In a new article for Place, Namati’s Sierra Leone director, Sonkita Conteh, describes how community paralegals have been helping communities in Sierra Leone to secure better deals with big investor looking to lease their land. An excerpt of the article follows below.

Three years ago I wrote about how communities in Sierra Leone were getting the short end of the stick in large-scale land transactions. Many did not understand the provisions of the complex lease agreements they were signing. Not only are these leases legally complicated, they are sometimes signed under pressure and are not always translated into a community’s local language.

Since that time, we have witnessed some encouraging improvements in the land-leasing process. Hopeful changes in national policy and a steady increase in local activism have empowered communities to better understand and exercise their rights to communal lands. The problem that persists, however, is the power imbalance these communities face every time they enter into a negotiation with developers. Where the companies have money, lawyers and political allies, communities can find themselves without protection when contracts are violated or their lands are destroyed by industrial uses they scarcely knew they had agreed to.

I remember a Friday evening in 2013 when landowners from a village called Pan House in the north of the country urgently reached out to Namati’s office in Freetown. They needed help understanding the terms in a draft of a fifty-year lease for a thousand acres of land. The foreign-owned rice company wanted the agreement signed in two days and was coming to the community on Sunday to pay the first year’s rent of $5 per acre. The land to be leased included the village’s entire supply of arable land, some of which was being farmed exclusively by the village women. The women had no knowledge that they were about to lose their farms. Some of the landowners who were familiar with Namati’s work on contract negotiations asked for help in examining the specific provisions of the draft lease.

The document, as one might expect, turned out to be very good for the company and potentially disastrous for the village. …

Read the full article on the Place website.