Obama Meets Koroma: Time to Talk Land Rights

When President Koroma of Sierra Leone visits Washington this Thursday, President Obama will rightly praise his counterpart for a decade of democracy, and for recovering from a devastating civil war. But Sierra Leone's progress is precarious.
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When President Koroma of Sierra Leone visits Washington this Thursday, President Obama will rightly praise his counterpart for a decade of democracy, and for recovering from a devastating civil war.

But Sierra Leone's progress is precarious. About a million hectares, a seventh of the country's land mass, has been leased out for mining and large-scale agriculture projects in recent years, and President Koroma is likely to advocate for more American investment in these sectors during his visit. Without adequate protection of community rights over land and environment, that economic strategy is dangerous: it can lead to gross exploitation and violent conflict.

The vast majority of land in Sierra Leone is held under customary tenure, with no formal documentation and no clear governance arrangements for making land use decisions.

We are representing twenty-five villages in President Koroma's home province, whose inhabitants were shocked to find that all of their land was included in a fifty year, 23,000 hectare lease agreement with the Swiss biodiesel firm Addax. The lease covers water bodies, family farms, forests, and even the land where our clients have built their homes. The land owning families are to receive $3.20 in rent per acre per year.

Family representatives did place their thumb prints on an agreement, but they didn't understand the terms. They were provided with lawyers, but those lawyers were paid for by Addax, and the villagers said they had hardly any contact with them.

Contrary to the written agreement, local political leaders assured the villagers that Addax would only use a portion of their land. President Koroma, meanwhile, repeatedly championed the project in public speeches. In the end our clients did not feel they had much choice.

This month Addax agreed to limit the scope of its lease in Masethele, the one village that had refused to sign. Going forward we hope to renegotiate the terms of the agreement for all affected villages.

Conflicts between communities and companies have emerged elsewhere as well. In late 2011 police arrested and prosecuted 39 people who were protesting the take-over of their land by the palm oil company Socfin. In other cases, the disputes are not about whether a firm should be allowed at all--many communities welcome investment--but about the way a firm should operate. In separate incidents over the last year, police shot and killed laborers who were protesting working conditions at the Octea diamond mine in the Eastern Province and the African Minerals iron ore mine in the Northern Province.

Major reforms are necessary to ensure that investment projects lead to sustainable, inclusive development. President Koroma can make these happen, and Obama should urge him to do so.

A land policy has been under discussion since 2005, with no results to date. The government should require firms to obtain informed consent from affected communities before beginning operations. And Sierra Leone needs to establish a procedure--as other African countries have done--that allows communities to formalize their customary land claims and elaborate the rules by which they manage their lands. Better internal governance will put communities in a stronger position to negotiate with outsiders.

Once projects are under way, government needs to enforce the social and environmental conditions to which firms have committed. Today, obligations to limit pollution or create a minimum number of jobs are recorded in "community development agreements" and multi-volume "environmental impact assessments." Communities usually never see these documents, much less understand them.

The Ministry of Mines and the newly created Environmental Protection Agency are theoretically mandated to monitor compliance, but they rely almost entirely on industry self-reporting and have rarely taken action against firms. Sierra Leone can do much better.

President Koroma should also ensure passage of a right to information bill, something he has promised for years. Secrecy in dealings between government and firms can fuel conflicts down the road.

Last year President Koroma signed a landmark legal aid law. That legislation presents an excellent opportunity to reduce the imbalance of power between communities and firms, and to strengthen access to justice across the board. The law calls for a community paralegal office in every chiefdom; these frontline legal aid workers would be supported by a small corps of public interest lawyers. The law builds on a decade of innovation by Sierra Leonean civil society, including the paralegal organization Timap for Justice. (full disclosure: one of us co-founded Timap for Justice).

A functioning legal aid system would ensure that communities have their own representation when entering negotiations, rather than relying on counsel hired by the opposing party, as our clients in the Addax case had to do.

Encouragement from President Obama on these issues is not meddling. American firms could avoid conflicts and invest more successfully if the rules are clear. Also, American support inevitably strengthens President Koroma's authority at home. The U.S. needs to make sure its engagement benefits not only foreign leaders but the people those leaders represent.

Sonkita Conteh and Vivek Maru work with the legal empowerment organization Namati.

Follow Vivek Maru on Twitter: www.twitter.com/vivekhmaru

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