Our Journey in 2019 & 2020
The government of Sierra Leone has been aggressively courting large-scale agriculture and mining investments in the country as a means to spur economic growth. Over 20% of Sierra Leone’s arable land is now leased to foreign businesses. The negotiation between investors — who are backed by financiers and political allies — and the communities who own the land are marred by deep power imbalances. This often leads to the exploitation of communities and environmental devastation.
Namati paralegals support communities to protect customary land rights, challenge land grabs, remedy environmental harm, and, if they wish, negotiate fair deals with investors. Drawing on this experience, we are fighting to change laws and strengthen regulatory regimes so that the people who depend on the land have a meaningful voice in deciding what happens to it and a recourse for action when injustice occurs.
In 2019, paralegals and communities achieved significant remedies for social and environmental harms caused by investors. For instance, communities in the Tonkolili district won a court judgment against the nation’s largest iron mine. The company partially complied with its commitments, including paying for damages and remedying flooding problems it caused. In the Gola Forest region, communities invalidated an illegitimate 30,000 hectare palm oil concession that had been negotiated without community consent. The agreement has been replaced with one that triples land lease payments to the communities, clears less than 10% of the land covered in the original deal, and includes robust measures to prevent fires and avoid water pollution.
In addition, we expanded our pilot community land protection (CLP) process to 12 communities across the country. With Namati’s support, all 12 communities elected a land management committee that is 50% women. Typically excluded from land decisions, women in these communities now have stronger access to land and are organizing livelihood activities.
Our ability to drive cases and the CLP process forward with communities in 2020 was hampered by the pandemic. Companies and regulators slowed their operations and restrictions on movement were enforced across the country. Nevertheless, with perseverance and creativity, our paralegals managed to support six communities to negotiate equitable land lease agreements and four others to harmonize their boundaries, while also getting a Dutch agricultural company to re-plant 2600 trees that it had cut down without community consent.
Pandemic measures and repercussions fortunately had less of an effect on our systemic change efforts.
At the end of 2019, in recognition of the role Namati Sierra Leone has played in the country to date, the Ministry of Lands contracted our team leaders, Sonkita Conteh and Eleanor Thompson, to draft two model land laws (in their capacity as independent lawyers). A series of public consultations were held across the country in the first months of 2020, with hundreds turning up to speak powerfully from their own experience.
Sonkita and Eleanor drew from these consultations, and the learnings of the hundreds of other communities with whom Namati has worked, to draft two progressive model bills. If the government bills are drafted and passed with the same provisions, they would fundamentally shift the paradigm on land and environmental governance in Sierra Leone, and serve as a model for the world.
A Customary Land Rights Bill would grant, for example, the right of free prior informed consent (FPIC) to all local communities for all kinds of projects, including extractives. This marks a progressive shift from the norm: the few countries that respect FPIC at all limit it to people formally classified as indigenous and exempt mining projects, claiming that it is the government that owns the rights to the resources underground. The bill would also prohibit mining and plantations in old-growth forests and ecologically sensitive zones; establish a Community Justice Fund that would mandate investors to pay for the independent legal support of investment-affected communities; and require local land governance committees to be made up of at least 50% women.
Upon the completion of the model bills in mid-2020, communities with whom we have worked came together to push for the government to advance the legislative process. Over two hundred people directly affected by environmental harm sent an open letter supporting the provisions contained in the model bills to President Bio. The letter was covered widely in the national press. Alongside this grassroots organizing, the Namati team held a series of briefings on the model bills for ministry officials and members of parliament.
In 2021, we are organizing a nationwide, community-driven push for passage of the two land bills, and ramping our casework back up, all while following distancing protocols. A sea change is in sight.
Our Grassroots Impact at a Glance
In 2019 and 2020, paralegals supported rural communities to protect their lands and negotiate fair deals with investors, directly improving the livelihoods and wellbeing of thousands of people.
Disillusioned But Not Defeated: How a Rural Village Took on a Foreign Investor
It was good land. Before the company’s arrival in 2011, the people of Ngovokpahun village had used it to grow cocoa and other cash crops to help them pay for their children’s education. But when Italian Agriculture offered to build them a school, health center, and roads, provide them with employment, and pay rent, leasing out the land seemed like the wiser option. The company drafted the agreement and the landowners signed.
More than 5 years later, Italian Agriculture had not fulfilled a single promise. There was no school, no health center, no roads, and no jobs. What is more, without the consent of the people, the company took and destroyed the community’s only recreational ground for its own use.
While the company cultivated the land, they rarely paid for it on time or in full. “Our cocoa, coffee and cola nuts were gone, and the rent not forthcoming,” explains Madam Mamie, a landowner and chair of the village council. Without the income from the crops or the rent, she and the other parents in the village struggled to pay their children’s secondary school fees.
The community repeatedly tried to resolve the issues but the company “made no effort” to address their concerns. “We felt disillusioned,” says Madam Mamie.
Disillusioned but not defeated, the landowners called Namati Sierra Leone’s toll-free legal advice line. After a number of discussions, it became clear to Namati that the situation required more support than could be provided over the phone. Namati’s community paralegals arranged to hold a series of legal literacy sessions, with all of Ngovokpahun’s youth and adults in attendance.
After explaining the relevant laws and policies that regulate land and agricultural deals in Sierra Leone, the paralegals guided the community through a review of the terms of their lease agreement. Together they discovered that the rent the company paid fell far below the government-recommended rate, that the promised school, roads, health center and jobs were not captured in the document, and that the company had altered the number of hectares in the agreement after it had been signed. Infuriated, the Paramount Chief described the company’s action as fraudulent.
The community paralegals assisted the landowners in writing a letter to the company. They laid out their grievances with reference to the law and requested a meeting. This time, Italian Agriculture agreed.
The landowners and village chief arrived at the meeting accompanied by Namati and armed with copies of the laws and legal documents. They re-stated their grievances to the senior company officials gathered and pointed to discrepancies between the lease and government policy. They demanded that these issues be addressed and a new lease negotiated that reflected what the parties had actually agreed upon.
When they concluded, the CEO remarked how impressed he was with their level of legal awareness. He then went on to take responsibility for the alterations to the lease document, explaining that his company had conducted another round of surveying which gave them the new figure, and acknowledging that the exercise should not have been done without the knowledge and involvement of the landowners and local authorities.
“I was surprised at the hospitality and positive behavior of the company staff,” recalls Madam Mamie. “These once defiant people were respectful this time.” But as she sees it, they did not have much of a choice. “The argument was put to rest after the CEO read the provisions. He had no option but to accept to do things as per the law and lease.”
At a second meeting, held in the village, the two parties agreed on a set of plans and targets for remedying the wrongs. The CEO unreservedly accepted the community’s demand to re-survey the concession area with full community participation and promised that the company would investigate the missed rent payments, and clear up all arrears when they mutually ascertain the actual land size being used. He also agreed to reconstruct the recreational field and negotiate a new lease.
The process that followed was not without its challenges, but with the paralegals’ support and the law in their hands, the people of Ngovokpahun village have resolved the nearly decade-long injustice. By the end of 2020, the land had been re-surveyed, all rent arrears paid, a recreational field built, and negotiation of a new lease — one that protects the rights and interests of the community and all its members — begun.
Writing & Speaking to Grow the Movement
We aim to communicate the urgent need for land & environmental justice to policymakers and people in Sierra Leone and across the globe. In 2019 and 2020, we published or were featured in more than half a dozen op-eds and articles.