Accountability Counsel supports Liberian farmers, charcoalers and workers in their efforts to secure remedy and hold the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation (“OPIC”) accountable for funding a biomass company that caused serious human rights, labor and environmental abuses, including sexual abuses by company employees of local women.
After launching this video and supporting the Liberians’ complaint to OPIC in January 2014, the federal agency agreed to a comprehensive investigation into the abuses. In September 2014, OPIC’s Office of Accountability released its independent review of the project, confirming that all three groups suffered harm from the project and revealing that OPIC had failed to identify and protect vulnerable groups. After we brought this to the attention of key policymakers, the U.S. government passed legislation in December 2014 that holds OPIC accountable for the troubling findings in this review.
OPIC approved over $200 million in financing for the company, Buchanan Renewables (“BR”). BR cut down rubber trees for biofuel and was supposed to rejuvenate family farms and create sustainable energy for Liberia. Instead, the project harmed its intended beneficiaries. Hundreds of Liberians are now worse off than they were prior to OPIC’s investment in BR. For example:
- Indigenous, smallholder farmers who had subsisted on income from their rubber trees were left struggling to satisfy basic needs. The company’s practices contaminated community drinking water, and family members attribute the death of at least one child to the company’s contamination.
- Charcoal producers were forced to compete with the company for the rubber trees they relied on to make charcoal. Company employees demanded bribes – or sex from women – for leftover wood that 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.
- Workers faced rampant labor rights violations, including inadequate protective equipment and safety training. Many workers suffered debilitating and permanent injuries from workplace accidents and did not receive adequate medical care or compensation. Several female agriculture workers reported that their male supervisors sexually abused them and retaliated if they refused their supervisors’ sexual advances.
In January 2014, hundreds of Liberians, assisted by Accountability Counsel and Liberia-based Green Advocates International, filed a complaint with OPIC’s President and CEO. The complaint was accompanied by a detailed report, Fueling Human Rights Disasters, which documents OPIC’s role in the abuses suffered by farmers, charcoalers and workers. The complaint called on OPIC to launch an independent investigation into its role in the abuses, take responsibility and address the harm. Within two days of the filing of the complaint and launching of a public campaign, OPIC agreed to an independent review of the impacts of the project. In February 2014, OPIC formally called on its Office of Accountability (“OA”) to conduct the review.
In September 2014, the OA published its investigation report, as well as a short response from OPIC’s President & CEO. The report confirmed that all three groups of complainants suffered harm from the project and revealed gaps in OPIC’s ability to track development outcomes or identify and project vulnerable groups. Through our advocacy efforts, we have raised awareness of these harms and asked key policymakers to ensure that OPIC takes responsibility for its failures.
On December 16, 2014, President Obama signed the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, 2015, which includes provisions in an explanatory statement requiring OPIC to report to Congress on its plan to implement the report’s recommendations. The provisions also call on OPIC to undertake an open and competitive hiring process to fill the vacant Office of Accountability Director position, which has been unstaffed for months since the report’s release. Read our joint press release about this news.
We will continue to work to ensure that OPIC meaningfully responds to this call to action and fully implements the report’s numerous recommendations for institutional change, including conducting human rights due diligence for high risk projects.