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Political power often enables corporate abuse. The Masimra community in Port Loko District, Sierra Leone can, unfortunately, attest to this after politicians elected by them to protect their interests instead opened them up to exploitation.
In 2009, the then Deputy Minister of Trade and the Chairman of Port Loko District Council ushered the Dutch-owned agricultural company, Genesis Farms, into Masimra town.
The company promised to build a bridge across the Rokel River to connect the rural farming community to markets. They promised to construct schools, hospitals, and more — all on top of the rent they would pay for the use of the agricultural land.
“We were carried away by these white elephant promises,” says Osman Bangura, chief of Masimra town and a member of one of the landowning families. “[We] gave up a total of 1,015 acres of our land for 25 years because of their promise to make the bridge and improve other services. The company said they would pay $150 [a year] …In addition, they agreed to plant two trees for every tree they cut down during their operations.”
The community signed the lease agreement unaware both that they could negotiate the terms, and that it did not legally bind the company to any of the promises it made—because those promises were not included.
Eight years later, the company has not fully paid rent, built the promised bridge or schools, nor planted a single tree to replace the 2,600 it has destroyed.
The trees that the company destroyed were mainly palm trees, the kernels of which the community members harvested and made into palm oil to sell. It was an important cash crop and source of income for most of Masimra’s community members.
The loss of these profitable trees was compounded by the community’s eventual realization that the acres they had leased out were the most profitable land in the community.
As Mr. Bangura explains, “[I]t is the land close to the river which allows us to grow crops several times in the year as the water from the river is used to irrigate the land during the dry season.
“This has significantly affected our household income and food security over the years. We were benefiting a lot from our land but with the occupation of the company, we can’t access [it] anymore. The pittance the company pays is not even enough to feed a household for two months.”
When the community raised these issues with Genesis Farms, the company responded that it is not bound by the promises it made; it is bound only by what contractually exists in the lease agreement.
Mr. Bangura holds the politicians who brought the company to Masimra partially responsible for the situation his town is in: “We were tricked into signing off our land to a foreign investor by some corrupt and self-centered politicians for empty promises that were never fulfilled.”
Since 2007, the government of Sierra Leone has been actively promoting large-scale investments in land, believing it to be the country’s best hope for breaking out of poverty and achieving middle-income status. Because these investments tend to be driven by the government, the people think they cannot say no for fear of opposing government interest. They believe that they have no option but to accept the deal offered by the company and stomach the consequences.
Namati has been trying to change this increasingly common and disturbing narrative by empowering communities to realize the benefits of their land and natural resources and understand the laws and policies that govern lease agreements and investor behavior. In cases like Masimra’s, work with the community to renegotiate fair deals and hold the company to account.
Namati first learned of Masimra’s situation when one of the town’s residents attended a community meeting in another chiefdom and learned of Namati’s work. She requested that the community paralegals help her town to resolve their problems with Genesis Farms. They agreed.
Namati’s community paralegals started by assisting the community to understand the terms in the lease they signed, and where it and the investor’s behavior failed to adhere to government regulations. “I was able to learn that the company should pay $5 per acre [according to Sierra Leonean policy]. We were to be receiving a total of $5,075 [per year], but the company was only paying us $150,” recalls Mr. Bangura. “It was a huge shock to all of us when Namati read and interpreted the content of the lease to us. We hated the company the more we realized the extent of the mistake we did and how much damage we had done to ourselves.”
“It was a huge shock to all of us when Namati read and interpreted the content of the lease to us….”
Together, the community paralegals and representatives from Masimra drafted a letter to the company, raising the various issues they had and requesting a meeting to discuss them. The company refused to meet.
After repeated attempts, the community began exploring the possibility of legal action to terminate the lease agreement. With the pending threat of legal action—and with their political backers having gone silent—the company finally agreed to a meet with Namati and the community stakeholders.
In the meeting, held at the Paramount Chief’s residence, the company denied promising to build the bridge but admitted to a number of other issues. The company also denied being aware of some of the laws in the country that regulate investors’ conduct but promised to do the right thing going forward.
The community then laid out its demands. They asked the company to commit to the following:
1) replanting the economically-profitable trees they destroyed during land clearing;
2) paying arrears of rent using the government-recommended price of $5 per acre; and
3) renegotiating the lease terms.
The company agreed to replant the trees and renegotiate the lease, but would not immediately say yes to the payment of the rent arrears. Their manager asked to discuss this further.
During a series of negotiation meetings held between July 2017 and April 2018, a compromise was reached: Genesis Farms would pay approximately two years’ worth of rent arrears. They paid by year’s end.
With the payment in hand and the issue of rent arrears resolved, the community is now pushing the company to replant the trees and renegotiate the lease agreement. Namati paralegals will walk with them throughout the process, helping them to understand and use the laws to protect their interests and hold the company accountable.
Story collected by Eleanor Thompson