Fueling Liberia's future with hope
Once exposed to the nation's worst brutality, former aid worker David Parker has returned to run a business.
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Parker admits that back then for a new guy in town with a high-profile position it was pretty exciting: he tells firsthand stories of Mr. Taylor's dangerously wayward son "Chucky" turning up at nightclubs with his guns and girls. Now, Liberia poses other dangers: Late last year, a foreign manager with an international rubber company was killed nearby in a dispute with local people. So keeping the workers happy – as well as the roughly 3,000 people who live on the plantation – is essential.Skip to next paragraph
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With the war so recently concluded, many of the 80 percent unemployed in the country are former fighters with little education. "There are a lot of ex-combatants working in and around the concession area," Parker acknowledges. "We will offer jobs but also adult literacy training to provide not just unskilled labor.
"We have a common interest with the employees to develop the capacity of our future workforce," he adds.
Plans to invest in literacy, health, homes
According to the deal signed with the government at the end of last year, EBF will establish a school, spend at least $25,000 a year on adult literacy, rebuild the old health clinic, and renovate the workers' roofless, moldering houses. As Parker puts it, "It's not expensive to add extra services," and it is pragmatic. "Communities are wiser," he says, "they are the custodians of the resources and they want investments they are going to benefit from."
Before anyone benefits, there is a lot of work to be done: Tens of thousands of acres must be replanted, the encroaching jungle fought back, the trees pruned, and the mill rebuilt. But EBF is in it for the long haul: it has control of the plantation for at least 50 years.
A rise from decades of conflict, decay
Palm oil is a key ingredient in soaps, moisturizers, and the vegetable oils used in kitchens from New York City to Buchanan, this decrepit port town close to the Palm Bay estate.
It is also a source of biofuel, the demand for which is growing as developed countries try to reduce their carbon emissions. Critics have blamed biofuels for exacerbating a global food crisis that threatens to plunge poor people into starvation. But Parker is quick to point out that his product comes from existing palm trees and that EBF will not be demolishing rain forests or displacing food crops to produce biofuel.
A well-managed palm plantation using modern equipment and hybrid seeds can produce up to six tons of oil per hectare per year (around 10 times the yield from soya, another popular biofuel source). Parker describes a future where this small tropical West African state reasserts its position among the world's leading palm oil producers, most of which are in Southeast Asia.
"If we can contribute to the creation of thousands of jobs and an equitable distribution of the benefits from investments in natural resources then there will be less problems and Liberia will have a real chance of rising from two decades of conflict and economic decay," Parker argues.
Such political and economic stability will mean a future for Liberia – and for Parker who, unlike many expatriates, has no plans to leave.