s official complaint to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) on matters related to Equatorial Palm Oil‘s actions in District 4, Grand Bassa County, filed in October 2013. SDI "details specific instances of violation of RSPO Principles and Criteria". The document also provides suggested "remedial actions and corrective measures," claiming that EPO did not secure consent from areas in Jogbahn Clan in 2012 before clearing and planting. It asserts that EPO’s proposed actions in 2013 to clear new land in District 4 did not have the consent of the community and would therefore constitute a violation of RSPO principles.

Meanwhile, in a stunning display of hubris by the Liberian government, Jogbahn's clan chief was fired and removed from the state payroll for “going against government policy” on EPO. In Liberia, local chiefs are treated as de facto government employees; they draw a salary and are supervised by the Ministry of Internal Affairs. While traditionally communities elected these chiefs, in modern Liberia the government appoints them. 

Riley Tompoe was the clan chief for Jogbahn. His sympathies during the conflict had remained with the community rather than the company or government, and he’d been vocal about his support. To his surprise, he was told that he’d already signed a paper giving consent for EPO to expand onto the new land. When he asked to see the paper, the signature didn't match his . When he protested and accused EPO of committing fraud, he was informed in writing that he had been fired.

Primary Source
Jogbhan Clan Chief Suspended in Formal Notice from Government
January 21, 2022

After months of conflict between EPO and citizens of District 4, Grand Bassa County, the Jogbahn clan chief, Riley Tompoe, is formally suspended by government. The letter states that he is suspended for "going against national government policy" with regards to the concession.

View full report
Primary Source

Jogbhan Clan Chief Suspended in Formal Notice from Government

January 21, 2022

After months of conflict between EPO and citizens of District 4, Grand Bassa County, the Jogbahn clan chief, Riley Tompoe, is formally suspended by government. The letter states that he is suspended for "going against national government policy" with regards to the concession.

Over the next series of months, EPO and SDI submitted claims and counter-claims to the RSPO. SDI’s partner organization, Global Witness, sent a research delegation to investigate the community’s claims of abuse and fraud, and local press outlets began to run stories on the conflict.

At one point in this period, SDI staff sat down with EPO officials to negotiate logistics for the company's meeting with Jogbahn Clan. EPO was refusing to hold the meeting inside District #4, proposing Buchanan as an alternative despite the logistical challenges of transporting residents to the regional capital. During the meeting, one EPO official banged his hand on the table and insinuated that since the company had already received consent from the local ‘Bush Devil’ – the head of the traditional and secretive Poro society – there was no further need to discuss the matter with other community members.

SDI staff continued to visit District #4 through the end of the year and into 2014. Meetings were held to update the community on the bureaucratic hurdles and byzantine workings of the RSPO, to resolve potential conflicts, and to maintain the bond and working relationship between SDI and Jogbahn Clan.

Frustratingly, despite the overwhelming evidence that EPO had violated its obligations, the RSPO’s Complaints Panel failed to issue an expeditious ruling on the complaint. The panel repeatedly asked SDI to sit down with EPO and try to work out a compromise, neglecting to grasp that it was Jogbahn Clan – not SDI – that was the complainant, and that any settlement would require their explicit approval. 

In early 2014, President Johnson-Sirleaf herself made what many felt to be a subtle allusion to SDI’s advocacy for Jogbahn Clan in her State of the Union Address. In one line, she referred to “NGO’s behaving as supranational bodies” and “challenging the sovereignty of the state” in their work on natural resources and the environment.

Primary Source
Senator Gbezohngar Findley visits Communities in the EPO Concession
February 14, 2022

2014 February gathering with communities in the EPO area.

Gbezohngar Findley (then Senate Pro-Temp) visits Jogbahn Clan in an attempt to address the community’s concerns about EPO’s Oil Palm investment.

He promised investigate the maltreatment of community members that were marching to Buchanan in protest of EPO’s expansion.

He also promised the community they were to meet face-to-face with President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.

He promised that anyone who has caused environmental hazards would be held accountable under the laws of Liberia.

Video is in the Bassa dialect.

View full report
Primary Source

Senator Gbezohngar Findley visits Communities in the EPO Concession

February 14, 2022

2014 February gathering with communities in the EPO area.

Gbezohngar Findley (then Senate Pro-Temp) visits Jogbahn Clan in an attempt to address the community’s concerns about EPO’s Oil Palm investment.

He promised investigate the maltreatment of community members that were marching to Buchanan in protest of EPO’s expansion.

He also promised the community they were to meet face-to-face with President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.

He promised that anyone who has caused environmental hazards would be held accountable under the laws of Liberia.

Video is in the Bassa dialect.

The stalemate continued through to the early spring, with Jogbahn steadfastly refusing to consent to the expansion or the survey. Friends of the Earth International gathered signatures in Europe in an online petition to protect Jogbahn Clan’s land, and advocacy groups in Africa, Europe, and the US began sharing updates on the unfolding situation.

Finally, in early March, President Johnson-Sirleaf made a surprise announcement: she would not permit EPO to expand onto Jogbahn Clan’s land. Jogbahn Clan, along with SDI, celebrated the victory. For months the community's status had been uncertain; President Sirleaf's proclamation was a clear sign that the community's resolve had carried it to that victory.


President Sirleaf's edict did not mark the end of the conflict between EPO and Jogbahn Clan, but it was a watershed moment nonetheless -- and not just in Liberia, but across Africa. For a community like Jogbahn Clan to successfully defend its claim to land ownership against as powerful an array of opponents as it faced was remarkable. EPO, an international investor with millions of dollars in capital, and the Liberian government, with all its resources and authority, were forced to back down from their plans to convert Jogbahn Clan’s land into an oil palm plantation. For staff at SDI, it was a special moment.

Jogbahn Clan’s victory over EPO would not have been possible without the balance of internal cohesion and outside assistance that was present in its fight. The community remained steadfast and united in the face of tremendous intimidation, it established a relationship of trust and partnership with SDI, and international advocates and journalists ensured that their fight was visible to the larger world. The lessons learned by SDI and its international partners during this campaign have been shared widely, providing encouragement and tactics for others who face the same threat.

The saga of Jogbahn Clan and Equatorial Palm Oil continues, but for SDI, it represents one of the clearest examples of how committed advocacy backed by conscientious community engagement can defeat even the most powerful investors in the global fight over land grabs. In a field marked by challenges, setbacks, and difficult odds, it was a moment worth cherishing.