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Land Grabbing in Sierra Leone--BBC Africa Debate

March 4, 2012
Sierra Herald

The interesting, very interesting Africa Debate held in Freetown on land grabbing by multinational companies in Africa - is it an investment opportunity that benefits the people or is it just another exploitative gimmick that ruins communities, the environment and traditional way of life? Who benefits from it all? The strange but not so surprising loud, very loud silence from the Ernest Bai Koroma (read AFRC Mk2) apologists.

Friday February 24 was a big day for the media, the government and the people of Sierra Leone - for on that day the BBC World Service was in Freetown to broadcast LIVE one of it's Africa Debate series. It was an opportunity for all those concerned about the issue of land being mortgaged to multi-national companies and how this impacts on communities and the ordinary man, woman and child. It was quite a lively and interesting debate with environmentalists and civil society groups on one hand and government agents on the other hand laying out their side of the debate on who benefits from such deals that have seen vast tracts of land in Sierra Leone practically given away to the industrial production of materials that would feed the energy needs of the West.

Into this scenario came traditional rulers, APC mouthpieces and there was even one man who claimed to be the adviser to President Koroma in the matter of land acquisition and benefits for the affected communities. It was a truly defining moment as students, interest groups and others repeatedly claimed that while investment was good for Sierra Leone, the way and manner in which it was done and continues to be done was just not good enough with Deputy Agriculture minister, one Alie Badara Mansaray admitting that the whole process had flaws that needed to be looked at anew. He conceded that the whole concept being a new programme needed a review that would address the concerns of the people affected.

What emerged from that lively debate was that there was a lack of transparency and consultation with the people directly affected. One woman activist noted that in all of the arrangements, women were kept on the sidelines and were forced to accept the decisions of their men folk who never consulted them noting that women who are the backbone of subsistence farming have not been catered for and that in all the arrangements the social and cultural impact of land use involving rural communities where women play a great part had not been taken into consideration.

One of the affected community leaders stated that in a number of cases, government officials using all the intimidating tactics at their command would force community leaders to sign deals they did not even understand as they were largely illiterate but were forced to sign-up in the presence of government ministers and officials backed by armed security forces - the sight of which forced many of the community leaders to sign away their lands.

The head of the Sierra Leone Investment and Export Promotion Agency (SLIEPA), one Patrick Caulker whose job it was to attract these investors and whose main interest was to get lands for their agricultural activities put up a spirited defence as to why he was encouraging such investors to make use of lands in Sierra Leone. He tried to convince the audience that such ventures directly benefitted communities, raised the money-level for government which he claimed was good for the country as well as providing job opportunities. He could not give figures as to the amount government was getting, the amount that goes to the community, nor the number of people employed insisting that these being new ventures, it would take some time for the true benefits to be put in figures.

He and the deputy agriculture minister were taken to task for their lack of transparency on land issues in Sierra Leone with the deputy agriculture minister evoking mirth from the audience when he kept on insisting that if people wanted to know the details of all these land deals they should "just walk into my office and you will find them". This did not go down well with the audience who wanted all these materials to be in the public domain. At one stage, a clearly exasperated deputy agriculture minister had to lower his defence and ask, in not so many words - "what is the alternative, what do we do with agriculturally productive land that has always lain fallow?"

He was brought back on the rails with suggestions that if the land being given out now is agriculturally productive, why cant the government embark on a programme that would make such land available for the production of the staple rice and other food crops in a country that at one stage exported rice!!!

However it would appear that the bee in the bonnet of the government functionaries came in the form of Anuradha Mittal, Executive Director of the Oakland Institute, and she, according to one blog article continually pressed the government for concrete figures on the benefits brought to the country. "I think there's debate ...that this kind of investment will lead to food security, will create jobs," she said. "I would love to hear concrete numbers – how many jobs have been created. ...Our research shows that in Sierra Leone till January last year (just in agriculture) over 500, 000 hectares of land were leased. I would love to know what kind of revenue has been contributed to the national budget and where that money is being used." No figures were provided by the government during the debate.

Among the environmentalists taking part in that crucial debate was one Joseph Rahall of the Green Scenery organisation. Joseph Rahall has been one of the enduring activists who had always drawn the attention of various governments to the hazards of unplanned use of land. He was among the first to warn of the massive deforestation and land degradation that was taking place around Freetown that has seen forest covers depleted, catchment areas destroyed and contributing not only to land erosion problems but creating water deserts that are adversely affecting the capital Freetown and its environs. Joseph Rahall has never given up hope on the need to educate people on the hazards of treating the environment with contempt. He has taken his campaign to schools, community groups and quite recently his group Green Scenery did a write-up titled - The Socfin Land Deal Missing Out On Best Practices - Fact-finding Mission to Malen Chiefdom, Pujehun District, Sierra Leone.

There is something very interesting about Socfin and others who are now been encouraged by the government to invest in oil palm plantations - a programme that has refused to take into consideration the impact of commercial plantations on communities, the environment in deals that mortgage Sierra Leone's agriculturally and culturally productive lands to foreign companies in fifty and more year deals. One would not believe that given the past history of such deals, a government in modern-day Sierra Leone would take upon itself to give out lands, the property of the people in such pernicious and uncaring deals.

Interesting because the oil palm is one crop that has always been a part of the Sierra Leone agricultural map with the country having hosted and established WAIFOR, the West African Institute for Oil Palm Research on the banks of the River Taia in southern Sierra Leone. Oil palm development was discouraged because for Siaka Stevens and his cohort, that tree represented the SLPP and hence must be discarded, if not destroyed.

We visited the website of SLIEPA, thanks to Patrick Caulker's spirited defence of that organisation's policies and we noticed a number of materials that could have been taken straight from a number of agricultural manuals and students of agriculture are advised to visit with a view of doing some research on just what could be wrong with the pictures painted on that website. One such would be - the impact of these deals on population growth as brought out by Joseph Rahall in this debate.

It was on that website that we got the names of some of the new "investors" using agriculturally productive lands in commercial ventures. There's

MARIKA - Local entrepreneur took over former state oil-crushing facility, Current oil output used mainly for soap production, Currently buys bunches from smallholders, and plans to develop own oil-palm estates

SIERRA LEONE AGRICULTURE - UK-based group has signed lease for 41,000 hectares, Plans to develop 30,000 ha of oil palm, starting with 10,000 ha estate plus 5,000 ha smallholders, Plans to install a 30 ton per hour mill that can be upgraded to 60 tons per hour

GOLD TREE - UK/local group plans to install a 20 ton per hour oil mill to process own and smallholder crop, Plans to replant and expand old plantation at Daru and source from smallholders in region, Planted 180 hectares of palms on land leased from chieftaincy

QUIFEL - Portugal-based group with operations in Portugal, Spain, Brazil, Angola, and Mozambique, Signed agreements with local communities in Lokomasama and Masimera; to prospect for land for rice, oilpalm, and sugar cane; plans to focus on unmet local demand

However what could be of particular interest to those who are in denial is this note on the SLIPA website aimed at luring more of these investors to come to Sierra Leone.

Political stability: Sierra Leone is one of few countries in Africa with a fully-functioning multiparty democracy. Since 2002, free elections have been held every 5 years; in 2007, the governing party lost and handed over power peacefully to the current administration under President Ernest Bai Koroma. Both leading parties are fully committed to democracy and a pro-business environment. Sierra Leone has been ranked as the most improved country in Africa in both the Mo Ibrahim Africa Governance Index and the World Bank’s global Governance Indicators.

Peace and security: the country is free of any major ethnic, religious, ideological or other disputes. According to Gallup, Sierra Leone is the most integrated and harmonious multi-faith country in the world. Crime rates are extremely low – Freetown is the safest capital city in Africa, and the police force is one of few in the world that does not carry guns.

A note on that last bit - surely on peace and security, this cannot be the Sierra Leone that people know and experience with the armed wing of the APC, the OSD, using the peoples' resources as instruments of suppression and repression.

On the whole this debate should not be seen as an attack on the Ernest Bai Koroma government ( hence the silence from his praise singers) but what should have been done, peoples' open participation before any of these deals were entered into - more so when the general feeling was that the beneficiaries from such deals are government agents, their sub-agents and the land grabbing investors. The need for consultation, transparency and consensus.