New laws give Sierra Leone farmers the power to protect their lands

In villages like Tonka, farmers seek advice from paralegals and human rights organizations to take advantage of legislation that can protect them from large corporations

Sierra Leona África
Al Haji Bunduka, frpm the NGO SiLNoRF, briefs residents of Masethele village on Sierra Leone's new land laws.Aida Grovestins

Aminata Bangura balances a banana tree on her head as she carefully descends a steep, slippery slope. Barefoot, she looks for firm ground in the mud. All around her are children playing in the wide Rokel River, which runs through Sierra Leone from the east to the Atlantic Ocean. The woman, wearing a yellow skirt and a faded pink T-shirt, wades waist-deep water through the river to reach the fertile fields of her community on the other side. A long walk. “Risky at times,” she says, “due to the current, especially for our children who help us.” The walk has become a daily routine since the large bioethanol-producing factory was constructed on their fields, right next to their village

A large fence separates the plant from the village. “We are very happy when the tide is low, because then we can wade through the water. But during high tide, it is much riskier. The company cut down all the big trees in the area and, with the smaller ones that are left, we can only make narrow, unstable canoes,” says Bangura. She plans to plant banana trees in a corner of the peanut and corn fields in her community, with the idea of generating more income for herself and her three children.

The factory is part of an ambitious bioenergy project that was supposed to produce ethanol from sugarcane for the European market and produce electricity for the local power grid. In 2010, the oil and gas company, Addax & Oryx Group — registered in Malta — made the largest agricultural investment in Sierra Leone’s history: a 50-year land lease of 50,000 hectares. The Sierra Leonean government, recovering from a decade-long, devastating civil war that had ended in 2002, was at the time looking for big investors to give a boost to its economy.

The farmers complain that the lease from Addax, the government and local leaders ignored them, arguing that they are the real owners and users of the land in Tonka, a village of 300 people in the north of the country, about three hours’ drive from the capital, Freetown. Traditionally, the community managed the land according to traditional law, without officially registering who owned each plot.

Addax bioethanol plant, near the town of Tonka (Sierra Leone).
Addax bioethanol plant, near the town of Tonka (Sierra Leone).AIDA GROVESTINS

In September 2022, following years of advocacy and mobilization by members of local communities and organizations like SiLNoRF and Namati (a grassroots legal empowerment organization) two new land laws were passed that give women rights over land ownership, farmers the ability to negotiate the value of land (previously this responsibility fell to community leaders) and to veto projects. Companies that want to operate in Sierra Leone must obtain consent from communities before mining, building factories or farms.

Ali Haji Bunduka, an energetic young man with short dreadlocks under his cap, stands with a group of farmers. The farmers’ shirts are soaked with sweat from preparing the soil for reseeding the ground under the blazing sun. Bunduka, who works for SiLNoRF, is going to teach them how to use a GPS device to map their land. Over the last year, this man has gone from town to town in his car to explain the new laws. “The new legislation transfers power from the community leaders and district chiefs to the people actually owning and using the land,” he says to residents. “Do you see how fertile this land is? Almost anything can grow here.”

On arrival in the village of Malenka, Bunduka hears clapping. Villagers are sitting in a circle on small wooden benches under the cover of large mango trees, while children play around them. They attentively listen to Zeinab Kamara, one of the women who were part of the traditional land law commission that went to the parliament last August, to advocate for the new land law proposals to be implemented into law. “Together with Silnorf, we are doing what the government should be doing: informing the people about the new land laws,” she says. While she looks around, she explains to the villagers that, through these new laws, women now have the right to own land. Moreover, all land commissions must consist of at least 30 percent women. “Mapping out your land is crucial for getting it officially registered and proving ownership,” she tells them.

Promises of jobs and sustainability

Addax lured seven European and African development banks with promises about sustainability, food security, schools, hospitals, and jobs for the local population. Several NGOs initially alerted development banks to the risks to human rights and sustainable development posed by these large-scale monocultures in the hands of a large company.

Tonka farmers say those fears have come true. “Our forests, full of fruit and palm trees, were cut. Suddenly, we went from having three meals per day to two and sometimes one,” Aminata Bangura says, wiping the sweat dripping from her face with her T-shirt. She just planted the banana tree. “We have been suffering since the sugarcane project started leasing our land,” she continues, “The factories drains are discharged in the river. We drink contaminated water. We swim in this water, wash ourselves and our cloths in it.” The group of farmers standing around her hums in agreement. “Since the factory started its operations, many of us have skin problems”, Bangura adds. She lifts the yellow cloth she has wrapped around her waist to show some spots on her legs.

Aminata Bangura crosses the river to plant a banana tree in Tonka, next to the factory.
Aminata Bangura crosses the river to plant a banana tree in Tonka, next to the factory.AIDA GROVESTINS

Furthermore, the farmers claim that, when the factory leased this land, part of the deal was that it would provide them with electricity. But the town remains in darkness. At night, residents sit on wooden benches eating roasted peanuts. The only light comes from the flashlights on their phones. Al Haji Bunduka says that land disputes are breaking out in the communities and that some residents who work at the factory complain of delayed salaries and not receiving protective equipment against snake bites.

But holding the company accountable for these broken promises is complicated: The majority stake in the Addax bioenergy project was sold in 2016 to Mauritius-registered Sunbird Bioenergy Africa, and Sunbird shares changed hands twice, from one majority investor to another. Furthermore, since 2011, the project has been drastically reduced to 23,500 hectares, of which only 10,000 are used for sugar cane. Apart from bioethanol, the factory produces alcohol for the European hand sanitizer market.

Small successes

In Masethele, the next village, women are drying rice on large mats and are producing red palm oil. Following successful advocacy by Silnorf and Namati, the villagers of Masethele were able to lease only part of their lands.

During a lively meeting in an open-air community space, Kanu, a tall, slim middle-aged man, advocates for joint community efforts to push for renegotiations of the lease. “Large sections of the lands that Sunbird leases, but doesn’t use, can be cultivated by the surrounding communities. With the new laws on our side, we have a real chance,” he tells the community. “As you all know, we have already had some small successes where the company allowed us to work on the land again in certain areas.”

The villagers want to join forces with the farmers of Tonka and other surrounding villages to reclaim the fields from Sunbird Bioenergy that they traditionally used for rice cultivation and to renegotiate the rental price. There will be a new round of negotiations with the company in 2024.

Human rights organizations and parliamentarians from West African countries and Zambia in East Africa have expressed interest in Sierra Leone’s new land laws and efforts to resist and negotiate better terms with international companies. The paralegals of Namati and SiLNoRF believe that public financial institutions should be held co-accountable for what happens to their investments, as they are part of public private partnership policies that the World Bank and IMF promote.

Sunbird Bioenergy, which declined to comment, states on its website that with the bioethanol and alcohol project in Sierra Leone it contributes to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

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