Holding unto their land against all odds
In Malen Chiefdom, Sierra Leone, the cries of small farmers echo through prison walls, but authorities turn deaf ears. Reports say corporate organizations and big time farmers collude with authorities in mad grab for ancestral farm lands spanning several hectares from land owners.
A study says the land management which hitherto revolves around a model backup customary land rights of indigenous peoples, is now weakened with the invasion foreign investors wearing questionable contractual means to exploit the rural land.
Land owners determined to preserve their property form association to advance their grievances, but are clapped in police cells for days on end in an attempt to intimidate the peasant into silence.
“The police arrested and beat many of us … about 38 at this time. Later in the night they came to the village, knocking on the door and forcefully took people from their homes. Some of us fled to the river. The company executives designated people one by one to the police who then stopped before taking them to Pujehun. Once in custody, we were told that we would all rot in prison … Fifteen were left in the cell and charged. The lawyer who represented us was not allowed to post bail and we spent the night in jail. Then we were transferred to Pujehun. We stayed in a cell for eight days. We were not given any food,” Eddy Kamara, of Sanh Village, had complained to an NGO protecting the right of small farmers. They were reacting against the palm oil plantation deal by Socfin Agricultural Company SL Ltd that has taken the greater portion of their land.
Similar protest, according to an independent investigator, led to the arrest of 40 protesters in October 2011. They were protesting against the investment project, the lack of transparency of the company, the lack of adequate consultation of local populations, and the lack of information on the prospects of resettlement. They also complained about working conditions which they said were abominable and corruption of local elites as well as the pressure on land owners and village chiefs to sign away their lands.
• Gov’t conniving with multinationals?
A report said in March, 2011, that SOCFIN SL, a subsidiary of SOCFIN, signed a 50-year lease with the Government of Sierra Leone for 6500 hectares of agricultural land used by more than 9,000 farmers in 24 villages and about 120 families owning land in Pujehun District for a proposed oil palm plantation. The agreement also gave the company the option to increase the acreage leased additional 5,000 hectares.
In May 2011, the NGO Green Scenery published a report on the proposed oil palm plantation in question, which highlighted the lack of adequate compensation, corruption and pressures on landowners and chiefs sign agreements to sell their land.
In the same vein, in a report published in April 2012, the Oakland Institute gave an overview of local opposition in some countries where SOCFIN had plantations, including Sierra Leone.
Promise of job creation, compensation for lost farms and infrastructure construction, investment by the company were supported at the highest level of government of Sierra Leone. However, despite this political support, the company faces strong resistance from the local population, who felt unjustly disposed of their lands.
Reports say the formalization of the lease conditions are strongly criticized by local people. These are interposed between two outbreaks of decisions: first local chiefdoms and other SOCFIN and government. Local leaders are accused of corruption and misuse of their privileges in the conclusion of the lease granted to SOCFIN. The lease in question involved a land dispossession at the expense of local people with the help of some local chiefs.
“We landowners were not consulted on the project and therefore do not know the content of the agreement. So we all rejected the agreement as landowners. With one voice we said no! We expressed our refusal to give up our land. But the chief told us that he is the sole repository of land and everything he says is final, “a local farmer was quoted as saying.
• NGOs sustaining land grab protests
Reports say protests against land grabbers are being sustained by NGOs such as Green Scenery, which is said to be the first to denounce land grabs in Sierra Leone. However Green Scenery support for the protest was not without consequence. SOCFIN had filed a lawsuit against Green Scenery accusing it of defamation, which has been pending since January 2013. The delay has been variously condemned by right organizations, which view it as a strategy to silence Green Scenery.
Similarly the trial of five peasants arrested for allegedly destroying SOCFIN plant in October last year has been shifted three times. The peasants were conditionally released on bail.
Also, policemen reportedly opened fire on demonstrators who were protesting against the expansion of palm plantations by the SOCFIN group, Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2013. “They opened fire on us just because we are fighting for our rights,” Sima Mattia, manager of the landowner association had protested. However the incessant arrest only helps to bring more protesters to the streets.
• Porous Legislation: Locals losing lands to multinationals
Reports blamed the porosity of land legislation for the anomaly in Sierra Leone. It said property rights are inadequately protected.
It argued that the protection of property rights, whether customary or written is fundamentally dependent primarily on the nature of the texts and their opportunity. Legislation is more important in the degree of protection of the privileges of different users, it said, but noted that the Sierra Leone’s main land law, the protectorate land ordinance advocates a flexible land management with reference standard custom. This elasticity results in the lack of a uniform management logic.
It said large-scale investors do not fail to use this legislation to have access to land. “Indeed, several faults can be identified based on our laws and land” an association member pointed.
The report observed that the Sierra Leone government land legislation disengages negotiations providing access to land for investors. Landowners negotiate directly with no intermediate investors. Lease contracts, compensation and rental allowances are freely determined by local land owners and newcomers, it also observed.
It argued that this philosophy of empowering landowners would have been beneficial if all the framework conditions are met. It feared that compensation may not be proportional to the actual value of sold surfaces because of these factors.
This is what happened in the case of Malen where smallholders denounce the lack of compensation and rental fees.
“This is a legislative gap fully opening the way to the phenomenon of land grabbing,” it noted.
It also pointed out that customary land management is a negative part for the preservation of land. Endogenous land management is a source of lack of transparency, it further argued, saying in this case, smallholders in Malen have indexed their local leader to have reviled their lands without their prior consultation and have used negatively its privileges to sell their land to SOCFIN.
“The chief told us if you do not agree they will be planting by force” said, Brima Lappia, president of an association of disgruntled owners.
Local chiefdoms are the guardians and custodians of communal lands. In principle, any allocation of land should take a unanimous group to be made. As provided by the Land Law, the procedure for assigning a community land is subject to the effective involvement of all members of the lineage whose lands are coveted in the presence of the local chief. But it appears in the case of the local chief Malen unilaterally proceeded to lease the land to SOCFIN without the approval of other members of the lineage. These initiatives unproductive and lonely challenge customary land rights of the social group, it noted.