By Sarah Singh
On January 22, 2014, hundreds of Liberians filed a complaint with a U.S. federal agency demanding accountability for its funding of a biomass project that caused serious human rights, labor and environmental abuses, including sexual abuse by company employees of local women.
The complaint was accompanied by the publication of a detailed report, Fueling Human Rights Disasters, documenting the harm resulting from the federal agency’s due diligence failures and policy violations, and the release of a video in which Liberian farmers, charcoal producers and workers explain the harm in their own words.
Just two days later, the federal agency – the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (“OPIC”) – committed for the first time to conducting an independent review of the impacts of its investment in the abusive biomass project in Liberia.
The public pressure generated by the video and petition to OPIC’s President & CEO has likely contributed to OPIC’s recent commitment. However, OPIC has not yet announced what the independent review will look like, nor has the agency taken responsibility for its role in the harm caused by the project. More information is needed regarding OPIC’s timeline and what steps it intends to take to ensure that its review of the project is meaningful and leads to remedy for those who have suffered, and continue to suffer, from the impacts of this abusive project.
OPIC approved over $200 million in financing for the project, operated by Buchanan Renewables. The company cut down rubber trees for biofuel and was supposed to rejuvenate family farms and create sustainable energy for Liberia. Instead, hundreds of Liberians are now worse off. With funding from OPIC, Buchanan Renewables harmed the vulnerable Liberians it was supposed to be helping.
My organization, Accountability Counsel, is a legal organization that assists communities in filing complaints about human rights abuses related to internationally-financed projects. As lawyers, we often focus on written complaints. In this case, however, we knew that creating a short video documenting personal stories of Liberians affected by these violations would strengthen our advocacy efforts within the U.S. and help to amplify the voices of our Liberian clients who are outraged that the U.S. Government financed this abusive project.
Sarah Molonpolah, one of the leaders of the charcoal producers harmed by Buchanan Renewables
This video was created by Skye Bougsty-Marshall, an Accountability Counsel pro bono attorney who poured his skill into this project as both an advocate and videographer. His dedicated work, along with the assistance of Liberia-based Green Advocates International, kept our clients front and center. Our objective was to help them raise their voices on an international scale, while also being sensitive to the possible repercussions they could face for speaking out. To this end, we took measures such as protecting the identities of the young survivors of sexual abuse.
By including the video with the official complaint and distributing it in online spaces, we have enabled vulnerable Liberians, who in many cases lack access to the internet or international media outlets, to share their stories with audiences around the world. People from across the globe have shown their solidarity by signing our petition. Accountability Counsel will continue to use this video not only to raise awareness about this case, but also to educate diverse audiences at our various speaking engagements about the serious human rights and environmental abuses that can arise when so-called development projects do not properly take into account the realities on the ground.
Keep the pressure on OPIC to conduct a meaningful investigation and provide remedy for Liberian victims by signing our petition. More information and regular updates about the case are available on our website.
Sarah Singh is the Director of Strategic Support at Accountability Counsel, an organization that assists communities around the world to defend their environmental and human rights.