Old update: visit by UNMIL SRSG Løj and U.S. ambassador Greenfield, 2009

29 May, 2011 • Viktor Bengtsson • 6 minutes to read

(Post from old blog.)

This post describes the end of year activities and visit by the U.S. ambassador and UNMIL SRSG to the ADA/LAP farm in Foya, Liberia (West Africa). It is the last of three blog posts describing activities I undertook in 2009. The photos are old (courtesy of ADA/LAP) but the text is new.

One of the best and worst aspects of doing agriculture in Liberia is that people care about it. Starting a big farm is big news in a country where the vast majority still do farming in some form, but two additional reasons explain why ADA/LAP has garnered extra attention:

  1. Rice is a highly politicized commodity in Liberia. It is the basic staple in most parts of the country, but there is also a common view that the 1979 rice riots started the political upheaval in the country that later led to civil war.
  2. Our project is located in Lofa county which, together with Nimba county, has the honor of being very important in presidential elections.

What this means for our work is that we get a fairly steady stream of visitors. We've had countless journalists visit to counter different stories in the industrial rumor mill that is Liberia. I've received local and regional politicians, house and senate delegations; and the President and Vice-President both have come to visit. The NGO crowd is also well represented in the visitors list. Among the more bizarre events, we had a lot of visits and meetings with politicians and military officers from Guinea when a certain former Liberian warlord incarcerated in Guinea loudly called for the Liberian military to come free him. His outburst happened to coincide with ADA/LAP moving some large John Deere machinery to the farm (which lies just on the Guinea border), and our tractors, sprayers and combines were mistaken for personnel carriers, tanks and rocket batteries. It took a while, but we finally cleared that up.

Some visits are timely and pleasant, some less so. Some visitors come to see, learn and praise; some come to take cheap shots and make our work harder or just to try and squeeze us for money. That's politics for ya!

When I learned that the SRSG (Special Representative of the Secretary-General of the United Nations) and the U.S. ambassador to Liberia were coming for a visit to Foya I wasn't wild about it. The news came at a time when we were in the middle of harvest and I was already pulling 18h-shifts, 7 days a week; I really didn't need any more work. The usual sequence of meetings, constant changes of plans and schedules ensued. Thankfully the plan to fly a helicopter to our fields was scrapped after a week or so, leaving enough time for me to cancel the tedious work of building a helicopter platform on the farm. It also meant that we really didn't have to undertake any preparations. (Note: UNMIL mostly fly old Russian helicopters that can land just about anywhere - especially if one broadens the definition of "landing" to include crash landing - so the helipad was strictly speaking not necessary but still part of UN protocol in these situations.)

Viktor Bengtsson giving presentation

Straight-backed due to agonising pain.

When the day of the visit finally arrived, it did so to the accompaniment of stabbing pain. I had started the morning carrying a 100 kg rice bag with a person that shall remain unnamed, and that person decided on a whim to let go of his end. Hence the stabbing back pain. While I staggered around silently cursing and checking that everything was in order before the delegation arrived the field flooded with UN soldiers; before long there were enough automatic rifles on the field to stage a Soviet-style Moscow Victory Day Parade and still put up a stiff defense of Stalingrad.

Unmil cars on rice field

Rice + Heckler & Koch MP5 = Farming in Liberia.

A visit of this kind is not unlike a movie. It has main characters (in this case the SRSG and the U.S. Ambassador) but there is a whole lot of supporting actors and staff that come along. So while we say that two people are visiting the farm in reality it was something like a hundred people. National, regional, local politicians and their technical staff were there as were press, security and other assorted individuals. We had just let the bulk of our staff go on Christmas leave so we had only about ten people present on the farm.

Viktor Bengtsson, Ambassador and UN representative

At one of our drying boards.

The convoy arrived in a cloud of dry-season dust, and after the usual handshakes and welcomes I gave a short introduction to the operations of ADA/LAP and our main challenge: to create and adapt a functional business plan for large-scale mechanized farming in Liberia.

As I said earlier, being very tired I wasn't really looking forward to this visit. But, as the SRSG and U.S. Ambassador started asking questions and we got a dialog going my mood and perception changed completely. I found both guests to be knowledgeable, interested and just thoroughly pleasant people to talk to. As we moved from the small tent that the PakBat XII (UNMIL) soldiers had built for the occasion, to look at bagged rice that we had just harvested, and then on to the field I began to really enjoy the visit.

Viktor Bengtsson in discussion with U.S. Ambassador and UN representative

After a while we got a good discussion going.

Both visitors had previous experience of farming so we wound up going into a bit more detail about what is particular about farming in Liberia. As we moved up to a hill to get a view of the whole extent of the farm (as it was at that time) we stopped at one of the remaining drying boards (see previous post) and I talked a bit about the challenges we had face in bringing in our very first harvest.

UN staff on rice field

Diversity: Liberia, Ukraine, Denmark, Sweden, Pakistan, Gambia, USA and more.

We left a small part of the field unharvested for a week so that we could run the combine for a couple of hours during the visit. It provided a nice backdrop to the presentation until one of the PakBat XII soldiers decided that it was his job to protect the dignitaries from the combine; and that the best strategy for this was to stand squarely in the path of the combine. We never got to see this strategy brought to its natural conclusion (the John Deere 9860 does not have a gas pedal but instead a speed lever which remains in place even in the event that the operator is shot by a UN soldier wielding an automatic rifle) since the military brass present yelled at him to move.

In retrospect I can see why both the Amb. Løj (Ellen Margrethe Løj is a former is the former Ambassador to the UN and to Israel for Denmark and have held her post as SRSG since 2007) and Amb. Greenfield (Linda Thomas-Greenfield has been the U.S. Ambassador to Liberia since 2008) have been successful in, and held their respective posts for so long. They are consummate professionals. I have a natural tendency to frown on social/PR activities when they take time away from actual operations, but the fact that the visit was so positive (and even remained positive in the press afterwards) changed my attitude towards future visits.

Viewing a rice bag

Viewing the rice bag that ruined my back... but probably talking about difference rice varieties.

When I got back to town I did a radio interview and then went back to the house. My work-year was at a conclusion and I could look forward to a Christmas in Monrovia (friends, beach, barbeque and getting robbed, but thats another story). Still, no amount of positive experience could change the fact that my back hurt like [censored]...

Oh, by the way, here is a photo of me posing with a PakBatt XII soldier. We did about 10 of these photos on this particular day, but I've probably posed for well over eighty. Apparently the U.S. Delta force (1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta) also uses John Deere Gators and the Pakistani soldiers are crazy about these photos. We had a good deal going for a few months. I got to eat Pakistani food in the officers mess once a week--a welcome change--and they got photos in Gators).

Pakistani soldier on John Deere Gator

The Pakistani soldiers are big fans of the John Deere Gators.