Sierra Leone: Organizing against Palm Oil Investors

Sierra Leone: Organizing against Palm Oil Investors

Pujehun Town SLIEPA advert

Pujehun District in Sierra Leone’s Southern Province was heavily affected by the civil war that lasted from 1991 until early 2002. Today about 60% of the total area or 80% of the arable land is given to investors, mainly active in oil palm plantations.

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The main sources of livelihoods in the district are family farming, fishing, and mining. According to contracts registered at the Registrar General’s Office in Freetown, seven of twelve chiefdoms have leased large portions of land to investors, mainly for oil palm plantations. This represents 60.46 % (248,218.9 ha) of the total area and 81.5 % of all arable land in Pujehun District. The land has been leased for 50 years with possible extensions of up to 100 years. Lease areas range from 6,575 hectares to 47,568 hectares. Annual rents per hectare vary from 1,000 Leones (USD 0.23) to USD 12 (with 50% of that for landowners), leaving local farming communities with very little to live off after losing their land and economic trees. There are signs that some of the leases are speculative, acquired by a handful of foreign investors whose intentions were only to sell the companies off and the leases with them. In January 2014, only two of the foreign investors were actually operating: Socfin Agricultural Company (SL) Ltd in Malen Chiefdom is already implementing and is building their oil mill, while Biopalm Energy Limited (SIVA Group) in Panga Kabonde, Kpaka and Gallines Peri Chiefdoms is still at an early stage of operation.

The investor:

Socfin Agricultural Company (SL) Ltd (SAC) is a subsidiary of Belgian-based Socfin group, and the parent holding company Socfin is registered in Luxembourg. Socfin is a member of the Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil, a mechanism initiated by companies on a voluntary basis.
The company intends to invest USD 110 million. This includes a processing factory at the cost of USD 26 million with an output of 30 tonnes per hour in the first phase. The company calculated it needed 12,000 ha of plantation to make the oil mill profitable. SAC started its operations in April 2011, shortly after a signing ceremony was held the 5th of March 2011 in Sahn Malen, the chiefdom headquarters, in the presence of the Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Food Security, the Resident Minister South and armed security. On that occasion USD 40,000 were paid as annual rent and distributed amongst landowners. The estimated workforce is 2,414, calculated with 12,000 ha planted area. The lease area is affecting 24 villages with approximately 9000 inhabitants.

The investor: Socfin Agricultural Company (SL) Ltd (SAC)

The investor: Socfin Agricultural Company (SL) Ltd (SAC)

The Socfin Group also holds large-scale leases for rubber and oil palm plantations in other African countries, including Cameroon and Liberia.
The Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) program of SAC includes road construction, water wells, health and sanitation facilities and schools. Part of the program is the Social and Grievances Committee of the Malen Chiefdom, chaired by the Paramount Chief. The Committee also decides which social projects to fund. In this vein, the proposal of the Committee Chairman for a guesthouse in Sahn Malen was approved. Socfin also paid for a generator and paint for the police station in Pujehun. The companies manager Philip Tonk said in November 2013 that the company installed Solar light in Sahn, the chiefdom headquarter and cultivated 350 acres for rice production as a reaction of community complains. He mentioned too that the company employed 4000 people since commenced.
The investment is praised by Sierra Leone’s President Ernest B. Koroma as one of his government’s success stories to attract foreign investment into the agricultural sector.

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The lease agreements: On 15 October 2012,the Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Food Security on behalf of the Government of Sierra Leone signed a lease agreement (registered in Volume 8, page 128 at the Registrar General’s Office) with the Malen Chiefdom Council for 16,248.54 acres (approx. 6,475) hectares for over 50 years (commending on 5 March 2011) with two possible extensions terms of 25 years each, and subleased the land on 5 March 2011 to Socfin Agricultural Company (SL) Ltd (SAC). It is not clear how the sub-lease can predate the original lease, or why the sub-lease refers to an original lease signed on 5 March 2011 and how the original lease was signed after SAC began operations. A legal analysis of the agreements undertaken in 2011 by Patrick J. Johnbull, a land rights expert and lawyer, revealed several contradictions with regard to Sierra Leonean law.
In November the general manager Philip Tonk is quoted that the company is presently operating on a 7,100 hectare of land which would be above the lease area over approximately 6,475 hectares documented in the registered lease agreement between the government and the chiefdom council.
Lease rent and compensation: The annual rent payment is USD 5 per acre, which is to be shared with the District Council (20%), the Chiefdom Council (20%), the national government (10%) and the landowners (50%), meaning they receive USD 2.50 per acre per year. Oil palm plantations were compensated with a one-off payment of 1 million Leones (approx. USD 230) per acre.
Shortly after the signing ceremony was held and the company began operations in 2011, landholding families started to protest against the land deal. In October 2011, the protest boiled over. Following a series of meetings with stakeholders on the district level and grievance letters sent to stakeholders in which landholding families presented complaints such as “improper consultation”, “inadequate compensation”, “corruption” and “destruction of livelihoods of landowners”, people protested for days against the company’s operation in Kortumahun, one of the most affected villages, where the company set up their nursery. Over 40 people were arrested and 15 were charged to court. The case was never ruled and resistance didn’t stop. Up to date communities are asking for the review of the contract and complaining about human rights abuses.

Communities resisting the land deal in Malen Chiefdom

Kassay is a small village in Malen Chiefdom. It is one of 24 communities located in the Socfin operations area.
Before the investor started operations in April 2011, Kassay’s population lived from smallholder farming. With the sale of palm oil and gari, they were able to pay their children’s school fees and invest in petty trading. Farmers also produced and sold rice, yams, cocoyams, corn, groundnuts and pineapple. Some had cash crops such as cashew, coffee and cocoa. Processed products such as charcoal, soap and palm wine also played an important role in the rural households before SAC came in. In addition, the community worked on 20 acres of communal land where they planted food crops such as rice, benne (sesame), corn, cucumber and egusi. But with the loss of their land, those crops are no longer available. The impact is felt in their daily lives. Before SAC began operations, farming provided the people of Kassay with enough food to eat three solid meals a day, even during the “hungry” season when the previous year’s stocks have run out and the new harvest is not yet ready. Two years after SAC moved onto their land, they are trying to cope with one meal a day. The investment and the way the deal was settled created social tension in the village. Families and the community were divided over the lease agreement. The community observed also an increase of sex work and teenage pregnancy due to the influx of men seeking jobs with the company. Although life was not easy as farmers, the community felt they were able to manage difficulties.

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Today the village is surrounded by oil palm plantations and by a small buffer zone, the so-called Green Belt, which is supposed to protect the community from some of the negative impacts of the plantation and to provide for the gardening and firewood needs of the 350 villagers as well as to permit them to carry out their traditional cultural practices. A small rice swamp at the entrance to the village has been left intact and still serves for rice farming. In the opinion of the villagers, it is not enough land to feed their families, to supply enough firewood, or generate income to pay school fees or to improve their lives. The jobs offered by the company can’t compensate them for the loss of land. Employment opportunities are not sufficient, temporary and only paid with 10,000 Leones (USD 2.30) a day. It is mostly young men that are hired for brushing (clearing) new areas and women for planting seedlings at the nursery and weeding around the planted palm trees. Since they can’t farm anymore and there are not enough jobs for everyone, surviving in Kassay has become very difficult.

Youth in Kassay have huge responsibilities but are left with no option but to try to cope. “I am now the only one working [in my family] for the company,” says one 29-year-old who is now supporting seven family members. “My whole family is depending on me. If I don’t work we are not eating, we are not dressing, even the small ones going to school.” Young Socfin workers say they have to get up well before dawn and walk for hours in the dark to start work at 6 AM. If they are late, they have to go home to their villages and lose the day’s wages. They earn between 200,000 and 250,000 Leones (USD 46 and 58) a month but only receive the full 10,000 Leones (USD 2.30) per day) if they complete all their tasks. In December 2013, they felt at first happy about the Christmas bonus of more than 100,000 Leones (USD 23.05) and the increase in salary from 10,000 to 11,500 Leones (USD 2.30 to 2.65) per day. But when they learned the bonus money was being split between December and January, and only paid if you worked a full month, they became frustrated.

Kassay, Hawa Mattia

Kassay, Hawa Mattia

Kassay resident, 42-year-old Hawa Mattia, was greatly reluctant to sell off her plantation but she felt pressured to do so. “I argued to the last minute,” she says. “My plantation was right in the middle of other plantations belonging to other landowners. They all gave up their land and mine was left in the middle of the land the company had acquired. I could not do anything about it. So I sold off mine too.” She is a landowner and lives off her gardening, cultivating Chinese yam, sweet potato leaves, pepper and okra. Although she has little land left, she calculates that she is still better off with her gardening than she would be working for the company for 200,000 Leones (USD 46) a month and having to buy all her food.
The population of Kassay has not felt meaningful improvement in their lives with the presence of SAC. As part of the company’s Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) program, the school building was painted and two latrines were built. A professional teacher was sent from the District Council, but the two volunteer teachers left to work for the company. Their rice farming has not improved. The community complains that the company has not respected the 500-metre buffer zone mentioned in SAC’s Environmental Impact Assessment between the last building of the village and the plantation.
The Maleni River, one of the main water and fish sources in the chiefdom, has been polluted by chemicals used by the company, something confirmed by a report of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPASL). Diarrhoe, vomiting, head ache, skin itching has been described as some of the effects on human beings coming in contact with the polluted water. The report said that it was caused by “SAC operations in the area of pump stations installed in the Maleni River, no waste water management and knowledge of gap.” The report recommends relocating the pump stations 150 meters from marine ecosystem in compliance with EU standards. Media in Sierra Leone reported that the company accepted the contamination of the river through their chemicals. But workers were also alleged to have stolen and dumped the chemicals in the river. Some reports alleged that MALOA members deliberately polluted the water quoting former MALOA members who are now working for Socfin.
Almost all of the land in Kassay has been cleared for SAC plantations, but some small pockets of locally owned oil palm are left – visible signs of local resistance.

Kassay Sima Mattia

Kassay Sima Mattia

Sima Mattia, a landowner in Kassay and the secretary of MALOA, a registered Association of Malan Affected Landowners and Land-Users, remembers the days when the company started to clear their land. “Eleven days we were defending the land and blocked the bull dozers,” he says. “We were only up to four people and saved a whole family land. We involved also our family members in the US who contacted the company and threatened them with a lawsuit. The company promised to leave the land untouched and pay compensation for the damage that was done. Up to now nothing has been paid. It is still an open claim.”
But not all landowners’ protestors succeeded in saving their own plantations and land.
Some of the plantations were removed although land-holders claimed that they never agreed to lease land or join the company’s teams to survey their “bush” or land.

Kassay Sima Mattia and his plantation

Kassay Sima Mattia and his plantation

“That is part of the land that I defended,” says Sima Mattia. “My oil palms are still there. All in all it is about 10 acres. They were not able to bulldoze it since I was closer they had to remove the bulldozers.” (laughs, because the plantation is very close to the village).
Asked why not more people of the six land-holding families in Kassay defended their land, Sima Mattia explains, “All their own land has been taken away from them. So they thought we could not succeed. They thought it is foolishness. But today they are seeing the foolishness we are on. Today some of us who have not received a single cent from the company are far better off with the plantations we have then those who became millionaires (referring to the 1,000,000 Leones [USD 230] per acre compensation) overnight.”

Jumbu village, an "island" surrounded by oil palm

Jumbu village, an “island” surrounded by oil palm

The land in Lower Malen Chiefdom has been cleared; the former vegetation has been uprooted and replaced with oil palm trees just starting to grow. After protests by affected landowners over the increased costs of living and mounting hunger, the company promised to improve rice farming on the swamps that are left.

Fassie Vandy “I have hope in MALOA. One day, one day we must succeed”.

Fassie Vandy “I have hope in MALOA. One day, one day we must succeed”.

Fassie Vandy is a cassava farmer from the village of Bannaleh. From the sale of gari made from processed cassava she was able to pay the costs of educating her children. All this changed when Socfin arrived in Malen Chiefdom. The female town chief of the village signed the lease agreement between the government and the Chiefdom Council. But landowning families started to resist when the contract and the operations of Socfin became better known. Ms. Vendee speaks on behalf of the community about her experiences with the land deal.
“People came to ask for the land to lease,” she says. “But I didn’t want to lease. When the surveyors came they talked to the town chief. They asked me for my plantation but I didn’t agree. Then they said okay, when you don’t give your plantation and we uproot it you will not get any money and your plantation will be lost. I said I will not sell my land and I said to the chief, ‘Chief did you hear me?’”
“They arrived with bulldozers to uproot crops on my plantation,” Ms. Vendee continues. “As soon as the machine’s engine was turned on, I refused to move away from its path. I said you would have to kill me or all of us get killed here. So they turned off the machine. The next day I summoned my children and ask them to come along to the plantation. I told them, ‘Let us all go and die there, because if I die and leave you behind, things will be difficult for you in life.’ About three bushels of palm oil, couscous, cassava, pumpkin, cocoa, rice and some vegetables were all uprooted by the machine – up to three acres. I refused to allow them to bring down the bigger trees and they are still there.”
“I want them to pay for my plantation that was destroyed,” she adds. “I am requesting that the company halts its expansion and not enter new lands. All the land is now plantation. Everywhere is occupied. In Upper Malen [Chiefdom] they have still “bush”. If land remains in Upper Malen we could go there and farm. They will give it to us so we can still farm. They are our brothers.”
“Now we have to buy rice. We pay 1,000 Leones [USD 0.23] for a cup. If you don’t buy it, you don’t eat. Some days we eat tomato paste with white soup. We have nothing to give to our children when they come for holidays. Cocoyam, sweet potatoes, rice, by this time of the season we had enough to eat. But now we are hungry.”

Communities start to organize
Kassay and Bannaleh in Malen Chiefdom were not the only villages that resisted the land deal and Socfin’s operations. Several plantation owners have sent letters to the Senior District Officer in Pujehun and to other local authorities complaining about the destruction of their oil palm and other tree-crop plantations by Socfin’s operations, allegedly without their permission. In August 2012, families from Bannaleh and Bassaleh clashed with survey teams of the company, whom the villagers accused of trespassing. Four people of Bassaleh were arrested and charged to court. Without legal representative they were sentenced to 12 month prison term or a fine of 800,000 Leones (USD 184) each. It took several months until the sum was paid and the four were released.

In Kortumahun, where SOCFIN set up their nursery for 750,000 oil palm seedlings, communities blocked the company’s operation in early October 2011 in an attempt to defend what they called their own land. They accused the company of trespassing. On the 18th of October 2011 the number of arrests climbed up to 40. Fifteen were charged to court accused of unlawful assembly, riotous conduct and threatening language, but the case was never ruled.

The story of MALOA – Malen Affected Landowners and Land-Users Association

“It is necessary to defend the land, for us the poor people, because the land is our own bank,” says Sima Mattia, secretary of MALOA. “If we lose it we have lost the world. We become landless landlords.”

Image nursery and oil mill near Kortumahun

Image nursery and oil mill near Kortumahun

The arrests in Kortumahun in October 2011 led to the formation of MALOA, the Malen Affected Landowners and Land-Users Association, a grassroots organization defending land rights of people in Malen Chiefdom. Initially, MALOA focused on how the land was acquired. In the view of MALOA members, they lost their land to SAC because of their Paramount Chief, B.V.S Kebbie. They alleged that he brought the company to their chiefdom but there was no transparency or free prior and informed consent. Instead he used his influence to coerce his people to give up their land for very little compensation. MALOA members speak of abuse of power, threats and pressure that left town chiefs and some landowners believing they had no option but to sign away their land.
“What we say is the Paramount Chief is a custodian of the land, he is just a caretaker,” says Mr Mattia on behalf of MALOA “He doesn’t own the land. The best person to negotiate with on the sale of land is the poor landowner. We stressed this to him. He shouldn’t take on sides. We elected him to power. He has brought the company. If the company hurts the landowners he is supposed to listen to the grievances and try to resolve it. The company is using him to gain the land from the land owners.”
At first MALOA focused on landowners, but later opened up to land-users due to the fact that they also lost their farmland. Although land is owned by families, MALOA’s members are individuals. Today MALOA has members in all communities throughout Malen Chiefdom. Quite a good number of their members work for Socfin. As a result, MALOA also advocates for better working conditions.

Many constraints for grassroots organizations

MALOA took many steps and faced many challenges in advocating for their land rights. There were pressures related to a pending court trial on some of their members, the difficulties of arranging and getting together for meetings, the lack of experience in setting up an association, and very limited resources. So MALOA started their campaign for a review of the contract by sending out grievance letters to key stakeholders on local and district levels. These focussed on the lack of transparency, on poor consultation and inadequate compensation in the land deal. “First we said the land was taken from us,” says Sima Mattia. “But there was no transparency. We depended on our oil palm plantations to pay our school fees for our children, the compensation was not fair.” MALOA advocated for new consultation and renegotiation of the contract but was not encouraged by responses on the district level. Grievance letters were also forwarded to the company and to stakeholders on the national level. Although the Vice President’s office and the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Food Security made some efforts in setting up meetings and committees, no initiative got over the initial stage and led to any renegotiating of the contract.

Involving the Sierra Leone Human Rights Commission

After several clashes with survey teams and heavy equipment operators, arrests and court trials and no satisfying responses from key stakeholders, in December 2012 MALOA turned to the Sierra Leone Human Rights Commission. More than 100 aggrieved landowners from 36 villages from Malen Chiefdom met in Pujehun and signed a resolution calling on the Human Rights Commissions to intervene in the conflict. They complained about the “unlawful occupation of family land” by the company, about molestation and harassment by the Paramount Chief, company personnel and the police.
The Commission undertook an inquiry in early 2013. An official report was never published but the commission offered mediation amongst key stakeholders.

ALLAT coordinator Frank S. Williams

ALLAT coordinator Frank S. Williams

But in the eyes of NGOs such as Green Scenery and the network ALLAT, there is little promise in a mediation approach while the company operates, while it remains difficult to get all stakeholders involved, and while mistrust grows and clashes between affected villagers, the company and security forces continue. A few meetings were held but so far no solution was found. The effort continues in 2014.
Sharing experiences with neighbouring chiefdoms and communities became another important activity of MALOA. The Association is also advocating for better working conditions for workers at Socfin, including salaries, working hours, health services, etc.
MALOA has also suffered setbacks and disappointments. It lost crucial members who were wooed away from its ranks by paid positions with the company. Some formerly supportive politicians also turned suddenly away. And the former Member of Parliament from their constituency who was a strong voice for them in Freetown lost his seat in the national election 2012.

Raising awareness over arrests and providing legal support

In October 2013, six members of MALOA were arrested, amongst them Sima Mattia, the Association’s secretary, and Shiaka Sama, the spokesperson of MALOA and former Member of Parliament. They were accused of conspiracy, incitement and destruction of SOCFIN oil palm trees worth 200 million Leones (USD 46,000), or 5 million Leones (USD 1,150) per tree, in stark contrast to the compensation that Sofin paid to landowners of 1 million Leones (USD 230) per acre of oil palm trees, which, at 60 trees per acre means the company paid only 100,000 Leones (USD 23) per tree. The “six”, as the detainees became known, were kept two weeks in custody until bail was granted. The national network ALLAT appealed in an open letter to President Ernest Bai Koroma for a full investigation of the incident.

Politics got involved

Due to the background of the land deal, concerns and grievances of landowners were overshadowed by Sierra Leonean politics and interpreted as a political conflict between the Paramount Chief, who had joined the ruling party APC and brought the company to his chiefdom, and the former Member of Parliament of the constituency who was a member of the small PMDC opposition party, who publicly opposed the land deal.

Civil society became an important ally

Civil society groups such as Green Scenery, with their local and international partners, became MALOA’s strongest ally. Green Scenery undertook fact-finding missions, cooperated in international research, published reports and involved the media. They drew international attention to the issue of large-scale foreign investments in Sierra Leonean farmland. Although their reports were dismissed by investors and some government officials as “biased” or “not validated”, it was due to the civil society efforts that the roots of the conflict – the loss on the sides of communities who were not part of decision-making – were understood and not misinterpreted in simplistic pro- or anti-government arguments. Civil society organizations built trust with communities and supported them with capacity-building on issues such as advocacy, legal aspects of contracts, best practices and guidelines for agribusinesses. They provided legal support and advised on how to go about handling membership and registering an association.

Tensions are growing in Malen Chiefdom

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On the 9th of December 2013 in Libby, one of the bigger villages in Upper Malen Chiefdom, which is not yet affected by the company’s operations, representatives from 13 villages gathered in the morning hours in front of the school to discuss their position on potential negotiation on land deals. Sheik Abubakar Fomba, who replaced the arrested town speaker, explains, says that they received messages that the Paramount chief wants to meet. “We were trying to make decisions about the points we would lay down for the [Paramount] Chief’s attention. There were arrests and detentions in the past. So one of the points we planned to submit to the chief was the release of all arrested or withdrawal of the case from the courts. Another point for submission was a plea to the chief that in dealings with companies, our land is not up for sale; it should be left for the people.” While the meeting was taking place, the participants heard about arrests that had taken place at Libby junction. According to villagers in Libby, people gathered to march to the Malen Chiefdom headquarter town, Sahn Malen, only to inquire about what happened to “their brothers”. On that day, the biggest arrest since 2011 took place in Sahn Malen. According to the police commander in the town, about a 100 people marched towards Sahn Malen, singing and dancing cultural songs and about 50 people were arrested. According to his version, people were armed with cutlasses, sticks and stones. In trying to disperse the crowd he admits that the police used tear gas, but denies live bullets. In a press release issued by civil society organizations in Pujehun, the police was accused of “using excessive force not necessary to disperse the crowd of people marching on Sahn.” It is stated that OSD [Operational Support Devision] personnel manhandled persons they arrested in the presence of civil society members and the Local Unit Commander of police in Pujehun. After their release, on the 16th of December 32 people were again arrested and charged to the magistrate court. To be granted bail, they have to name a person 50 years old or above who needs to have a bank account with 10,000,000 Leones (USD 2,300) in it. These are conditions they cannot meet.

Libby chairlady

Libby chairlady

In Libby, the trouble was not ever yet. According to people interviewed in the community, on the night of the 9th of December, police entered the village for several hours. They shot tear gas and live bullets, broke doors, beat people up and looted their property. The next morning on the 10th of December civil society representatives from Pujehun were heading for the village for a fact finding mission. They said that they found the village desperate. There were photographs showing women who had fled the chaos returning carrying loads on their head, women with injuries, broken doors, scattered rooms and proof of tear gas and bullet shells.
The determination of the population in Upper Malen, where Socfin is trying to lease land to fulfil its need for 12,000 ha to make its oil mill viable, seems to stem from knowledge of the experiences of their neighbouring communities in Lower Malen where Socfin leased land and is already operating. “Those who sold their ‘bush’ not very long ago came to us for food,” says Sheif Abubakar Fomba, “We did not drive them away. So, if we have witnessed that then we go ahead and sell our own ‘bush’, it means we brought trouble on our heads ourselves.” His statement is supported by that of the Chairlady of Libby, who says, “When they purchase the ‘bush’ here, then they will drive us away. And then we will go to our sisters and brothers who also have nothing. So if that’s the case, let them leave it (‘bush’) as it is. That is what we have planned.” A position that seems to widely shared amongst communities from Upper Malen.

A new dimension – secret society gets involved?

The resistance of communities in Upper Malen to a land lease in their area has taken a new dimension with the involvement of the Poro, one of the male secret societies. According to several sources, the secret society was initiated and meetings were held over days in the “bush” before the public meeting in Libby took place. The Poro members became concerned about the issue after receiving information that the company had plans to survey their land, which is not up for sale or lease. They also raised the issue of the court cases against MALOA members and demanded that they should be withdrawn from court. They said that the remaining territory now belongs to the secret society and as such it is an embargoed land for the company. In this cultural context, this is a very strong message.
The police commander in Sahn Malen says that the Poro held their meetings for over a week without informing the Chiefdom authorities and that the police interrogated the purpose of their gathering. In a letter dated the 9th of December 2013, the Chiefdom Speaker, who works closely with the Paramount Chief, informed the police that Poro Society was meeting in four sections of Upper Malen “thereby harassing and suppressing the movement of innocent people”. He blamed MALOA members for this and asked for “immediate action please”, copying several stakeholders, amongst them the Local Unit Commander from Pujehun, the Human Rights Commission in Bo, and the Chairman of Civil Society Forum in Pujehun, who received the letter on the 10th of December 2013 after the arrests had already been made. The MALOA secretary, Sima Mattia, denies any involvement in such activity.

No way out?

The difficulties surrounding SACs investment reflects, in the opinion of civil society actors in Sierra Leone, the rush of the government of President Ernest Bai Koroma to attract foreign investment without having done the requisite preparations, with regulations and monitoring mechanisms to ensure communities’ right to land. They also highlight the conflict of interest in which the government finds itself. It promoted this foreign direct investment in agricultural land and unlike other land agreements, the Government of Sierra Leone is the lease holder that sub-leased the land to the company. It has to fulfil its obligations. But at the same time, the government’s responsibility is also to protect its own people. The chiefdom authorities in Malen have also failed to protect the local population, particularly the Paramount Chief, who has decided to interpret the role of “custodian” of the land in his own way and in his own interest rather than that of his people. Communities see him as biased and looking out only for the interest of the company. The whole issue is compounded by the fact that for some high-ranking politicians that brought Socfin into the country and helped locate land for them, it is crucial that they continue to portray this investment as a success story; to admit to the enormous problems it has caused would damage their reputations.
For this reason, when communities resist and draw unwelcome publicity to the hardship the company’s presence and operations is causing them, the authorities are prone to apply enormous pressure on them to suppress the opposition. The lack of responsiveness on the side of the chiefdom and district authorities, the government and the company to review the contract gave affected communities very few options to address their grievances and to initiate change. To have no say while losing the only asset you have, the land that sustains you, is a well known recipe for conflict, and not only in the Sierra Leonean context. The potential for further tension, violence and conflict should be taken seriously. Threats against the resisting communities didn’t work and arrests and legal cases couldn’t silence the communities in Malen Chiefdom.

A change in the approach is needed
The invitation of the spokesperson of MALOA, Shiaka Sama, to a personal meeting with the President of Sierra Leone, to be followed by a stakeholder meeting with the Ministry of Agriculture and company officials, after the incidents in Libby in December 2013 took place, could be seen as a sign that such a change is imminent. But that will depend entirely on how seriously the country’s authorities take the complaints of the affected communities and MALOA. The association still complain about inadequate compensation and rent, forceful acquisition of land, water pollution through chemicals, intimidation through chiefdom authorities and politicians visiting the chiefdom and looting. MALOAs recommendations include, amongst others, the call for dialogue, the company to put on hold extension plans, an investigation by the Human Rights Commission on human rights violations, the implementation of out-grower schemes, as well as the allocation of at least 40% of the land for farming and other social and economic activities.

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