Whose land is it, anyway? Sierra Leone gives locals a voice.

Nick Roll
Solomon Russell, a farmer, walks down a road in Largo, Sierra Leone, Oct. 14, 2022. On one side, forest has been cleared for an international mining operation.
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For more than a century, small farmers in Africa, Latin America, and Asia have found themselves at the mercy of foreign mining companies and industrial agriculture enterprises. All too often, their rights to the land they till have been ignored, or undervalued.

But that is changing in the West African nation of Sierra Leone, where laws went into effect in September that give local people who own and live off the land the authority to decide how it is used.

Why We Wrote This

A story focused on

Across the Global South, small farmers often complain of unfair treatment by foreign mining companies. Sierra Leone has just given local landowners a weapon with which to fight back.

Until now, only the government or local chiefs could strike land-use deals with foreign investors. Gold, diamonds, bauxite, and palm oil account for 75% of Sierra Leone’s export earnings – around $400 million. But the wealth has been slow to trickle down: 60% of the rural population lives on less than $1.90 a day.

Now, companies seeking a lease must win the consent of 60% of a property-owning family’s adults, or of the members of a community if the land is communally held.

Foreign investors warn that will prove too difficult, especially since land ownership records in Sierra Leone are not always clear, and that investment will dry up.

But for Mary Tommy, a farmer whose forest village has been polluted by a nearby mine, “those laws will help.”

Solomon K. Russell walks down a narrow dirt path, surrounded by teak trees that block out the sunlight and cool the afternoon air. He leaps over a column of fat black ants running across the trail, and the forest suddenly, unnaturally, ends. A denuded strip of beige earth stretches over an area the size of several football fields, pockmarked by pits full of wastewater. 

Machinery belonging to the Afro-Asia Mining Corp., a Chinese firm, rumbles in the distance. The remnant of a stream, polluted and diverted by the industrial operations, idles underneath a small wooden bridge. 

“This river really sustained the life of the people,” says Mr. Russell, who remembers, as a boy, jumping off the bridge into the water just a few feet below. Now, it’s barely ankle-deep. 

Why We Wrote This

A story focused on

Across the Global South, small farmers often complain of unfair treatment by foreign mining companies. Sierra Leone has just given local landowners a weapon with which to fight back.

“If you had seen this river before – and how we used to get fish out of this river,” he recalls.

Mr. Russell and his fellow villagers had no say in Afro-Asia’s arrival, nor in its operations. The company signed its lease with the local “paramount chief” who was empowered by a century-old colonial law.

But a sweeping package of land-rights bills, which went into effect in September, is set to change all that, giving local people who own and live off the land the authority to decide how it is used.

“Those laws will help,” says Mary Tommy, a farmer living in this 500-strong farming community made up of brightly painted concrete houses and mud brick homes with traditional high-pitched thatch roofs. “For us, the destruction has already been caused, but for other areas that have not witnessed this kind of destruction, I think it will be good.”

Wealth slow to trickle down

Many parts of Sierra Leone have been ravaged by foreign mining firms seeking gold, diamonds, and bauxite, among other minerals, and by palm oil plantations. Such natural resources accounted for over 75% of Sierra Leone’s exports in 2020, reaping around $400 million in income, according to official figures.

Yet the wealth has been slow to trickle down. The latest figures on poverty in the country, from 2018, showed that 60% of the rural population was living on less than $1.90 a day.

Nick Roll
Forest has been cleared for rutile mining in Largo, Sierra Leone. The mine has also diverted and polluted a stream that served as the community's primary water source, Largo residents say.

“People say ‘our land is our bank, our land is our future,’” says Eleanor Thompson, deputy director of programs at the Freetown office of Namati, a legal advocacy and land-rights organization. “Oftentimes what we’ve seen is that development has been pitted against people – one has to sacrifice for the other. And that doesn’t have to be the case, and that shouldn’t be the case.”

Until last month, only local chiefs and the national government could strike land use and leasing deals with foreign investors. The people whose land was taken could do little about it, and often had to accept rents amounting to only $5 an acre.

Mr. Russell, for example, says his rent is “too meager” to be able to buy from the market the fish he can no longer catch in the village stream.

But under the new laws, firms wishing to mine or establish industrial agriculture operations must henceforth strike deals with the ordinary Sierra Leoneans who depend on the land for their survival – and who, for the first time, will have the right to negotiate, or reject, their proposals.

September’s Customary Land Rights Act and the National Land Commission Act transfer the power to make decisions about land to those actually owning or using it. Companies seeking a lease must win the consent of 60% of a family’s male and female adults.

Where land is communally held, firms must persuade 60% of the adults in the community to agree to a lease. In the newly created land committees that are supposed to help negotiate those leases, made of local community members, 30% of members are to be women.

The new laws are not popular with foreign investors, many of whom are especially wary of a provision setting aside shares in international projects for Sierra Leoneans.

Foreign investors unhappy

“Nobody will invest in Sierra Leone anymore,” says Gerben Haringsma, country director for the Luxembourg-based palm oil company Socfin.

Although the law stipulates that local landowners should be given priority access to such shares, it does not limit sales to them only. That, says Mr. Haringsma, will enable “some minister, the president, the elite” to take advantage of the law.

“Who will benefit?” he wonders. “The landowners? Forget it.”

Nor are land ownership records in Sierra Leone always clear, making it hard for investors to know with whom they should negotiate land leases.

“Everybody is shouting ‘this is my land, this is my land,’ which not true,” Mr. Haringsma says.

Nick Roll
A woman washes her laundry in a stream that residents say has been polluted by a nearby rutile mine in Largo, Sierra Leone. Rutile is used in the manufacture of titanium.

Ms. Thompson, the land rights activist, says the laws might, however, help investors more than they realize.

“It’s in the investors’ interest to have the consent of people,” she says. Otherwise, “when problems arise, when there are abuses of power, there really isn’t a relationship to be able to mend or address those issues. And if the communities don’t feel as though they’re benefiting, they … could take matters into their own hands.”

Acts of sabotage and deadly protests against agribusiness and mining companies have erupted in the past.

Next time they want more

“If people had a say in negotiations they would sell their land for a … value that will enrich them and change their lives, maybe,” says Emmanuel Saffa Abdulai, executive director of the Freetown-based Society for Democratic Initiatives.

In Largo, villagers say that Afro-Asia promised to build them a health clinic, a school, and paved roads. Four years after mining operations started, none of that has come to pass, and the locals who have found jobs at the mine earn little more than $50 a month.

Afro-Asia did not respond to a request for comment. But the company’s lease in Largo is in its final year. To keep operating, it will have to renegotiate – this time with the local community under the new laws. 

Despite the environmental damage, many residents say they want mining to continue, but on their terms: better paying jobs, better rents and compensation for farmers whose crops have been displaced, the promised health clinic, and the eventual restoration of the surrounding environment. 

Largo has already paid the price. Its stream is “totally destroyed,” says Betty Sandy, a villager. “That was the water we used to drink, launder our clothes, bathe … but now it is no more,” she laments.

That makes the stakes of getting things right next time round even higher, says Ms. Tommy, the farmer, standing next to wetlands that haven’t been taken over by the mine, where villagers grow rice.

“Water is life,” she says.

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