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Sierra Leone has recently experienced a massive influx of foreign direct investment in the form of agriculture and mining concessions. Rural communities historically dependent on subsistence or small-scale commercial agriculture are interfacing with increasing numbers of powerful actors that want their land.
This problem was demonstrated in Mange Section in the Marampa chiefdom of Portloko District, where an investor recently attempted to lease all of the communities’ bolilands, or arable land, for industrial rice production.
Namati learned of Mange’s issue when our Legal Empowerment Advocates, Achmed Dean Sesay and Hassan Sesay, were called into the community to meet with concerned elders. Achmed and Hassan learned that an investor, Golden Mills, had surveyed Mange’s land, accompanied by three of the community’s land-users, without landowners’ permission. Under the customary land tenure system that governs rural areas in Sierra Leone, land is owned by families. Land users pay the land-owning families a ‘fee’ each year to farm some of their land. Money does not always change hands – the ‘fee’ is often paid in the form of produce or animals, depending on what the land is being used for. In Mange, the land users circumvented the landowning families and claimed that they had the right to make a deal with the investor because the land now belonged to them.
Namati called a community-wide meeting to openly address the issue with the potential investor. The community agreed to have Namati represent them in all future communications with Golden Mills, although the dispute between the landowners and the land-using individuals that helped Golden Mills conduct the land survey remained unresolved.
Through exchanges with Golden Mills’ lawyer, Namati soon discovered that five men from Mange – land users – had already signed a lease agreement covering 1,450 hectares: all of Mange Section’s farmland and possibly more. The lease also included signatures from local government officials, and the Section and Paramount Chiefs.
If the government, investor, community, and Namati can work together in this case, an investment benefiting all parties may be possible for Mange in the future.
After obtaining the lease from the lawyer, Namati discovered several shortcomings in the agreement, including the absence of all landowners as signatories and Golden Mills’ ability to use unlimited amounts of sand for free, with exclusive use rights over all of the land and natural resources, including villages, forests and rivers. The land-using signatories had received 100,000,000 Leones (about 23,256USD) to fulfill Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) on behalf of Golden Mills. The lease stipulated that the community as a whole would carry out the programs or activities for CSR using the 100 million Leones, but the signatories claimed that the fee was paid to them for agreeing to the lease. The 100 million Leones meant to be used to develop the community remain unaccounted for.
Namati held another meeting in Mange soon afterward to inform the entire community of the Lease agreement’s terms and to attempt to assess what had happened. The community members that had signed the lease were absent. The remaining landowners from Mange told us that the signatories were not land owners, but rather land users, and thus they did not have the right to sign away any of Mange’s land, let alone all of it.
It became apparent that the issue of land ownership needed to be resolved by the local dispute resolution body, the Paramount Chief. Namati organized a meeting with all of Mange, including Golden Mills, the Paramount Chief, a Member of Parliament, and both the non-signing land-owning families and the signing land-using families. We all sat around the Paramount Chief’s living room and listened to each family present its case.
As a signatory on the lease, the Paramount Chief was not a neutral party, so the Member of Parliament advised the feuding families to resolve the land ownership and investment issues amongst themselves promptly.
One week later, the families still had not resolved their disagreements. Namati arranged another meeting in Mange with the Member of Parliament, but the lease-signing families and Paramount Chief did not show up. We waited for three hours with the Member of Parliament, but the lease-signing parties refused to join us – after all, they had received 100 million Leones as part of Golden Mills’ CSR, which they claimed belonged to them.
The Member of Parliament requested our assistance in writing a letter to Golden Mills, directing the investor to suspend all activities until the families came to a peaceful settlement. Now Namati waits for another opportunity to resolve the case – first between the families, then with the investor.
Many community members in Mange say they are not against investment. But the community must be united and organized in regard to how they wish to use their land and natural resources before they can enjoy the benefits of land-leasing. The largest challenge in representing this community is that the community itself must first take initiative to settle the case.
Namati has made some progress. Golden Mills recognized the importance of resolving the intra-community issue before investment can be enjoyed. They attended the meeting with the Paramount Chief and seem committed to engaging all landowners and renegotiating fairer lease terms. Namati also built a solid working relationship with the Member of Parliament to help mediate the issue between the feuding families of Mange. If the government, investor, community, and Namati can work together in this case, an investment benefiting all parties may be possible for Mange in the future.
Alison has worked on land and human rights issues in Southeast Asia since 2009. From 2012-2013, she completed a Boren Fellowship in Cambodia working with indigenous peoples on communal land titling. She has also worked at the Lewis B. Puller Jr. Veterans Benefits Clinic, the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, and public defender offices at the state, federal, and international levels. As the 2013 summer law fellow in the Namati Sierra Leone office, Alison incorporated community legal empowerment principles into Sierra Leone’s new agribusiness and mining investment guidelines. She graduated summa cum laude from The College of Idaho in 2010, and will graduate with her J.D. from William & Mary Law School in December.