“Everyone above us is tied to the money” – The land grab in Sierra Leone


By Alison Rabe

I am a Law Fellow with Namati Sierra Leone and one of my main objectives is to draft negotiation guidelines that will help communities interact with investors. This is a much-needed tool in a country where agricultural investment is on the rise and powerful actors are increasingly competing for smallholder farmers’ land. It will be an empowering move for communities in the future if an investor wants to  use their land and village leaders are able to give the investor a document laying out their own rules of negotiation.

To research these guidelines, I organized village meetings in collaboration with Namati’s Legal Empowerment Advocates and our partner, Sierra Leone Network on the Right to Food (SiLNoRF).  We met with village leaders to discuss local land governance, conflict resolution, and communities’ interactions with investors thus far. We then brainstormed together to assess how communities can increase their capacity to negotiate and assert their rights when working with investors in the future.

This summer we met with three communities affected by Switzerland-based Addax Bioenergy, a renewable energy company with a 14,300 hectare sugar-cane project in the northern province of Makeni. Addax has been touted as one of the most progressive companies in Sierra Leone: they conducted an involved impact assessment and claim to have conducted heavy community consultations. Their official website has a bold title that says: “Inspire Change,” accompanied by pictures of smiling Sierra Leoneans working in various agriculture jobs.

My first meeting was in Robung, a community of mud huts lining a dirt road and surrounded by sparse outcroppings of palm trees. We sat on small wooden benches along the road: the paralegals, the village chief, the local Imam and me. Addax trucks sped by and kicked up dust, occasionally interrupting our meeting.

The village chief described Robung’s experience with Addax. Three years ago, the company’s representatives introduced themselves as investors who wanted to help the community “develop.” They invited Robung and neighboring villages to a meeting to discuss a potential investment project on their land.

At the meeting, Addax representatives explained they had agreed on a lease with the communities’ local chiefs and the Sierra Leone government to plant sugar cane on the village’s uncultivated land. They promised that the land where families were living and growing food would not be cleared – only unused land would be part of the project. In return, Addax would pay rent to landowners, build infrastructure such as wells and schools, improve the villagers’ farming techniques, and employ the local population, among other things.

The consultation, however, did not provide details of the lease agreement. Addax did not specify how much land would be cleared, which types of land would be used, or how much rent would be paid. Villagers were not given copies of the lease or asked to sign the official agreement. In other words, there was no negotiation, and the consultation was inadequate.

Three years later, Robung still waits to see most of Addax’s pledged benefits. They explained that rent is too small to support their families – about US$3.60 per acre a year, with landowners receiving half of this; landowners that sign an acknowledgement agreement can receive an additional US$1.40. Addax did employ some villagers for a time, but many were let go after the first few months of planting. Others had brief training sessions on new farming techniques and received seeds and inputs for planting. This is the third and final year of the farmer development programme, however, and this year communities will be expected to buy seeds at cost, which Robung said they could not afford. Although Addax promised additional benefits to Robung, such as a school and a well, nothing had yet been constructed in the community when we visited.

In fact, Robung did not seem to have much of anything. Although the company left some farmland for the village, it took more than the community ever expected. As we talked, children squatted on the ground sorting through palm kernels from their few remaining palm trees. “This is the last of our palm oil harvest,” the Imam explained, “After this is gone, what will we do?” “Addax is like a meal someone prepared and then force-fed us,” the village chief said. And now, they are afraid they will have nothing to eat.

The next villages we visited, Magbansor and Mamudu, had similar stories. They told us how they tried to leverage traditional governance and dispute resolution by complaining to the Paramount Chief, Section Chief, and local court. When we met with them, they were still waiting for a reaction. One elder explained the reason: “Money. Everyone above us is tied to the money.”

Each community we interviewed noted that Addax had hired a “liaison officer” to field complaints, but after three years of filed grievances, there has been little resolution.  Addax hired a lawyer to represent the communities through the initial “negotiation” stage, but villagers said they never spoke with him. One Paramount Chief reported that the attorney provided legal services to local officials who signed the lease agreement, but he said the negotiation was done mostly by the lawyer, implying that they had little input during the process. The local officials who signed the agreement readily admit that they did not understand the document they authorized.

How did this happen? What caused these villages to lose all of their land? The most obvious answer is of course Addax’s failure to fully engage landowning communities from the beginning, but there are other factors, including the nature of customary law, unresponsive traditional authorities, and national government pressure to promote investment.

Villagers also attribute some of the investment’s failures to their inability to assert their rights.  “Most of us cannot speak English or read,” and “all of our educated members have left,” so that even community leaders were not sure what to do throughout the investment process. Many said that if they could do it all again they would be more organized. They would mobilize stronger leadership, discuss land use and management plans, and think about how they might allow companies to use their land. With these tools, communities would be empowered to transform a “consultation” into a real negotiation.

In a world where the scramble for land by investors is becoming frenzied, empowering communities to negotiate is increasingly important. Villages like Robung, Magbansor, and Mamudu have long enjoyed use of their customary land for agricultural, spiritual and cultural purposes. Now powerful investors are competing for that same patch of earth.

Namati is working to help communities like these gather the tools they need to deal with investors. Namati Sierra Leone’s country director, Sonkita Conteh, has consulted with around 40 communities affected by Addax, written a memorandum regarding the main issues with the lease agreement, and is working to renegotiate the lease. Addax has indicated they may be willing to review the terms of the agreement, and we are looking forward to working with their attorney. We also plan to provide an audio summary of the Addax lease agreement in the communities’ native language. I will also continue to draft the negotiation guidelines, which communities can develop and use when interacting with other investors in the future.

August 22, 2013 | Namati