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LAND &
ENVIRONMENTAL
JUSTICE

Sierra Leone

Looking Back at 2021 and Ahead at 2022

In 2021, years of grassroots legal empowerment and community organizing culminated in the most far-reaching systemic change effort on land rights and environmental protection in Sierra Leone’s history. In October, the Customary Land Rights and National Land Commission bills were introduced in Parliament for enactment. Two members of Namati’s Sierra Leone team drafted the bills. 

The content reflects the country’s progressive land policy as well as a decade of learning from supporting communities to resist land grabs, remedy unlawful pollution and, should they wish, negotiate fair deals with investors.

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When enacted, the Customary Land Rights Bill would, among other things:

  • Grant all communities the right to Free Prior Informed Consent (FPIC) over all industrial projects in their territory
  • Ban industrial development, including mining, timber, and agribusiness, in old-growth forests and other ecologically sensitive areas
  • Incorporate public environmental license conditions into binding legal agreements between communities and companies

When passed, the National Land Commission Bill would establish, for the first time, a land administration regime that affords communities greater protection over their land and resources by providing for the recording and documentation of customary land titles. This bill also empowers local land use committees, and mandates that those committees are at least 30% women.

To our knowledge there is not a legal regime anywhere, in either hemisphere, that grants such robust rights to communities facing environmental harm.

The progressive content of and progress on these bills would not have been possible without the direct involvement of paralegals and communities across the country. After using existing (and often imperfect) laws to protect their environment and enforce their land rights, these communities now had the opportunity to help shape new laws that would work for them. 

In 2020, Namati helped mobilize communities to participate in multiple consultations held on the draft bills across the country. Land owners and users, women’s groups, traditional leaders, and community-based organizations, many of whom had built their legal knowledge with support from Namati paralegals and partners, turned up to make their voices heard. Women in particular were insistent on eliminating customary rules and practices that held them back from owning, using and making decisions on customary land. Everyone agreed that the draft bills should contain provisions that would make large-scale investments in land fair and environmentally and socially responsible.

Left: Community members attend attend a consultation meeting to input on the provisions of the model laws. Right: Namati Sierra Leone team presents the draft Customary Land Rights and National Land Commission bills at a meeting called by the Minister of Lands. 

Then, in late 2020, after final versions of the bills were submitted to the Ministry of Lands, progress stalled. Influential stakeholders were pushing for last-minute changes — changes that would pare back provisions related to FPIC and the responsible behavior by companies seeking land.

2021 thus became a year focused on advocacy.

Years of community legal education by paralegals, internal community organizing, and direct involvement in addressing their land and environmental problems enabled communities to be effective not only in shaping these bills but also in embarking on a national effort to get them to Parliament. With support from Namati, they formed a Whatsapp group to share information and organize across the country, called and held meetings with their Members of Parliament, wrote to the Minister of Lands, and gave interviews on local radio stations. By the end of 2021, the bills had been tabled in Parliament and undergone their first reading — with the provisions communities advocated for largely intact. 

When passed, hopefully in early 2022, these laws will constitute a new and vastly improved set of tools for paralegals and communities to utilize in order to protect their land rights and the environment. Therefore, in 2022 Namati Sierra Leone team will undertake widespread legal education on the new laws while supporting our partner communities to develop local land governance structures, review old land leases to ensure compliance with the new laws, and utilize new legal enforcement tools to hold environmental abusers accountable. By being directly involved in efforts to develop and pass these laws, communities have created a new and different expectation — that laws should not be simply made for them. As citizens, they can and should be involved in shaping the rules that affect their lives.  

While getting the two land bills to Parliament was certainly the highlight of the year for our team and communities, the engine of our approach — grassroots casework — continued in the shadows. Despite the ongoing challenges associated with COVID-19, dozens of communities negotiated fairer lease agreements with investors and pursued relief for environmental and other harms with the support of paralegals (see graphic below). Lifting a Curse, a powerful, 11-minute documentary produced by the Sundance Institute, captures what this process is like. The film premiered on television networks across Sierra Leone in 2021 and was promoted by Global Citizen as a vital bottom-up method for tackling the climate crisis during COP26. It shows us all what is possible when the power of people is combined with the power of law.

A farmer and resident of Masethele, Bombali District, Sierra Leone.

Our Grassroots Impact at a Glance

 

In 2021, rural communities worked to protect their lands and negotiate fair deals with investors with the support of paralegals. While the process is ongoing for most, one community successfully re-negotiated a lease, directly improving the livelihoods and wellbeing of over a thousand people.