News & Blogs

Q&A: Legal empowerment as a beacon for environmental justice in Sierra Leone

To spur economic growth, the government of Sierra Leone has been aggressively courting large-scale agriculture and mining investments. These have often led to the exploitation of communities and environmental devastation. Namati supports communities to protect customary land rights, challenge land grabs, remedy environmental harm, and, if they wish, negotiate fair deals with investors.

This Q&A with Daniel Sesay, Senior Program Officer, Namati Sierra Leone, explores how paralegals support communities to take up the struggle for environmental justice, by learning and using their rights, and ultimately being part of shaping the law.

Q. What is the current environmental situation in your country? How do industrialization and development projects affect the environment in Sierra Leone?

A. Apart from its people, Sierra Leone’s most valuable assets are its land, forests, and marine resources. However, the country is facing numerous threats to these resources and the environment. These include deforestation, degradation and fragmentation, a dramatic decline in biodiversity, loss of soil fertility, air and water pollution, and sand mining in coastal areas. These challenges, when combined with weak environmental regulatory monitoring and enforcement, are impeding environmental sustainability and sustainable development.

The rate of deforestation alone is alarming. Sierra Leone has less than 5% of its original forest cover remaining, with 30% of this forest cover having been lost between 1975 and 2013. Such massive deforestation has been the result of indiscriminate logging in the timber industry, illegal logging in protected forest areas, and clearance of land for large-scale mining and agricultural projects. Large-scale land investments, especially in mining, are also contributing to environmental degradation through soil erosion, siltation and contamination of river systems and tidal creeks that ultimately result in displacements of villages.

Due to the deteriorating environmental situation, the country is ranked as one of the most disaster prone in the world.

For more information, see: Sonkita Conteh, Why Sierra Leone’s Mining Industry Requires A Robust Environmental Protection Regime (2018).

Q. Why are current solutions inadequate or short-sighted to address the problem?

A. Regulatory bodies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and National Minerals Agency (NMA) exist to ensure that individuals and companies comply with mining and environmental protection laws and standards. However, lack of regulatory decision making that is both responsive to situations of environmental harm and that deter environmental injustices has contributed to the problem. Attempts at regulation through a temporary ban on timber exports proved futile because of loopholes that allowed many loggers to exploit certain exemptions. Likewise, lack of regulation has allowed sand mining to run amok.

Weak environmental impact assessments (EIAs) and license conditions do not create clear obligations for companies to undertake, which are necessary for the EPA to enforce compliance. Without teeth, the EPA cannot enforce the EIA license conditions or adequately protect the relevant communities from negative impacts of a company’s operations. Mining companies, in particular, are continuously destroying the environment, and paying little or no attention to compliance with laws, EIA license conditions, and mine closure plans. The EPA’s limited monitoring and failure to use its statutory powers to take action against corporations, including halting activities that pose a serious threat to the environment or public health, translates to limited enforcement of environmental laws and regulations.

An episodic approach to resolving environment harms is unsustainable. There is a need for systemic change that improves environmental compliance monitoring and enforcement while involving affected communities and others at risk of environmental injustice at the center of preventative approaches.

Q. How do you use legal empowerment to address these challenges?

A. Namati Sierra Leone trains and deploys community paralegals, who work with affected communities to help them understand environmental laws and standards and use them to address and prevent environmental harm. We use innovative ways to ensure compliance by corporations carrying out large-scale agricultural, mining and development projects with environmental laws and regulations. These include: periodic legal literacy sessions in communities; negotiating strong environmental standards into lease agreements between communities and companies; helping communities to write letters to companies or regulatory bodies in order to hold companies accountable for environmental and social harms; and providing legal assistance to communities that want to sue companies that have caused these harms.

Our paralegals have been trained to empower communities to monitor and hold companies accountable for environmental and social harms. At the moment Namati Sierra Leone works with communities in the operational areas of more than 30 large-scale projects across 12 districts to ensure compliance with environmental laws and good practices, and to seek remedy for violations such as pollution (water, air, and noise), destruction of land and inland valley swamps, unsafe blasting of rocks, relocation of communities, and abandoned mined-out pits. Communities are increasingly engaging companies and regulatory bodies to provide remedies for these harms and put measures in place to prevent them going forward.

We rigorously collect data and leverage our grassroots experience to advocate for legal and policy reforms on environmental protection.

Q. What are the biggest challenges you face in your environmental justice work?

A. The lack of compliance with environmental laws, regulations and standards by agricultural and mining companies engaged in large-scale projects has led to a number of persistent challenges for environmental protection advocates.

The lack of a system to track companies entering Sierra Leone to undertake large-scale investment projects and reliance on companies to initiate EIA processes has allowed some foreign companies to operate in the country for long periods without having conducted EIAs or holding environmental licenses from the EPA, in contravention of the law. Where EIAs have been conducted, they often cite generic rather than project-specific risks and mitigation measures.

Communities continue to largely be left out of EIA processes. When they are consulted, they are given little time to understand bulky documents with technical contents, and usually at a late point in time when their input has less relevance. Additionally, corruption and political interference by politicians who usher large-scale investors into communities allows these companies to destroy the environment with impunity. The companies also use their financial resources to divide communities by buying off local leaders in exchange for their protection of the company from attempts by communities and civil society organizations to seek redress for environmental harms.

For more on the constraints in enforcing compliance against corporations, see: “Condoning Corporate Malfeasance In Large Scale Land Acquisitions: Is Sierra Leone Becoming The “Wild West”?

Q. What are some strides that have been made using legal empowerment to address environmental injustice in your work?

A. Legal empowerment has helped communities in Sierra Leone to address environmental injustices in numerous cases, including:

Villagers in nine communities in Tonkolili district took legal action against African Minerals Limited — the largest iron ore mining company in the country — for damage to the communities’ swampland and crops, pollution of land and water resources, and to compel the company to prevent further environmental harm and comply with legal requirements for relocation of communities. The communities decided to take legal action after receiving legal education from Namati paralegals about the environmental laws, regulations and license conditions that the company had violated.

Communities in Bombali district, with the support of Namati paralegals, were able to get the ADDAX Bio-Energy Company to provide alternative source of clean water after all their water sources were polluted during the company’s operations.

As part of efforts to shape environmental policy and in a bid to stop the rampant cutting and exporting of timber, Namati Sierra Leone wrote an open letter to the President of Sierra Leone proposing that a temporary ban on timber exports be kept in place permanently. When the government later lifted the ban and timber merchants resumed business, Namati and other organizations strongly criticized the decision, leading the government to announce the suspension of all timber concessions pending a review of the legal framework.

Q. Why is it critical for the people most at risk of environmental injustice to be empowered to know, use, and shape the law? Why is it key for people, not powerful interests, to be at the centre of justice systems?

A. Those who seek to exploit people and their environments often rely on others’ ignorance of the law to avoid accountability. As the popular saying goes, “Knowledge is power.” Helping people to know the law is itself putting power in their hands to be able to use the law to protect themselves against injustice. Putting people at risk of or affected by environmental harm at the centre of understanding and solving their problems is of immense importance as they will learn from the process and be able to deal with such situations in the future.

When they know the law, can use it, and are a part of shaping it, people would be able to make sound decisions about their environment, defend their environment, and seek justice for environmental harms they suffer. If they are legally empowered and given the space and required skills to act for themselves, they can demand a better future for their families and their communities.

June 4, 2019 | Daniel Sesay

Region: Sierra Leone