Sierra Leone’s farmers continue to fight multinational land grabs

A former member of Sierra Leone’s parliament has spoken of his determination to put an end to what he describes as the “underhand deals” taking place between the authorities and international palm oil producers in his country.

Despite being fined and threatened with prison for his part in cutting down 40 oil palm trees in an October 2013 act of civil disobedience, Shiaka Sama says the protests will continue until local landholders receive justice.

“We know the charges were just a ploy to arrest and detain, and even humiliate the leaders of our organisation,” says Sama,the spokesperson for the Malen Affected Land Owners and Users Association (MALOA).

In February, Sama and five other MALOA members were ordered by the country’s High Court to pay fines of 210 million leones (approximately US$40,000) or face prison terms of between five to six months. As he is considered the leader of the group, Sama was also charged with the additional offence of incitement.

But he rejects the charges and the MALOA Six recently filed an appeal. “We want investors. What we are against is people coming to take all of our resources, taking all of our land without our consent.”

In a country devastated by years of civil war and the Ebola virus, the Sierra Leonean government is eager to attract foreign capital to help the country rebuild. But farmers contend that some of that investment is taking place in the form of land grabbing.


“A long list of grievances”

In 2011, Socfin Agricultural Company Sierra Leone Ltd. (Socfin SL, a subsidiary of the Luxembourg-based multinational Socfin, or Société Financière des Caoutchoucs) secured a 50-year lease for 6,500 hectares of prime farmland for rubber and oil palm plantations in the Malen Chiefdom in the Pujehun district of southern Sierra Leone.

Activists say the deal took place between Malen’s Paramount Chief Victor Brima Kebbie, government officials and Socfin, without the proper consultation of the area’s 30 communities, which are home to almost 50,000 inhabitants.

“The project promised local populations full compensation for lost land, development investments, and jobs,” according to the Environmental Justice Atlas.

“Yet eight short months after signing, local leadership presented local authorities with a long list of grievances against the company, including lack of proper consultation, lack of transparency, and lack of compensation for land loss, as well as corruption, appalling working conditions, and pressure and intimidation to sign lease agreements.”

Landowners say they received a paltry amount of about one million leones (approximately US$177) for each acre of land purchased by Socfin. This was later confirmed by a local Socfin representative who told the media that the people of Malen have been paid approximately 31 billion leones (about US$5.5 million) in compensation.

The landowners say they were coerced into supporting a deal they did not fully understand, and some people have even said their land was sold to Socfin even after they personally refused to do so.

Additionally, today, Socfin has cultivated some 12,500 hectares of prime land in Malen while laying claim to 18,481 hectares in total, which constitutes more than half of the land in the chiefdom.

The landowners want a review of the lease agreement signed with a view to getting their land back, and formed MALOA to advocate for its return. The government and local authorities have so far ignored the calls and protests of the landowners, and MALOA members say they have endured harassment, repression and arrests.

In a letter to the Ministry of Political and Public Affairs dated 22 July 2016,Sama stated that Socfin and the chiefdom authorities continue to create the false impression that the local people are satisfied with the operations of the company.

Government officials visiting Malen ’’are told endless exaggerated and polished stories of the schools, toilets and other projects being undertaken by the company as part of its corporate social responsibility commitments,’’ Sama tells Equal Times.

In reality, Sama says, Scofin SL has only renovated one school building, while the money spent on CSR projects is piecemeal compared to the wealth lost by villagers.

“The truth will never be told about the circumstances under which many landowners lost their land and plantations without compensation,”he says.


“The best thing to happen to Malen”

The authorities and Socfin, however, hold a radically different view.

In an open letter to Sierra Leone’s President Dr. Ernest Bai Koroma sent on 1 July 2016, Socfin SL’s general manager Philip Tonks flatly denied the claims of land grabbing, noting that: “The acquisition process was led by Socfin in direct negotiation with the Chiefdom leadership and landowners and was conducted in accordance to national law and coordinated with the government.”

Chief Kebbie considers MALOA an illegal group and refuses to speak with Sama, who served as an MP for Pujehun District’s 88th constituency from 2007-2012.

“Socfin is the best thing that happened to Malen,” says Chief Kebbie.

The company claims it has created over 1000 permanent jobs in Malen and nearly 2,500 seasonal jobs, as well as building and refurbishing schools, roads, water wells and a medical centre, amongst many other corporate social responsibility projects.

Chief Kebbie denies the claims of landholders who say they were bullied to give up their land and plantations, and are yet to receive adequate compensation.

The people of Malen say that the land was sold based on an arrangement between Chief Kebbie and the former Minister of Agriculture, Sam Sesay - now a presidential adviser - and Socfin, without the necessary community consultation. Outside of the capital city of Freetown, land is owned by individual families and a paramount chief does not have the right to sell their land.

Sierra Leonean authorities are not immune from the legal challenges that result from such land sales. In February, another High Court ruling called for the restoration of 1,486 acres of land belonging to over 70 families in eastern Sierra Leone that was sold to a Chinese company (Orient Agriculture Limited) without the informed consent of the people.

However, the situation in Malen is more pronounced because it affects so many families, according to Joseph Rahall, executive director of the local NGO, Green Scenery.

Rahall called court proceedings, like those against the MALOA Six, ’’a way of suppressing the resistance of those people.”


Facing-off with the multinationals

Socfin, which is 38 per cent-owned by the French conglomerate Bolloré, attempted to get financing from the World Bank’s private sector investment arm, the International Finance Corporation (IFC) - but failed.

“During 2015, IFC and Socfin discussed a possible IFC investment in the company’s operations in West Africa. These discussions were suspended late last year,” Frank Ajilore, IFC Country Representative in Sierra Leone told Equal Times in an email.

“For reasons of confidentiality, IFC does not disclose reasons influencing decision-making,” he said in response to a follow-up email. But Rahall said he suspects that the IFC did not want to fund an investment that is embroiled in controversy as that would have amounted to an endorsement of such business practices.

“Many people see Socfin as slave drivers because they claim that Socfin has taken all their land. And because there is no more land the only way they can find a living is to go find a job in a Socfin plantation. But the jobs themselves are not commensurate to what people will get when they are farming their own land,” Rahall says.

“From the time when the Malen people started resisting or actually raising their voice against this whole entire enterprise, we noticed that the police were a constant source of intimidation to people in the community. They were constantly arresting and bringing the people to court through various means,” Rahall said.

Activists have sought peaceful ways in the past to get the company to the negotiating table.

“I went to France in October 2014 and had a meeting with Bolloré and Socfin,’’ Sama said. ’’Unfortunately Socfin Sierra Leone did not attend and the local authorities undermined that meeting by saying I went there to represent myself and not the people.’’

Socfin SL is aware of the problems in Malen and is very active on social mediarebutting any criticisms. Although Socfin SL has set up a grievance committee, “it excludes the aggrieved landowners,” says Sama.

Sama says that the people of Malen want to resolve the issue through dialogue sessions that involve everyone, and not just with those people handpicked by Chief Kebbie.

Without real negotiations, local activists fear there will be more protests and the potential for real social conflict ahead.