The Namati team in Sierra Leone is engaged in an ongoing effort to discover sustainable measures for community ownership, management, and administration of land and natural resources throughout the country. To this end, we have taken on a new project: the application of a legal empowerment approach to community land protection.

Land administration in Sierra Leone has often been characterized by scholars and pundits as “chaotic and unsustainable”. This is because many of our land laws are archaic and allow for a vast disconnection between what those laws say and how they are used or implemented.  The country is in the midst of a land reformation process which will update our laws and ensure better harmonization between our formal and customary land tenure systems. As it stands now, a new land policy(link is external) has been approved by the government which entails progressive provisions for the promotion of investments, as well as the protection of the respective land-owning families and others throughout the country. Efforts are currently underway by government and civil society organizations, including Namati and international partners, to ensure the progressive provisions of this policy are passed into law.

One of the recommendations of the policy is that land in every community should be demarcated, mapped, and documented with the assistance of satellite imagery or GPS. While a few organizations have attempted some form of community mapping, Namati is currently the only organization in the country that is piloting the recommendation of the land policy in a way that combines mapping with protection of tenure rights. Community mapping is a key element of Namati’s five-part process(link is external) to protect the customary land rights and natural resources of communities and indigenous citizens.

The objectives of our pilot community land protection project in Sierra Leone are two-fold: (1) To empower communities by mapping their customary lands, increasing their knowledge about the size of their land, preventing intra- and inter- community conflict relating to land and natural resources, strengthening community land and natural resource governance through the creation of bylaws, among others; (2) To use the results of this mapping as an advocacy tool for broader reforms, specifically, to gain government approval of the community land protection process as a model for the implementation of the land policy.

Working with Namati’s global Community Land Protection team, we co-designed criteria for community selection and devised strategies for getting buy-in from the chiefdom authorities. We decided to start with a community not currently experiencing land conflict, with a very progressive or development-oriented Paramount Chief, with fewer borders with neighbors, with only a small number of landowning families, and closely located to one of our local offices. We paid particular attention to the cost-effectiveness of our approach so that we could more easily win over the central government authorities. Eventually, we chose Mashema Community in Paki Masangbon chiefdom, Bombali district, in the North of Sierra Leone. The community is comprised of 15 houses, with a population of 311 inhabitants.

We are only halfway to the completion of this project, but so far, the community has been able to successfully draft very good bylaws to ensure a sustainable stewardship of their land and natural resources, and preserve community cohesion.

Our work with the Mashema Community offers several lessons to groups looking to implement the community land protection approach smoothly and successfully. Several key lessons emerged:

  1. The usefulness of partnerships with strong community leadership. The Paramount Chief of Paki Masangbon chiefdom is a visionary promoter of land and environmental conservation. Prior to Namati introducing this project to him, he had already asked the respective land-owning families in his chiefdom to provide for him a total size of 50 hectares of land so that the chiefdom could start an afforestation programme. The chief sees the project as a blessing for his chiefdom, and assured us of his and the chiefdom council members’ unflinching support. Since then, we have constantly had the chiefdom speaker, the senior section chief of the chiefdom, and other chiefdom council members in all of our meetings in Mashema. Additionally, the village leadership of Mashema has been providing excellent support throughout this project. The village chief has given us a clear picture of what to look for as we continue with the pilot phase in two new locations. He has been very honest, respectful, and pro-active at every stage of the project. During bylaws drafting, the village chief allowed his people to freely debate and reach a consensus before offering his input, and has always supported the decisions of his people. For example, he wholeheartedly supported a decision reached that fines collected in the community should be divided on a fifty-fifty basis—50% for community development and 50% to the chief directly.
  2. The importance of strategies to increase women’s participation. We facilitated activities and exercises that significantly increased the participation of women throughout the bylaws formation process. We encouraged debates between men and women, asked specific questions to prompt answers from women, and invited women to make presentations after group discussions. When we initially started the project, women thought they would not be involved in discussions about land, but we stressed the importance of their attendance and participation. Sometimes we went so far as to stop the sessions and ask every man and woman to go and bring one or two other women. Husbands are asked to bring their wives, brothers were sent to bring their sisters and so on. We helped the community to realize that men and women are equal before the law, and that everyone brings their respective skills and interests to the task of community development. Every voice is important if we are to succeed in the effective protection of community land and natural resources.
  3. The importance of fostering group discussions. A legal empowerment approach to community land protection encourages community members to discuss their differing views. During these group sessions, we realized that many individuals were increasingly able to speak up with confidence and make meaningful contributions. The group discussions made everyone feel they were being consulted for the future development of their community, and served as a recipe for their unwavering cooperation with the project. By respectfully and openly sharing their opinions, the community was better able to come to decisions and act as one people with a uniform goal. The process inspired greater respect for one another, for their leaders, and for the use and management of their resources, especially shared resources with neighboring communities. The community became inspired and involved to such an extent that they created an agriculture project as a means of raising funds for the community. They made a big cassava farm where every community member is bound to work when required. Additionally, they crafted an idea for building a community center with their own resources as a meeting point for community land protection activities.
  4. The usefulness of establishing terms of engagement.  We encouraged the community to take ownership of the process and determine the terms of engagement with our team. The community proposed their desired outcomes and used that guidance continuously as a basis for reminding themselves, and Namati staff, to comply with their guidelines.  Every individual in the community has been part of the entire process.  This is why, to date, every one of them is able to explain the goals, stages, and impact of this project in their community.
  5. The importance of early creation of community bylaws. We came to realize as we progressed further into the pilot that boundary harmonization and mapping process is very challenging without first supporting the community to draft their bylaws. The project may have been plunged into jeopardy if we had rushed to harmonize boundaries and complete the mapping process before finalizing the bylaws. The bylaws set the tone for boundary harmonization and mapping process. They outlined when and how to do it, who should be involved, how to handle disagreements if any during the process, what should be used as boundary markers and how to maintain the boundaries. If all of these are not clearly defined prior to this stage, it is likely that conflict will arise and managing it will be difficult.

These were some of the keys to our success in working with the Mashema Community. In a future article, we will address the challenges that arose during the process and how the paralegals worked with the community to overcome them.

Originally posted on Land Portal’s website