Liberia: Buchanan Renewables Energy

  • Overview

    Accountability Counsel supported Liberian farmers, charcoalers, and workers in their efforts to 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.

    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.

    “Most of the bosses were having sex with the women in our department.  They said that if you didn’t agree to have sex with them, you would be the first person to get her name on the list for termination.” — Female worker employed by Buchanan Renewables

    Female workers gathered to learn about OPIC’s investigation.

    After Accountability Counsel produced this video and supported the Liberians’ complaint to OPIC’s accountability office in January 2014, the federal agency agreed to a comprehensive investigation into the abuses. In September 2014, OPIC’s Office of Accountability (OA) 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.

    While the company responsible for the abuses failed and sold off its assets, we 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.

    We shared the lessons we drew from the Buchanan Renewables case with OPIC and U.S. Congress. Our policy advocacy around these lessons resulted in improved social and environmental due diligence standards at OPIC in 2017.  Read more about our OPIC Policy Advocacy.

    Accountability Counsel is committed to ensuring that the OPIC Accountability Office is a meaningful avenue for resolving disputes and assessing OPIC’s compliance with its own policies.  Read more about the OA.

    The lessons from this case also inform our policy advocacy with other U.S. agencies funding abroad, as well as with impact investors.

  • The Story

    Charcoaler working in the natural forest next to the Firestone plantation.

    Between 2008 and 2011, OPIC approved three loans to biomass company Buchanan Renewables (BR) totaling US$216.7 million. OPIC stated that its support for BR would have a strong development impact in Liberia by rejuvenating rubber farms and creating sustainable and renewable energy through converting old rubber trees into biofuel to be used in a BR-constructed power plant. Instead, the project was characterized by serious abuses and drove impacted communities further into poverty.

    The project ultimately failed, and BR abruptly withdrew from the project area in early 2013, devastating local communities. Moreover, BR’s model was designed in a way that prevented previously self-sustaining farmers and charcoal producers from providing for their own welfare once the project began.

    By the time Accountability Counsel became involved, hundreds of Liberians were worse off than they were when BR arrived in 2007. 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. Communities still lack access to clean water.

    At the same time, BR’s harvesting of old rubber trees at the Firestone plantation ran into direct conflict with charcoal producers, the most vulnerable population in the area who used the same trees to produce charcoal, Liberia’s most important fuel source. Within a few years of BR’s arrival in Liberia, the cost of charcoal production had nearly tripled, and the native charcoal producers have struggled to make a living. Additionally, BR employees abused 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.

    Finally, BR workers suffered from rampant labor rights violations. BR systematically failed to provide workers with adequate protective equipment and safety training, exposing them to life-threatening working conditions. 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. Some workers doing full-time jobs for BR were unpaid and called “volunteers” for up to two years. Several female agriculture workers reported that their male supervisors sexually abused them and retaliated if they refused their supervisors’ sexual advances.

    “When he came across me, he said he wanted me. I didn’t want him. And he decided to take my sticks from me, so I was jammed. I was forced to agree because I wanted money and I needed help. He asked me and then he said ‘I will help you.’ All I wanted was to depend on him and for schooling—that made me have sex with him. But really I didn’t want to because I was underage. But he told me that if I refused, I would not burn coal on the field again and that he would not give me any sticks and would not allow anybody to give me sticks, so I was afraid and I was forced because it was my first time and I didn’t know anything.” —Underage Female Charcoaler

    Prior to Accountability Counsel’s involvement in the case, farmers, charcoalers, and workers had all made attempts to get BR to change its harmful practices without satisfactory results. BR-affected farmers and charcoal producers had also worked with Liberia-based Green Advocates International and Netherlands-based Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO) to produce reports, Burning Rubber and Cut and Run, that documented harm to those two communities. While the first report succeeded in pressuring BR to somewhat improve its interactions with farmers, all progress stopped in mid-2012 and early 2013, when BR abruptly abandoned its project.

    Aderlyn Barnard did not receive appropriate medical care after a tree fell on her during harvesting operations.

    At the request of Green Advocates International, SOMO, and the Liberian affected groups, Accountability Counsel became involved in early 2013 to help local communities explore opportunities for holding the international institutions that provided financing to BR accountable.

    In March 2013, an Accountability Counsel team traveled to Liberia to gather additional information about BR’s impacts, particularly on women and workers, as well as to meet with impacted communities about the possibility of filing a complaint with OPIC. In addition to the already documented harm, Accountability Counsel uncovered sexual coercion by BR employees of female charcoalers and agriculture workers, as well as evidence of serious labor rights violations. Affected farmers, charcoal producers, and workers described significant, ongoing problems caused by BR and decided to file a complaint with OPIC.

    Prior to submitting a complaint to OPIC Office of Accountability in 2014, Accountability Counsel supported the affected groups in repeated efforts over many months to make progress through dialogue with OPIC and with the McCall MacBain Foundation and Pamoja Capital, the entities that owned Buchanan Renewables. Neither OPIC nor the McCall MacBain Foundation/Pamoja Capital responded to our attempts to reach agreement on constructive next steps to investigate harm and provide remedy.

    As result of the complaint process that Accountability Counsel and Green Advocates supported, in September 2014, the OA published its investigation report, as well as a short response from OPIC’s President and 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 protect vulnerable groups. The report also recommended that OPIC put in place more robust screening, due diligence, risk mitigation, and monitoring systems, including implementing human rights due diligence.

    The September 2014 report concluded the OA’s involvement in the case. Additionally, the OA Director left his position almost immediately after releasing the report, and OPIC informed Accountability Counsel that it had no immediate plans to fill the position.

    Following the release of the OA’s report, Accountability Counsel turned its efforts to demanding that OPIC provide remedy for the many Liberian’s harmed by BR. We also began working to ensure that OPIC implements the important recommendations in the OA report through a transparent participatory process and that it fill the vacant OA Director position. After outreach to Congress also urging the OA to fill the vacancy, OPIC finally restaffed the office nearly a year later.

    Case Partners

    Green Advocates International: An environmental law organization in Liberia dedicated to protecting the environment, advancing human rights protection and advocacy, and giving voice to rural, indigenous, and tribal people.

    Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO): An independent, nonprofit research organization that strives for sustainable and fair global economic development.

    Swedwatch: An independent, nonprofit organization that reports on Swedish business relations in developing countries. It covers different sectors and focuses on social and environmental concerns.

    Accountability Counsel’s Global Communities team also partnered with our Policy Advocacy program to follow up on policy change recommendations made by OPIC’s Office of Accountability in an investigation report released in response to this case.

  • The Case
    • Jan 2016

      Accountability Counsel released a scorecard report, Scoring OPIC One Year On: Few Lessons Learned in OPIC’s Response to Disastrous Project in Liberia. The report analyzes OPIC’s response to the September 2014 OA investigation report, which included recommendations to prevent the harm that accrued in the Buchanan Renewables case from recurring in future OPIC investments.

      Our report found that one year later, OPIC had largely failed to make significant, lasting improvements in response to the OA report. Read about our Policy Team’s continuing efforts to encourage higher standards and greater accountability at OPIC here.

    • Mar 2015

      Accountability Counsel published a response in the Huffington Post to OPIC’s President’s assertion that OPIC is a model investor. We argued that the lack of remedy for harms caused by OPIC and BR has shown that OPIC has a long way to go to live up to its self-proclaimed status.

    • Jan 2015

      A series of AP media reports came out in late January calling attention to the lack of accountability at OPIC. One report highlighted Accountability Counsel’s case in Liberia. Other reports also identified serious institutional and operational problems at OPIC, including an article on our case in Mexico and another on the need for increased oversight over the agency’s operations.

    • Dec 2014

      President Obama signed the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, in 2015, which includes provisions in an explanatory statement requiring OPIC to report to Congress on its plan to implement the recommendations in the OA’s Buchanan Renewables report. 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.

    • Oct 2014

      Accountability Counsel, Green Advocates International, and SOMO, released a joint press release in response to the OA’s report.

    • Sep 2014

      OPIC’s OA published its investigation report, as well as a short response from OPIC’s President and 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 protect vulnerable groups. The report also recommended that OPIC put in place more robust screening, due diligence, risk mitigation, and monitoring systems, including implementing human rights due diligence.

      The September 2014 report concluded the OA’s involvement in the case. Additionally, the OA Director left his position almost immediately after releasing the report, and OPIC informed Accountability Counsel that it had no immediate plans to fill the position.

    • Apr 2014

      In April 2014, the OA traveled to Liberia to meet with complainants and other relevant parties. Accountability Counsel, in close collaboration with Green Advocates, also traveled to Liberia at the request of our clients to support them during the investigation.

    • Feb 2014

      OPIC’s President and CEO formally called on OPIC’s OA to conduct the review.

      Because OPIC no longer had a contractual relationship with Buchanan Renewables, the complaint was not eligible under the rules governing the OPIC Office of Accountability (OA) at the time it was filed. Had it been possible, the complaint would have been filed to the OA, which takes complaints from communities who have been or may be harmed by OPIC-funded projects. In the end, OPIC’s President and CEO called on the OA to handle the complaint.

    • Jan 2014

      OPIC leadership committed to an independent review of the impacts of the project.

    • Jan 2014

      Accountability Counsel assisted hundreds of Liberia farmers, charcoal producers, and workers in filing a complaint to OPIC regarding its role in supporting Buchanan Renewables. The complaint was accompanied by a detailed report, Fueling Human Rights Disasters, that documented project-related human rights, labor, and environmental abuses, including sexual abuse of local women by company employees.

      All three groups asserted that they were lied to, cheated, and abused by BR, and continue to suffer harm from BR’s operations in Liberia. These abuses related to the following OPIC policy violations:

      • The project failed to provide significant, positive development benefits and instead destroyed the livelihoods of smallholder farmers and charcoal producers
      • OPIC did not conduct appropriate due diligence that would have revealed the infeasibility of BR’s model, its inability to provide positive development benefits, and the egregious impacts to farmers, charcoalers, and workers that began prior to OPIC’s involvement
      • BR and OPIC failed to identify the majority of smallholder farmers as indigenous, which would have triggered additional protections and due diligence requirements
      • BR and OPIC did not undertake appropriate due diligence regarding the risk of gender-impacts, including sexual harassment and coercion, despite rampant gender-based discrimination in Liberia and the country’s recent history of extreme gender violence
      • BR did nothing to address the pattern of sexual harassment and abuse that was rampant in its workforce, impacting both female charcoalers and female agriculture workers
      • BR failed to meet even basic occupational health and safety standards, as a result of which, waterborne illnesses and serious workplace accidents were commonplace
      • BR failed to conduct consultations in a culturally appropriate manner with directly affected groups, both before the commencement of project activities and throughout the life of the project.
    • Mar 2013

      Green Advocates InternationalSOMO, and Swedwatch published Cut and Run, an update on the impacts of Buchanan Renewables’ operations and Vattenfall’s divestment from the project.

      Also in March 2013, an Accountability Counsel team traveled to Liberia to gather additional information about BR’s impacts, particularly on women and on workers, as well as to meet with impacted communities about the possibility of filing a complaint with OPIC.

    • Nov 2011

      Green Advocates International and SOMO published Burning Rubber, a report on the impacts of Buchanan Renewables on farmers and charcoal producers in Liberia.

  • Impact

    AC’s Sarah Singh listening to the story of an injured worker.

    As a result of Accountability Counsel’s work on the Buchanan Renewables case, the voices of Liberian Indigenous smallholder farmers, charcoalers, and workers, were heard by the staff and leadership of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), key members of U.S. Congress with oversight over OPIC, and the McCall MacBain Foundation and Pamoja Capital, the entities that owned Buchanan Renewables.

    The complaint we supported led to an accountability office investigation into OPIC’s involvement in the project. 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 protect vulnerable groups. The report also recommended that OPIC put in place more robust screening, due diligence, risk mitigation, and monitoring systems, including implementing human rights due diligence.

    Our follow on advocacy directly with OPIC, as well as with U.S. Congress, led to a strengthening of the human rights and environmental due diligence rules that cover OPIC’s investments.

    Also as a result of Accountability Counsel’s advocacy, President Obama signed the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act in 2015, which includes provisions in an explanatory statement requiring OPIC to report to Congress on its plan to implement the recommendations in the OA’s Buchanan Renewables report. The provisions call on OPIC to undertake an open and competitive hiring process to fill the vacant Office of Accountability Director position, which was unstaffed after the report’s release. Our advocacy then resulted in that position getting filled.

    The impact of our work on the Buchanan Renewables case is a greater awareness of how to identify, address and avoid human rights and environmental risks in OPIC projects, which reduces the chances that people around the world in the path of OPIC’s projects will experience harm.  If they do, our work has also been critical to OPIC maintaining an Office of Accountability where they can have their voices heard.

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