In 2010, Sierra Leone Agriculture (SLA) Ltd., a British-owned company, signed a lease with Bureh, Kasseh and Maconteh (BKM) Chiefdom in the Port Loko District of Sierra Leone for 41,582 hectares of land—including the rivers, houses, and roads that it encompassed. Among other promises, the company agreed to create 8,000 jobs, build schools, roads and health centers, and provide skills training for the over 40 communities in the chiefdom. Then, in 2011, SIVA Group, an Indian-owned and Singapore-based company, bought the SLA concession for USD $5 million to establish an oil palm plantation.
As is the all too common story, the company failed to pay rent and refused to make good on the other promises, impacting the lives and livelihoods of over 3,000 landowners and land users. But, this time there was a different ending. Those affected partnered with community paralegals, working with Namati, who supported them to understand the law and claim their rights. As a result the communities won back their land and damages totaling nearly USD $250,000.
The issue began when the Paramount Chief, the local Member of Parliament, and the Deputy Speaker of the House of Parliament—who held shares in the company—directly negotiated the terms of the lease with company officials. No landowners read or were made aware of the terms of the lease agreement.
What happened next was not what the communities envisioned.
Namati’s paralegals do not provide a legal service. Rather, they aim to empower those affected to tackle such problems on their own.
When SIVA Group took over the concession, they cleared 7,114 hectares, an area roughly equivalent to 17,000 football fields, to make way for their operations. In the process, they destroyed the communities’ valuable wild palm, cashew trees and other economic crops—and provided no compensation. They made no effort to implement the promised development projects and fell behind on their rent payments. The communities attempted to resolve the situation amicably numerous times, but the company refused to meet with them. They then reported their concerns to their Paramount Chief, Member of Parliament, and the district council, but no action was taken.
The legal empowerment approach used by Namati deploys community paralegals who are trained in basic law and in skills like mediation, organizing, and advocacy, but they do not provide a legal service. Rather, they aim through partnerships with the local communities, to empower those affected with the legal knowledge and skills they need to tackle such problems on their own.
In the present case, the paralegals and community representatives did the required research to pinpoint which laws, policies, and terms the company had violated. The communities put together a list of demands and, with the support of the paralegals, drafted a letter to the company requesting a meeting to discuss the violations and the renegotiation of the lease.
Instead of negotiating, the company, with the help of political elites, pressured the landowners to accept their draft of a new lease. With greater knowledge of their rights, the landowners rejected the unjust lease. The company did pay the backlog of rent for 2016 but went no further and ignored all attempts by the communities and paralegals to communicate. Although at Namati we see court as a last resort, it became clear that litigation was necessary. We filed a case in June 2018.
The communities got their land back, but they’ve never seen the money they were awarded.
The court ruled in favor of the communities, ordering the company to return the land and pay the communities the equivalent of nearly USD $250,000. Unfortunately, by the time the verdict was read, the company had folded and the staff had left the country. The communities got their land back, but they’ve never seen the money they were awarded.
By most measures, the case was a success. Community representatives have been equipped to understand and use the law, the communities have their land back and are better positioned to deal with investors in the future, and the court ruling sent a strong message to companies to comply with the laws of the country and the agreements they negotiate. But the process was not without its challenges. The most problematic being the unequal power dynamics between political elites and communities.
In a society like Sierra Leone’s, where politics penetrate every facet of life, the people rely on politicians to fix broken systems. Some Members of Parliament promised to help the communities but there was no follow through. However, through the process, paralegals learned that the landowners themselves wield considerable decision-making power. When equipped with the information and tools to act, they proved to be dependable and effective allies.
The success of the case relied on the affected landowners and communities taking collective action. Power dynamics also threatened this unity. Political elites with vested interest in the continued operations of the company persistently intimidated the landowners into signing an unfair lease. Creating trust and solidarity among the community representatives, the other affected individuals, and the paralegals was vital.
As this case illustrates, legal empowerment approaches are not without challenges, but they are crucial to equipping communities with the knowledge and tools needed to fight back against exploitive land investors
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Last updated January 30, 2013.
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Last updated: February 2, 2023
Welcome to the namati.org website (the “Site”) and the Legal Empowerment Network Forum (the “Forum”) operated by Namati, Inc., a Delaware corporation (“Namati”, “we”, “us” or “our”). We share your concern about the protection of your personal information online.
This Policy describes our privacy practices and sets out your obligations and ours with respect to your use of the Site and the Forum. This Policy applies only to the Site and the Forum and does not necessarily apply to our offline collection of information.
Namati may collect and retain two types of information about Site and Forum visitors: (i) personal information that individual visitors voluntarily provide when interacting on the Site or Forum or on certain other occasions (such as via forms or in emails); and (ii) tracking data, which is data that is automatically collected from every Site and Forum visitor as they use and browse the site.
We may, from time to time, store and archive the information you submit to or through the Site and Forum. The information that we gather may include your name, title, and address, telephone number, email address, credit card number or other elements of personal information. In addition, if you contact us, we may keep a record of your correspondence, including any information contained therein.
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Your Information is stored on Digital Ocean servers in New York, USA, and WPengine servers located in Texas, USA. When you provide personal information to us, we request your consent to transfer that personal information to the USA. The USA does not have an adequacy decision from the European Commission, which means that the Commission has not determined that the laws of the USA provide adequate protection for personal information. Although the laws of the USA do not provide legal protection that is equivalent to the EU GDPR, we safeguard your personal information by treating it in accordance with this Policy. We take appropriate steps to protect your privacy and implement reasonable security measures to protect your personal information in storage. We use secure transmission methods to collect personal data through our website. We also enter into contracts with our data processors that require them to treat personal information in a manner that is consistent with this Policy.
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Withdraw consent at any time where we are relying on consent to process your personal data. However, this will not affect the lawfulness of any processing carried out before you withdraw your consent. If you withdraw your consent, we may not be able to provide certain products or services to you. We will advise you if this is the case at the time you withdraw your consent.
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We may need to request specific information from you to help us confirm your identity and ensure your right to access your personal data (or to exercise any of your other rights). This is a security measure to ensure that personal data is not disclosed to any person who has no right to receive it. We may also contact you to ask you for further information in relation to your request to speed up our response.
We try to respond to all legitimate requests within one month. Occasionally it could take us longer than a month if your request is particularly complex or you have made a number of requests. In this case, we will notify you and keep you updated.
If you live in an EEA Member State, all of which have adopted the EU GDPR and national , you have a right to lodge a complaint with your relevant supervisory authority about this policy and its application. The European Commission has a list of EU national data protection authorities here:
If you live in the United Kingdom, you have a right to lodge a complaint with your relevant supervisory authority, the ICO, about this policy and its application:
The Policy was updated in July 2022 to comply with the General Data Protection Regulations.