Report on seminar held on 15th February 2013- Land for Food or Fuel: Who loses in Sierra Leone?


Land for Food or Fuel:  Who loses in Sierra Leone?

A Case Study of the wider sub-Saharan African Crisis

Compiled by Martin Rowan

The Sierra Leone Ireland Partnership (SLIP), in association with DÓCHAS,

held a consultation, on 15th February 2013,  with stakeholders on the emerging issue of land acquisitions by foreign companies in Sierra Leone. The seminar, at All Hallow’s College Drumcondra, was entitled: Land for Food or Fuel: Who loses in Sierra Leone? :A Case Study of the wider sub-Saharan African Crisis. The keynote speakers were   Joseph Rahall, Founder, in 1989, of Green Scenery, a Sierra Leone environmental campaigning organization, and Majda Bne SaaD, Lecturer on Food Security and Development Management, at the School of Politics and International relations at University College Dublin. The event was chaired by Mary Sweeney, Regional Liaison Officer for Central and West Africa, for  Trócaire.

The event was attended by forty people. As well as members of SLIP, the seminar was attended by representatives from the Spiritans, Concern, The deBorda Institute, Department of Politics and Public Administration University of Limerick, Plan Ireland, World Vision, Department of Foreign Affairs, Voluntary Service Overseas, Liberia Solidarity Group, Irish Human Rights Commission, Christian Aid, Trócaire, Environmental Foundation for Africa, Action Aid, The Green Party, The Honorary Consul for Sierra Leone in Ireland, Green Scenery Ireland, Holy Rosary Sisters, and observers.

The purpose of the seminar was to discuss the impact of large scale land acquisitions by multi-nationals in Sierra Leone for the purpose of growing oil palm and sugar cane for the production of bio-fuels and to explore problems associated with these acquisitions. Some of the problems are the curtailment of traditional rights to land, the exploitation of local labour, the displacement of land for food production and the resultant increase in food prices, and the violation of democratic rights. The proposed outcomes of the seminar were

  • a report for submission to the Irish government and through it to the EU during the term of Ireland’s Presidency of the EU
  •  a programme for a public awareness raising campaign for the Sierra Leone Ireland Partnership.

The seminar acknowledged the problem which faces the Government of Sierra Leone (GOSL). It is dependent for 50% of its revenue on foreign aid and wants to reduce that dependency. It is trying to do so at a time when donor countries are cash strapped themselves. The GOSL revenue source which is attractive to foreign investors, since the The Sierra Leone Trade & Investment Forum 2009 conference in London in 2009, is land. In President Koroma’s speech to that conference he placed investment in land as the chief attraction for investors in Sierra Leone ahead of mineral resources, tourism, port development or fishing. He specifically identified an innovative new 300 million dollar bio-fuels project developed by Addax, which combines a 16,500 hectare sugar plantation with an independent power generation facility” as an example of his hopes for the way future investment might be shaped.

Since that conference, the company in the President’s example, Addax Bioenergy, Addax & Oryx Group (Switzerland),  have been joined by

  • Bio Palm Star Oil (SL) of Bio Palm Energy (Singapore), of SIVA Group (Indian origins)
  • Quifel Agribusiness (S.L.) Ltd., Quifel Natural Resources (Portugal)
  • Sepahan Afrique (Iran)
  • Sierra Leone Agriculture (UK origins)
  • Socfin Agricultural Company (S.L.), Socfin (Belgian origins, registered in Luxemburg)

as investors in leases for land in Sierra Leone amounting to 500,000 ha or 5000sq kilometres. That amounts to 20% of arabale land  in a country which the 2012 Global Hunger Index (GHI) states has an  “alarming” level of hunger;[1].

This area is the equivalent of Counties Donegal or Kerry but less than counties Galway, Mayo, or Cork, in a country which is only 80% the size of Ireland. So it is dramatic change in local environment, land ownership, land use, and food production possibilities in a very short time.

The conference examined the basis of the claim by GOSL that such an area of land, and more, is superfluous to the country’s food production needs.  The GOSL’s claim is that only 15% of land is used for annual food production so the rest is surplus.[2] The conference contested the GOSL interpretation of land use and outlined the increasing demographic pressure on Sierra Leone’s 5.4million hectares of arable land. In ideal conditions SL’s arable land would need 20-30 years for rejuvenation after a period of cultivation. The traditional system of sustainable agriculture presumed a fallow period of that duration. By 1979 the fallow period was reduced to 15years and by 2011 it was down to 5 years. The increasing pressure on land use parallels population increases from 3 million in 1979 to 6 million in 2011.  By 2050 the population of Sierra Leone will have doubled again and the leased land will still be unavailable for food production due to the length of the negotiated leases. However the effect of the food insecurity being created by taking this amount of land out of food production is already being felt with the increase in food prices and some communities not producing food at all. So the conference questioned whether there was in fact any land available for the GOSL led investment scheme.

The conference also highlighted the gap between the promises made and their delivery by the companies involved in the land lease deals, with GOSL, such as the absence of benefits in infrastructure to the local community, and employment on a daily wage basis, at minimum wage rates. Also according to Christian Aid research GOSL will lose $188 million in revenue due to the tax concessions which sweeten the land deals.  There are no impact studies on the projected effect of clearing a million hectares for cultivation for a single crop, and treating it with fertiliser and insecticide.

The conference also considered the international context of these local developments in Sierra Leone under the heading of the causes and challenges of the global hunger crisis. The increasing food insecurity of Sierra Leone is reflected worldwide. It has been a global issue since 1973 but in recent years new triggers of crises have been added. These are climate change, oil prices, and conversion of food crop production to bio-fuel crop production. It is being called a silent emergency.

The background to this silent emergency is a strong growth in world demand for food 1996-2008 due to population growth.  The growth in food production did not keep pace with population growth in that period due to dollar devaluation, oil prices, rise in farm costs, expansion of bio-fuel production, weather, and aggressive buying of supplies against future crises. This gap created a scarcity in which speculation on food was a viable and profitable activity. This in itself accelerated scarcity. Also countries began to hoard food within country rather than offer it on the market, a kind of ‘starve your neighbour’ impulse. They reduced tariffs, too, on food imports and subsidised food production.

Besides the silent emergency of diminishing food supplies the other international factor relevant to local land grabbing in Sierra Leone is the confused debate about switching from fossil fuels to bio-fuels. The case for the switch centres on the possibility of reducing CO2 emissions. However, the unstated case may also be to reduce dependence on unstable fossil fuel supplies sources.

In the context of the EU, which is the area in which Ireland has most influence, the relevant EU policy is that articulated in the Renewable Energy Directive(RED) of 2009. The RED requires renewable energy sources to constitute 10% of final consumption of energy for transport in EU states by 2020. The official aim of the RED is to reduce European greenhouse gas ( GHG) emissions. An analysis of the plans of EU members for meeting the RED target shows they hope to meet that target, almost exclusively, through first generation bio-fuels. First generation bio-fuels are fuels generated from crops such as maize, palm kernel, sugar cane, rape seed, and jathropha beans. Thus the EU has created an opportunity for investors to cash in on this commitment while it has only very vague terms with which the production system must comply. One could contrast the welfare, health, environmental, and safety compliance terms which the EU enforces on beef before the product exits the farm gate and is launched on the EU market.

However, the core argument that switching to biofuels will ameliorate the GHG emissions problem is inconclusive. One best estimate is that it may effect a 3% decrease in emissions. There is even a call from the IMF and The World Bank to the G20 countries to scrap bio-fuel mandate and subsidies.

Therefore, it is worth asking if GHG emissions or unstable Middle Eastern fossil fuels supplies are the core problem being addressed. It is, at least, necessary to clarify that reducing dependence on foreign oil and bringing carbon emissions down are two different things.

The emergence of the Bioenergy Pact lobby group, in Brussels, is ostensibly a recognition that there are issues around the satisfying of the RED requirements from land clearances in Africa. However, conference members’ experience suggested that this group is there to facilitate land grabbing in Africa rather than to make it answerable and transparent.

The conference contributors proposed these activities, for participants, as a way of advancing the issues highlighted:

  • Advocacy at international level including the World Bank conference in the US in March
  • Questioning the coherence of Irish Aid spend on food security in Sierra Leone while food production capacity is being leased for bio-fuel production
  • Support for Action for Large Scale Land Acquisition Transparency (ALSLAT) and other partners
  • Mobilise rural people (small framers and landless dwellers)  at national level
  • Provide them with knowledge and information on the issue
  • Collect information on their concerns and document case studies
  • Lobby local, regional and national government on their behalf
  • Work with International NGOs to lobby their governments and the EU

The Plenary Session of the Conference called for:

  • A review of the EU Renewable Energy Directive (RED) in terms of its social cost in Africa, the speed of its targeted implementation and its regulatory environment. Ask the Irish Government to push for a review of the RED during the term of its Presidency


  • A Campaigning Document from SLIP on the issue of first generation bio-fuels
  • Examination of  the role of the traditional chiefs in the opaque deals which seem to be the basis of the land grabs in Sierra Leone
  • Revisiting of the issue of conditionality in Aid, though this policy has fallen into abeyance. Irish Govt. should push GOSL for transparency concerning the land deals.
  • Enhancing of the capacity of GOSL to police the land grabbing process  as investment is happening anyway and will continue
  • Revisit the Lisbon Treaty 2009, particularly the stipulation that EU must take account of the effect of its policies on Third countries and Developing countries


[1] The country’s 2012 GHI score is 24.7 which puts it 77th in the list. A reasonable food security score is 5 The Global Hunger Index 2012 estimates that 1 million hectares are leased or under negotiation.

[2] The FAO calculated that 2.8million hectares were under food production in 2005 as against GOSL’s claim of 750,000 hectares under food production.

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