SAHN, Sierra Leone — The day they came, Margaret Fascia was in her forest garden of cocoa trees, pineapple plants, palms, ferns and cassavas. Like most days of the week, she was working, looking after the crops that feed her family. But she was afraid. Word had gotten around that a foreign company was going to take their land.
And when they came, they came with a bulldozer.
“I stood in front of the machine,” Fascia said. “ ‘Peep peep peep’ made the bulldozer as it came right up to my foot. I didn’t move. So they stopped there. They don’t touch my palm trees.”
Fascia is a woman of around 50, who was recounting the story as she was standing in the middle of her garden, wearing a ripped turquoise shirt and a blanket around her waist. She is an exception in the Chiefdom of Sahn Malen in the Southern Province of Sierra Leone, because, unlike the majority of people here, she still owns a few acres of land. Most others either gave theirs up voluntarily or lost it in 2011 when the company Société Financière des Caoutchoucs (Socfin) arrived in the province to establish a large oil palm plantation.
Sierra Leone is among the poorest countries in the world. In the 1990s, when other African countries were privatizing key industries in order to attract foreign investment and become eligible for international loans, a civil war was raging in Sierra Leone that prevented the country from taking part in the controversial structural adjustment programs initiated by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Sources say that the country, eager to catch up, has been rushing into deals with foreign investors without first enacting legislation to protect the interests of local landowners.
In 2011, Socfin entered into a 50-year land lease agreement with the Sierra Leonean government and local authorities, which was followed by two more agreements. The company paid landowners a once-off compensation of 1 million Leones per acre (around $177) and started clearing the area to plant oil palm seedlings. In less than 10 years, the forest and farmland of Sahn Malen was transformed into thousands of hectares of monoculture oil palm fields.
Reception to the plantation has been divided. Some area residents say they welcome the jobs and income the company provides. But others allege the deal with Socfin was exploitative and corrupt.
Before the arrival of the company, Sahn Malen land was allocated to local people through unwritten customary law by the Paramount Chief, with lots demarcated by things like big branches. This is typical in rural Sierra Leone, whereas the capital city of Freetown ascribes to UK property law. Landowners say that when Socfin moved in, land was divided in a way that didn’t take into consideration traditional property boundaries.
“The land agreement is not proper,” Mattia Limbe told Mongabay in 2016. He is a native of Sahn Malen and one of the leading activists of the Malen Affected Land Owners Association (MALOA), an organization that opposes the land deal between Socfin and Sahn Malen landowners.
Limbe’s family owns several small oil palm plantations, from which they used to extract oil and sell it at local markets. Oil palm is native to West Africa and many people rely on the plant and other tropical crops for a living. He said that Socfin’s purchase of land per acre didn’t accurately compensate landowners for their property because there was no formal record of how many acres each person owned.
“It should have been determined how many acres we own – we don’t know,” Limbe said. “You can ask any person in this village if they know how many acres they owned, they won’t be able to tell you.”
Critics say there are also issues with the total amount of land leased to Socfin. In 2011, the company signed a sublease contract with the Sierra Leonean government represented by the Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Food Security in Freetown. In another contract, the Minister had leased the same plot of land from the Paramount Chief of Sahn Malen, who as the custodian of the land according to customary law, signed the lease on behalf of his people.
The original lease agreement in 2011 allocated 6,500 hectares to Socfin. However, the amended full lease area comprises 18,481 hectares of which 12,342 hectares were planted in 2019, according to the Philip Tonks, general manager of SOCFIN Agricultural Company Sierra Leone.
One man with all the power
The Socfin operation is one of post-war Sierra Leone’s biggest investments and one of its most controversial. International civil society organizations have criticized the project, saying it lacks transparency and has failed to obtain informed consent from affected communities.
When researchers with the German NGO Welthungerhilfe looked into large scale land acquisitions in Sierra Leone in 2012, they found that “Paramount Chiefs and heads of land owning families still dominate land tenure. Dependent land users have no formal right to land and disputes over space are frequent in rural areas.”
This hierarchical structure, Welthungerhilfe researchers write, means a company can acquire community land with the consent of just one person.
“The [Paramount Chief] as the highest custodian of traditional land in his chiefdom has a central role in accessing land,” the report says. “He may provide the contact to the landowning families and has to give the final consent for the land deal with his signature.”
In Sierra Leone, chiefs are the uncontested leaders within the boundaries of their territories. Instead of being elected democratically, they are descendants of the “ruling families” of the chieftaincies designated by the British colonial rulers in 1879. The consequence is that, depending on the leader, land deals are entered into without input from the local population who traditionally follow what their leaders say.
The Paramount Chief (PC) of Sahn Malen, Victor Kebbie, is one of the most powerful chiefs in the country. Until recently he was a Member of Parliament in Freetown, a position he has used to his advantage, according to critics of Socfin’s operation.
“The interviewed people in Pujehun [the district that comprises Sahn Malen] insisted that the decision to lease land is always taken by the family who provides the land,” states the Welthungerhilfe study in regard to the Socfin deal. “There are contradicting statements as to whether the content of the lease agreement was made public before it was signed. While PC Kebbie explained that the agreement – written in English – was read in full length at the meeting, 76 other witnesses of the meeting said that the agreement was not explained and the signatories were not aware of its content.”
Legal scholars say the lease agreement violates the tenets of Free, Prior and Informed consent – which is protected under international human rights law.
“It is obvious that whatever consent must have been given by the Lessor in this agreement was not an informed consent and thus could have been obtained in bad faith,” wrote Patrick Johnbull in a 2011 legal analysis of the lease agreement.
A study by Harvard University published in 2013 found that “the chieftaincy as it exists today in Sierra Leone and elsewhere is a construction of colonialism, and indeed one that has been strongly criticized.”
“I didn’t sell my land,” Limbe said, “they took it over by force, five hectares. People who did not want to sell land they used found themselves side-lined by other family members who had a better relationship with the Paramount Chief.”
While Kebbie’s position has drawn the ire of Limbe and other critics, it’s been a boon to Socfin.
“You can’t have a weak Paramount Chief if you want to do business,” said Gerben Haringsma at Socfin’s headquarters in Brussels in 2016. “The Paramount Chief came and made immense pressure on the people who live there. He is the king. When the Paramount Chief says: you have to give up your land for Socfin, it’s very difficult for the majority of people to disobey.”
Haringsma helped establish the Sahn Malen palm oil operation back in 2011. While he has since resigned from his function as country manager as a result of “being tired of fighting with NGOs,” he is still a board member and major shareholder. He maintained that the plantation benefits the local population: “They were hungry before. There was nothing there.”
“Some people are happy, some are not happy,” said Mohammed Kamare, who lives in a block of new houses built with compensation received from the company. He said that in addition to housing creation, money from Socfin helped some residents buy motorbikes with which they provide transport services. Kamare is from the neighboring village of Pujehun and said he is happy to have been able to find a job here as a security guard. He received a contract for two months. “There was forest everywhere, if you look around us, this was all forest,“ he said. “When the company came they brought the bulldozers, and now there is development, there are lights, there are jobs.”
‘There’s good corruption and bad corruption’
PM Kebbie’s new house is at the entrance to Sahn Malen, a huge white mansion surrounded by huts built with cheap materials that belong to the people of the village. Some allege Kebbie’s support of the Socfin project was bought by the company. Haringsma freely admitted that he has paid for some of Kebbie’s expenses.
“If the Chief needs his car repaired, I pay for it,” Haringsma said. “If it’s his wife’s birthday and he asks for money, I give him.”
Haringsma doesn’t believe corruption is necessarily a bad thing.
“There is good corruption and bad corruption,” Haringsma said. “Negative corruption is when you pay someone money who says he wouldn’t do something without you paying him. Good corruption is when you give money to someone who you know wants to do something anyway, you just help him do it by paying him.”
Kebbie, meanwhile, defended the Socfin deal and maintained he acquired consent from the community before proceeding with the plantation, saying he called a meeting before the company came and “got the majority to say yes, bring it.”
“Investors come to help,” he said when Mongabay interviewed him in 2015 at the Sahn Court Barray, the central meeting point for local residents. “When they come we have to drop some of our cultural thinking and attitude.” Kebbie said he has started to westernize the area, starting with the secret forest of Sahn Malen, an important area for traditional rituals, which he cleared to build more housing.
Kebbie dismissed the criticism as unavoidable: “Of course you get resistance. I am sure you heard of Shiaka Sama?”
Shiaka Sama is a member and former Member of Parliament (MP) of the opposition party, current independent MP and the founder of MALOA. His family once ruled the Sahn Malen chiefdom. And he is the stone in Kebbie’s shoe.
Sama’s name was the first to be dropped whenever a company official or paramount chief spoke about the opposing movement. According to them, Sama is the one inciting dissent against Socfin.
“I am a very expensive man,” Sama told Mongabay in Bo, a town three hours from Sahn Malen. “I was offered money several times.” He said that because he kept refusing, “they say I am complicated and dangerous.”
Socfin has operations all over the world, but the conflicts between landowners, authorities, and the company in Sierra Leone may be among the most violent.
In the years since the contracts were signed, protest has been commonplace, with repeated arrests and legal prosecution of community activists. Limbe says MALOA activists like him were forced to go underground after continuous persecution ordered by the Paramount Chief.
MALOA activists have repeatedly been arrested. The charges include “destruction of growing plants,” “conspiracy” and “incitement.” In 2016, six men, including Sama and Limbe, were given jail terms of six months and only released after they raised the money to pay a bail of around $5,000 each. In January 2019, 15 people were arrested after an incident during which two men were allegedly shot dead by government security forces inside Socfin’s concession area.
First charged with murder, Sama and the others were released due to a lack of evidence but are now being charged with “robbery with aggravation, kidnapping, incitement, publishing false news about the President,” according to Shiaka Sama.
The company has distanced itself from the arrests. “This law suit has no representation from Socfin as it is the Government’s legal counsel who have taken this law suit on against Shiaka Sama and other suspects for the incitement, invoking of the secret society and the death [sic] of 2 people.”
Several human rights organizations who examined the case claim that the incident, which was found to be unrelated to the land dispute,“was used by local authorities as a pretext for an illegal repression directed at MALOA leaders.”
The next hearing was scheduled to take place in April 2020, but due to the COVID-19 global health crisis it was delayed until further notice.
A glimmer of hope for activists appeared in 2019 when, in response to the ongoing tensions, Sierra Leone president Julius Maada Bio sent a mediation team to Sahn Malen.
While the government has yet to officially publish its findings, a leaked copy of the “report of the technical committee” describes several irregularities relating to the Belgian investor’s operations.
It mentions that while the Paramount Chief “receives the sum of 45 647 $ each year as the Chiefdom Council’s twenty percent share of the lease rent,” the community has not identified “one development project in the entire chiefdom that those monies were used to implement.”
The report further notes that politicians have used the conflict for political gains and that the active concession area is 650 hectares larger than is stipulated in Socfin’s lease agreements.
“There is therefore an appreciable difference between the grant on paper and what is on the ground,“ the report says. It concludes that “both the company and the landowners are victims … of unscrupulous corrupt and unconscionable politicians.”
SOCFIN Agricultural Company Sierra Leone, Socfin’s subsidiary that operates the Sahn Malen plantation, contests the report’s findings. Plantation manager Philip Tonks says it “is evidently a made up report by elements against Socfin which has no signature or stamp of Government on it.”
Like most conflicts that have emerged in association with Socfin’s operations around the world, the Sahn Malen case remains unresolved.
The research for this story began in 2013, with field visits to Cameroon and Sierra Leone in 2015 and 2016. The author closely monitors the course of events, regularly receives updates from communities and people on the ground and fact-checks new developments through conversations with the relevant stakeholders in affected countries.