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How a Tycoon is Grabbing Land in Sierra Leone

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By J C Suresh
IDN-InDepth NewsReport

TORONTO (IDN) - A new report by the eminent Oakland Institute exposes a French tycoon's exploitative land grab practices in Sierra Leone. It details a pattern of coercion, lack of consultation, and failure to fairly compensate Sierra Leonean landowners who have been pressured into ceding their land to the Socfin Land Investment corporate giant.

In 2011, the Socfin Agricultural Company Sierra Leone Ltd. (Socfin SL) secured 6,500 hectares (ha) of prime farmland for rubber and oil palm plantations in Malen chiefdom in Pujehun district in the south of Sierra Leone. The company is now seeking an additional 5,000 ha in expansion plans in the Malen region or neighbouring chiefdoms.

The initial investment, estimated at US$100 million, with promises of job creation, compensation for lost farms, and construction of infrastructures, enjoyed high-level government support. The 50-year lease was signed by the Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Food Security, Dr. Sam Sesay.

Despite this political backing, the Socfin SL investment has been facing significant resistance from the local population. In early October 2011, on land they claim as their own, over a hundred landowners started a blockade in Socfin's area in Malen chiefdom.

The peaceful protest came about after several attempts by land owners to renegotiate the lease agreement signed by the government. Affected communities voiced anger at not being properly consulted and cheated on the land deal that was facilitated by their Paramount Chief, B.V.S. Kebbie.

By mid-October 2011, 40 people in the chiefdom had been arrested and taken to prison. Green Scenery – a non-governmental organization in Sierra Leone working towards a future where food is secured, human rights are respected, access to justice is guaranteed and biodiversity is protected – engaged a lawyer to ensure that the rights of land owners were respected.

After three days, 25 people were released but 15 were charged on counts of riotous conduct, conspiracy, and threatening language and were kept behind bars in Pujehun, the district’s capital. While initially refused bail, the lawyer appealed to the High Court who ruled in favour of the accused and guaranteed bail.

"The police arrested and beat up a number of us ...about 38 at that time. Later at night they came into the village, knocking at the door and taking people forcibly out of their houses. Some people fled and had to run into the river. The police supervisors arbitrarily pointed at people and they were arrested and taken to Pujehun," said Eddy Kamara from Sanh Village in direct communication with Oakland Institute researchers on February 25, 2012

"Once in detention, we were told that we will all rot in prison... Fifteen were left in prison cells and charged. Our lawyer who represented us was not allowed to post bail and we spent the night in jail. After which we were transferred to Pujehun. We were there for eight days in police cells. We were given no food," he added.

Since the release of the "15" (as they are now regarded) on October 18, 2011, several court hearings have been set up by the Magistrate court, but only two were held. Each time hundreds of supporters of the "15" have poured into the courtroom. On March 3, 2012 the Local Unit Commander of Pujehun District who ordered the arrest, was slated to testify but he failed to appear.

Socfin SL is a subsidiary of the Belgian corporation, Socfin (Société Financière des Caoutchoucs), an investment holding company, which operates in diverse sectors, including plantations, agro-engineering, banking, finance, and real estate, among others. The main shareholder of the company is Bolloré Investissement SA (Bolloré Group), owned by a prominent French businessman, Vincent Bolloré.

Bolloré's empire has grown dramatically over the past two decades. By buying up former colonial companies and taking advantage of the wave of privatization spurred by the "structural adjustments" imposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Bolloré has become a key player in the economic structure and political life of many African countries. The Bolloré Group is now present in 92 countries all over the world, including 43 countries in Africa alone.

It controls plantations, industries and services, including shipping, transport infrastructures, oil production as well as African ports (13 as of 2012). Bolloré's grip over the continent is gaining new dimensions as it expands investments in plantations. The Group's profits from plantations in Asia and Africa surged by 187% between 2009-2011.

"They are running roughshod over the rights of local landowners," said Frederic Mousseau, Oakland Institute's policy director and author of the report. "Bolloré Group, ranked among the top 500 companies in the world, and its subsidiaries, have gained a reputation for descending powerfully on developing countries and setting up plantations for palm oil and rubber trees. In Cambodia, Liberia, Cameroon, and Sierra Leone, the group has  a reputation for leaving communities disfranchised as they acquire land cheaply through questionable processes and act with little regard for existing owners," he continued.

Bolloré-controlled plantations offer abysmal employment conditions. In Cameroon, workers at SOCAPALM have referred to themselves as "SOCAPALM slaves." NGOs, human rights groups, and journalists have uncovered "insalubrious" living conditions and "miserable" wages.

In Cambodia, the World Rainforest Movement and the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) have documented human rights abuses and details of coercive land acquisition practices that have led to protests by the ethnic minority Bunong, who have lost their historical land and their livelihoods without fair compensation.

"The release of this new brief is very timely," said Anuradha Mittal, executive director of the Oakland Institute. It came in run-up to the first ever meeting of landowners and land-users from all over Sierra Leone in Freetown on April 2-3 "to discuss and strategize about how to respond to abuses and coercion such as those related to Socfin's operations."

"The landowners and community members in Sierra Leone are taking on a goliath. Bolloré Group is known to effectively quell protests, as seen in their dealings in Cambodia and Cameroon," said Oakland Institute's Mousseau. Bolloré has thus far been adept at shielding the general public from details of dissent due to media ownership and the threat of lawsuits. [IDN-InDepthNews – April 02, 2012]

2012 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

Picture: Oakland Institute

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