Sierra Leone Land matters: Dispossession and Resistance

Publication of this extract is with the kind permission of its authors Christian Aid

Background in Sierra Leone:

Since the end of the conflict in 2002, there has been a focus in Sierra Leone on the establishment of new national institutions, the improvement of systems and procedures, and the rehabilitation or reconstruction of damaged community and state infrastructure across the country. In November 2012, Sierra Leone held free, fair and transparent elections, widely hailed as a landmark moment in the nation’s journey towards democracy. The political landscape remains polarised, undermining national cohesion and ultimately hindering development. Sierra Leone’s economy is expected to grow by around 35 per cent over the next five years, albeit from a very low starting point. Huge challenges in lifting people out of poverty remain: more than 60% of the people – 3.5 million – still live below the poverty line.(163) Although now almost under control, the worst-ever outbreak of Ebola is bringing further challenges to Sierra Leone’s governance issues. Indications suggest there have been approximately 7,897 cases in the country.(164) The immediate impact of the loss of life is accompanied by hidden harm to all facets of people’s lives, including education, maternal healthcare, food security and livelihoods. Women have been disproportionately impacted by the disease.(165)

Sierra Leone is rich in minerals, precious stones and metals. In peacetime this has brought increased investment in the extractive sector creating pressures for land and water. Rural areas in the country and its economy are dominated by smallholder agriculture.

Commercial demand for land is affecting the livelihoods of poor farmers. For nearly half of working age Sierra Leoneans, family farming is a way of life and their main livelihood. Agriculture, most of it smallholder, accounts for nearly 52 per cent of the country’s GDP.(166) More than 70 per cent of the population, mainly women, depend on the land for their livelihoods.(167) Inequality and tension over land issues were underlying factors that contributed to conflict in Sierra Leone. It is believed that by the war’s end in January 2002 almost a quarter of the population, more than one million people, were displaced either within or outside of the country.(168)

When thousands of Sierra Leoneans began to return home at the end of the conflict, many found that their farmlands had been destroyed or occupied. Post-war land conflicts and disputes in Sierra Leone stem from problems of land acquisition, contested land boundaries, multiple land sales, fraudulent documents, conflicting authorities over land administration (involving land owning families, traditional authorities and state bodies), land use conversion and the weakness of the land adjudication system. As such, systematic land issues continue to be an underlying source of social conflict and political instability in the country. Land disputes have been on the rise and the surge in large-scale foreign direct investment is perceived by NGOs as deeply disruptive to customary tenure norms, with concerns over its potential to promote conflict increasingly being raised.(169)

Sierra Leone operates under a dual land tenure system. Statutory law is applied in the Western Area, where land can be bought and sold. Throughout the rest of the country, customary law of local tribal communities is the accepted legal structure. The Paramount Chiefs and Chiefdom Councils hold land on behalf of the native community. Thus land is inherited from one generation to another and is controlled by families, villages, townships, clans or chiefdoms, and each family member is entitled to a piece of land for farming. Under this system, foreigners hoping to acquire land must do so through leasing the land from the land owning families.(170)

The evolving context of land issues in Sierra Leone

In peacetime, and especially since 2008, the resumption and expansion of mining activities, and the effects of the global land rush have put increasing pressure on land and water. In his first term of office from 2007 to 2012, President Koroma’s ‘Agenda for Change’ designated agriculture as the main economic engine to combat poverty and unemployment. Official policy promotes large-scale agricultural investment along with smallholder commercialisation. In practice, large-scale commercial agriculture is prioritised, with the promotion of largescale foreign investment.(171) The use of enticements, specifically tax breaks, to attract foreign investment into Sierra Leone has been a central feature. Recent research estimates that in 2012 the government lost the equivalent of 59% of the budget – or 8.3% of GDP – as a result of these exemptions.(172) At the same time, there is no clear evidence that the supposed benefits of land deals, in the form of export earnings, jobs and rural development, have emerged. The Land Matrix, a global and independent land monitoring initiative that promotes transparency and accountability in decisions over land and investment, gives an overview of twenty foreign investors active in Sierra Leone at present.(173) So far, approximately one million hectares of arable land has been leased or are under negotiation for lease.

This represents 23% of the land that is suitable for farming. The leases are mainly for the creation of industrial scale plantations to produce bio-fuels from sugar cane and oil palm for export. Most of the foreign investors are European or Asian corporations or investment funds, with a few from the Gulf States.(174) Donors such as the World Bank and its Foreign Investment Advisory Service (FIAS), the UK Department for International Development (DFID), the International Trade Centre (ITC), and the European Union (175) have invested in the capacity to attract FDI through the Sierra Leone Investment and Export Promotion Agency, (SLIEPA). The contrast between the high level of institutional organisation for attracting foreign investment in land markets and weak institutional capacity for the governance of land use and land tenure issues is stark.(176) Communal land systems and weak governance have enabled the exploitation of poor people who depend on the land for livelihoods. Foreign land deals are facilitated by the problematic designation of ‘unused’ lands available for investment through long-term lease. At least 5.4 million hectares have been declared as either ‘not used,’ ‘under-used,’ or ‘marginal.’ Yet research shows that there is no ‘unused’ land available (177) and that the idea of ‘unused’ land is a misconception. The prevalent farming system in the country uses bush fallows (commonly known as ‘farm-bush’ or bush’) to restore soil fertility to fields on upland sites. Ideally, these should be left fallow for 20 to 25 years to restore full soil fertility, during which time they still provide numerous valuable plant and animal resources to rural communities.(178)

Furthermore, foreign investors are legally protected with disputes to be settled in the UK but no protection at all is offered to the victims. The Sierra Leone Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Food Security (MAFFS) acts as an intermediary in land deals by leasing the land from the communities and then subleasing it to foreign investors, and in developing guidelines for regulating how land deals should take place.(179) Existing guidelines governing land deals contain a series of loopholes and are non-binding and therefore are largely ignored. Some investors have completely evaded negotiation with the government.(180) For investors, requirements can be unclear and change frequently; but more importantly, the framework does not provide adequate safeguards for communities. In addition, the environmental impact of land deals has not been adequately explored or monitored.(181) A new draft land policy promises to strengthen regulation of foreign investors, but initial reviews indicate that it will fail to ensure that land investment supports local communities or to enshrine and protect the right to land for women farmers. Complementary guidelines for sustainable bioenergy investment are also likely to be non-binding.(182) Christian Aid partner Green Scenery has questioned how the principles of free, prior and informed consent can be satisfied when the leases are so ambiguously written.(183) Communities and other actors have been left out of initial consultations, little relevant documentation about land deals is made public and leases are not available.(184)

In general, landowners and users do not have adequate legal representation when contracts are signed. Local leaders and landowners are vulnerable to coercion by investors, and often receive only partial information from agents about the benefits of deals, which can lead to accepting unfavourable terms. False promises have been made: in many cases compensation for lost land or crops is inadequate and does not correspond to the market value of land. In many cases land rents paid are not uniform and even when they are, only half of the rent goes to smallholder farmers; the rest is divided amongst District Councils, Chiefdom Councils and MAFFS. A Constitutional Review Committee was set up by the Government of Sierra Leone in 2013 with the aim of reviewing the 1991 constitution – Green Scenery and others are pushing for land reform to be addressed as part of this process. The United Nations Development Fund has supported the government of Sierra Leone in developing a new national land policy, which is currently in draft format

Land deals have caused severe conflicts within families and communities, precluding unified responses from communities. These divisions reflect broader debates about the wider benefits of land deals, with one community group reporting: Chiefs and company officials set one village against another. If there is a land dispute, the chief takes the side of the village that will lease their land. Land grabbing has divided families. Chiefs and companies persuade one or two family members to lease and then divide and conquer. Leases last for 50 to 90 years so it is giving up the land for life… often family members are not on speaking terms. (187)

Responses to land deals in Sierra Leone

Poverty, illiteracy and a culture of deference to authority and to foreigners makes questioning and negotiating around deals difficult. (188) The terms of incorporation can be prohibitive for generating ‘win-win’ situations. Tracking where the rents and benefits accrue reveals the power relations around land deals, as one civil society organisation reports: … the company owner takes more than 80% of the profits out of $54m annually. The traders take 12%, the workers and landowners get 2%. Both local and expatriate, the company takes the lion’s share. They say they have given the community 3.1 billion leones (approximately €600,000) for compensation agreements but when you go to the communities there is nothing to show for that with the exception of a few people…. The communities were promised jobs; the companies employ young people who used to work with the family; they get insecure, short-term contracts. They don’t give proper employment, just seasonal jobs and they bring in 550 ex-pat employees.(189)

The nexus of power relations around land deals in Sierra Leone has made resistance difficult. There are a number of cases where individuals resisting land deals have received threatening phone calls and text messages, and have been accused by government officials of undermining the country’s economic development. (190) Tactics like this generates a fear of the consequences of resisting. Companies have created their own civil society organisations to promote the benefits of land deals,(191) and also have the power to call on the police to deal with any responses. One community member gave an example of this: His family held a meeting and decided to resist. They realised giving their land away for 50 years would mean giving it away forever. They wrote to the Paramount Chiefs and they said they objected to the land going …they talked to the town chief, all the letters they wrote to the district council and the government highlighted that they have no problem with the company but with how the land was being taken. The company was told to go ahead and demolish the plantation. His younger brothers went to the plantation to peacefully try to stop the machines entering – they tried this three or four times. The police came and told them they should not disrupt the company. The surveyor was present and was communicating directly with the police via mobile.

Wherever there is resistance the company can call on the police who immediately act on the company’s behalf. Some young men resisted and [were] taken to court – they were found guilty and fined. Some are being held still. Even when people peacefully resist they are arrested. The police, the company and the chief work together. They created another police station in the area. Most people are against this.(192) For overcoming these dynamics, a dominant approach has been to publicise the details of existing deals.(193) At national level media outlets have been used to host public debates and there has been work to strengthen the capacity of journalists with human rights interests. Some radio programmes use soap operas to depict the issues in drama, through the Krio language, as a way of creating awareness. At local level, the work of civil society in raising awareness about the deficiencies in existing land deals has had an effect. Showing communities the agreements and pointing out the number of hectares that have been taken from specific chiefdoms has stirred up questions, from chiefs and from community members, leading to protests in some areas.(194) Organisation has been a key strategy to unite diverse actors, not just affected landowners and to offset divisive tactics. For example, the formation of the Malen Affected Landowners and Users Association (MALUA) united those with a legal claim to the land, and those who depended on the land. Forming and registering the organisation allows them to speak with one voice, and to be a strong interlocutor at national level.

Yet there are still real constraints to organisation at the local level: In Malen if you say you have been affected by land grabs you are immediately against the paramount chief. There are people affected by land grabs who won’t speak out or be publicly associated with MALUA as they fear the paramount chief and police. If they are chiefs, they fear that they will be removed and ostracised. Some workers in the company support MALUA but can’t speak out. They talk to MALUA in private. If you are a chief you will be removed, your family marginalised. They might register to join MALUA but not register their names. People worry they will lose their jobs if they support MALUA.(195) A national level alliance, the ‘Action for Large scale Land Acquisition Transparency’ (ALLAT) was created in April 2013 after a two day national conference on land owners and land users affected by large scale investments in agriculture.(196) This alliance gives individual organisations the strength to contest powerful interests legally, and to create greater awareness.(197) Building this network of organisations across the country has been critical for empowering local actors to participate in national advocacy, and for rapid dissemination of information in cases of arrest and detention of members as a result of activism.(198) The Sierra Leone Network on the Right to Food (SILNORF) promotes peaceful ways of resolving conflicts at local level and gives support when the abuse of human rights is a risk. This includes using multi-stakeholder forums to promote dialogue and to respond when communities or individuals are threatened.

A description by a SILNORF member of the group’s work included the following: The communities have been harassed by company officials, chiefs, the police … the communities have told us ‘they will have to kill us to make us leave this land’. When we receive these calls we organise emergency interventions with other partners, like the Human Rights Commission, the media – we carry out interviews, take photos, the media is quick to report. That has been effective – when that happens the company can’t continue – instead they have to get back to the people with peaceful solutions.(199) Christian Aid partners also seek out isolated protests and encourage these communities to link up with the new national networks. This is critical in ensuring that communities are prepared to engage with companies involved in land deals at an early stage. Specialised NGOs offer support to communities to help them to carry out research, awareness raising and litigation. Local NGOs have been working to monitor and document events. Community land governance committees have been established to map out the land, in particular to ensure the security of women’s access. For example, in 2012, Bread for the World held a workshop on how to use GPS and GIS to produce maps to monitor land deals and document human rights violations.(200) Studies and publications have brought evidence of the negative effects of land deals to the attention of the local population.(201)

The involvement of women in resistance is complicated by widespread discrimination, particularly in relation to the ownership of land. While there are some variances in how women can participate in decision making in relation to land ownership according to the region of the country – in general cultural norms mean women are excluded. There has been increased momentum however by civil society to involve women’s groups on the issue of land, including a conference focusing on women’s access and ownership of land. Christian Aid partners reported women are becoming more vocal. Women have been involved in direct resistance against land in some cases, with one reported case of a woman standing in front of a bulldozer refusing to allow a company access. Economic necessity and dependency on land has meant that women are forced to take employment with companies involved in large scale acquisitions- further complicating their involvement in resistance. Advocacy has also focused on national laws and policies. For example, in the North of Sierra Leone, community groups pushed for the passing of local by-laws to strengthen the application of national laws already in place. One such law provides for protection of land for women farmers and prohibits the lease of land without the approval of women farming that land first.(202) There is also a focus on getting a fairer deal and ensuring environmental protection through Local Content Policies and Community Development Plans. This is a pet project of the Government that is now being used as a focus for advocacy, to make sure it is used properly.(203)

As a form of direct protest, farmers have written letters reporting unethical practices around land deals to the national Human Rights Commission. Other tactics include blocking roads and equipment, and resistance to intimidation through court action. The government has shown some concern about the naming and shaming campaign adopted by local civil society. In some cases, foreign investors have responded to the research carried out on the negative impacts of land deals on industrial agriculture on the environment and people’s livelihoods by expressing a will to engage with civil society. A national conference organised by Green Scenery in June 2014 advocated that all land related laws to be reviewed and updated every five years in order to remain relevant and for consultation and consensus to be attained for all land acquisition affecting communities across the country.(204)

International civil society networks have been important for disseminating evidence about land deals and human rights violations in Sierra Leone, putting pressure on companies, donors and the government. Valuable support has also been given to convening national events. Some prominent examples include the 2012 BBC Land Debate: Is ‘land-grabbing’ good for Africa?(205) which focused on Sierra Leone. In the same year the UNDP led the first national conference on women and land, which brought together women from across the country, activists, the government and NGOs.(206)

Summary: Sierra Leone

Overall responses to land deals in Sierra Leone have focused on generating awareness and empowering communities to engage with companies and to appeal to national authorities. Christian Aid’s partners feel that civil society cannot stop the government opening the economy to largescale investment. Activism tends to be limited to revising the terms of incorporation in specific land deals and securing greater balance between the promotion of large-scale agribusiness and smallholder commercialisation in national policy. Mass protests at national level have not taken place, although awareness is growing about the impact of land deals. At local level, individuals and communities face sustained obstacles in responding to land deals, in securing appropriate compensation and incorporation and in seeking justice for human rights violations.

Using media and solidarity networks to draw international attention to human rights abuses has been a dominant approach. These tactics have been significant for pressuring companies to abide by more ethical procedures and for tempering government responses to resistance, and creating space for officials to listen to civil society concerns. There has been direct engagement with companies and there is some evidence in success in slowing down land deals and changing the terms of incorporation more in favour of land owners and users. The legal route has yet to be fully tested. Longer term strategies to improve the land law and strengthen governance may help to prevent abuses in future land deals, but are unlikely to reverse the trend of promoting land deals.


163.Christian Aid (2012) Partnership for Change. Christian Aid Sierra Leone Strategy 2012-7 Accessed at Images/Christian-Aid-Sierra-Leonestrategy-2012-17.pdf 23 April 2014
164.World Health Organisation (2014) Ebola response roadmap Situation Report 10 December 2014, http://apps.who. int/iris/bitstream/10665/145198/1/ roadmapsitrep_10Dec2014_eng.pdf?ua=1 poverty-matters/2014/oct/14/ebola-womensierra-leone
166.Central Intelligence Agency. https://www.cia. gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/ geos/sl.html
167. ALLAT (2013) Who is benefitting? The social and economic impact of large-scale land investments in Sierra Leone: a cost benefit analysis who-is-benefitting-Sierra-Leone-report.pdfp page 13
168.Country Information and Policy Unit (CIPU) (2001) ‘Sierra Leone Assessment, Amnesty International UK’, in Unruh, J. (2008) ‘Land Policy Reform, Customary Rule of Law and the Peace Process in Sierra Leone’, African Journal of Legal Studies, 2, 2, page 94-117.
169. Patricia Sturgess and Christopher Flower (2013) Land and Conflict in Sierra Leone: A Rapid Desk Study, Evidence on Demand
170.Oakland Institute (2011), ‘Understanding land investment deals in Africa. Country Report: Sierra Leone, http://media.oaklandinstitute. org/sites/ SierraLeone_Land_Investment_report_0.pdf 23 April 2014
171. Ibid 167, page 14
172.Budget Advocacy Network (2014) Losing out. Sierra Leone’s massive revenue losses from tax incentives www.taxjusticeafrica. net/sites/default/files/Sierra-Leone-Reporttax-incentives-080414.pdf Accessed 23 April 2014
173.Land Matrix by=&starts_with=S Accessed 23 April 2014
174. For example, Sepahan Afrique;
175.See for example, Oakland Institute (2011) and ALLAT (2013) p 14
176.Oakland Institute (2011), ‘Understanding land investment deals in Africa. Country Report: Sierra Leone, http://media.oaklandinstitute. org/sites/ SierraLeone_Land_Investment_report_0.pdf 23 April 2014
177. ALLAT (2013) p 68; Deutsche Welthungerhilfe (2012) page 5
178.Ibid 167
179.Deutsche Welthungerhilfe.V., (2012) ‘Increasing Pressure for Land: Implications for Rural Livelihoods and Development Actors, A Case Study in Sierra Leone,’ October, p5. 180.Ibid 176, page 41
181. Ibid 167, page 62
182.Ibid 167
183.Green Scenery, ‘Factsheet on Large-Scale Agri-Investments’, 4 – 5. Available on www. org/files/GS_Factsheet_Pujehun.pdf.
184.See for example Deutsche Welthungerhilfe (2012) page 9-13 185.
187. Interview Pujehun community November 2013, Pujehun, Sierra Leone.
188.Ibid 176
189.Interview with SILNORF, November 2013, Freetown, Sierra Leone.
190.Tarawallie, M. ‘Women in Sierra Leone: Resisting dispossession,’ 16 December 2013 191. Interview with SILNORF, November 2013, Freetown, Sierra Leone.
192.Interview Pujehun community November 2013, Pujehun, Sierra Leone.
193.Interview Christian Aid programme staff November 2013, Freetown, Sierra Leone. 194.Interview with Green Scenary, November 2013, Pujehun, Sierra Leone.
195.Interview Pujehun community November 2013, Pujehun, Sierra Leone.
196.Press Release, ‘Launching ALLAT,’
197. Interview with Green Scenary, November 2013, Pujehun, Sierra Leone. 198.Interview Pujehun community November 2013, Pujehun, Sierra Leone.
199.Interview with SILNORF, November 2013, Freetown, Sierra Leone.
200.Report of Training of Trainers Workshop on GPS and GIS, Held in Makeni City from 28th December 2011 – 12th January 2012.
201.Swisspeace and FriEnt, ‘Critical Reflection following the KOFF Roundtable on Land Grabbing in Fragile and Conflict-Affected Contexts’ 27 November 2012.
202.Mariama Tarawallie, ‘Women in Sierra Leone: Resisting dispossession,’ 16 December 2013
203.Interview Christian Aid programme staff November 2013, Freetown, Sierra Leone. 204.A Declaration of Citizens Assembled At the Atlantic Conference Hall, Freetown, Sierra Leone, http://standardtimespress. org/?p=5221, Accessed on 12 December 2014. 205.BBC Africa Debate: Is ‘Land Grabbing’ Good for Africa?, Feb 24, 2014
206.All Africa (2012)Sierra Leone: Fighting for Women’s Right to Land, 22 June 2012

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