For their secret meeting, they've chosen a very small village surrounded by forest in Kpaka Chiefdom in southern Sierra Leone. About one hundred men - chiefs, elders and youth leaders from all over the chiefdom - have gathered in the shade of a very large tree. Conspicuously absent is their Paramount Chief, the supreme traditional authority in the chiefdom, without whose approval they should not even be here. But this is no ordinary meeting; its purpose is to contest the Paramount Chief's authority to sign away their land. Also absent are women, but in neighboring villages they express support for the men meeting here and for their cause.
One after another, the men stand up to complain. They say the Paramount Chief leased their land to a foreign company without consulting them, without the consent of the family heads who are the customary landowners. They have never even laid eyes on the lease agreement, which was signed in January 2011 by the Paramount Chief. It gives an Indian company, Biopalm Energy, control of nearly 20,000 hectares (close to 50,000 acres) of land in Kpaka Chiefdom for 50 years, with a possible extension of 21 years.
Tempers flare in the afternoon heat. Some at the meeting want to write a letter of protest right now to the government authorities in Pujehun, the headquarters town of Pujehun District, which includes Kpaka Chiefdom. Others say that they want the company representatives to come and negotiate directly with them. Meanwhile, they say if anyone enters their "bush" - their land - without their permission, there will be big, big problems. The threats of violence do not bode well for peace in the chiefdom.
Land - the new blood diamonds?
It's March 2013 and Sierra Leone has just celebrated 11 years of peace following a horrific decade-long civil war that was fueled by blood diamonds. Vast amounts of donor money, US $2.5 billion from the United Nations alone, were spent restoring the peace and billions more have been spent consolidating it. While Sierra Leone remains one of the poorest countries in the world, recently it has been experiencing high GDP growth linked with iron ore and diamond mining. Since 2002, the country has undergone three largely peaceful elections. In 2011, at great expense and with great fanfare, it celebrated the 50th anniversary of its independence from Britain.
But in Kpaka Chiefdom, and elsewhere in the country where large foreign investors are moving in, the mood is not all that celebratory. District authorities in Pujehun express concern that the seeds of the next conflict are already being sown. This time it is not diamonds at the heart of the matter; it's something far more valuable to local people - farmland.
The Sierra Leonean NGO Green Scenery calculates that in the past three years in Pujehun District, large investors, primarily representing foreign interests, have taken out long-term leases on at least 248,219 hectares [613,362 acres] - more than 60 percent of the total area of and 81 percent of all the arable land - in Pujehun District.
While food production has been steadily rising in the years since the war ended, Sierra Leone remains a low-income, food-deficit country that relies heavily on small family farms for its food production. Most of the investors that have leased farmland in Pujehun District plan to use it not for food production, but for industrial plantations of oil palm. Annual rents vary from about 23 US cents to US $12.35 per hectare [9 cents to $5 per acre). In a press statement, Green Scenery warns that the poor compensation rates and the concentration of land in the hands of a few corporate investors will leave local farming communities with very little to live off after their land is converted to giant plantations and they've lost their farm fields, forest fallows and valuable economic trees.
Sierra Leone a "Wild West" in need of a sheriff?
In an interview in October 2012, José Graziano da Silva, director general of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, compared "land grabs" in Africa to the "Wild West" and said that a "sheriff" was needed to restore the rule of law. Given the rate at which land is being acquired for industrial agriculture and the lack of legal oversight in the country, Green Scenery asks whether Sierra Leone has become part of the "Wild West." The evidence suggests that it is.
Figures from registered land leases and investor announcements indicate that since 2009, large investors have leased more than 1.2 million hectares [nearly 3 million acres] in Sierra Leone, or close to 23 percent of the country's arable land. The leases are mostly for 50 years, with possible extensions bringing some up to 100 years. And this is in addition to the mining leases that cover nearly the whole country.
Despite these startling figures, there has been no government acknowledgement of the scale of the land deals, nor any official recognition of the risks involved. President Ernest Bai Koroma continues to praise the large agricultural investors operating in the country. The Minister of Agriculture has described those that criticize the operations of one large foreign agricultural investor as "unpatriotic."
There is almost no public discussion of the land rush, although in interviews several Ministry of Agriculture officials, including former Director of Crops, James K. Pessima, do express concern about the rate at which land is being snapped up by investors and the low rents being paid for it. However, few are aware of just how much of Sierra Leone's farmland is now controlled by foreigners. In Pujehun District, for example, the District Officer, the District Agricultural Officer, the Deputy Director of the District Council and District Councillors say they are unaware of many of the leases in their district. Although many leases were signed by District Chief Administrator John Lahai Swaray, in an interview in late 2012 he denied knowledge of them. Nor is there a central repository of the agreements in the district.
Many in Pujehun District, including security agents, chiefs and government officials, express concern over the tension and arrests that have marred the peace in Malen Chiefdom. There, Socfin Agricultural Company (SL) Limited, a subsidiary of the giant Luxemburg-registered Socfin Group, has leased 6,575 hectares [16,247 acres] for oil palm plantations, and is looking to double its land holdings. The situation was so tense that in late 2012, aggrieved landowners in Malen Chiefdom called on the Sierra Leone Human Rights Commission to come to their assistance - which they did in 2013. Yet Mohamed Kemoh Mansaray, the District Officer in Pujehun and chair of the District Security Committee, says the Socfin operation and lease is a "small thing" compared with other, much bigger leases that he is now just discovering have been signed in other chiefdoms.
Who are the new landlords in Sierra Leone and what lands do they hold?
The lease in Kpaka Chiefdom is just one - and indeed the smallest - of eight registered agreements in seven of the 12 chiefdoms in Pujehun District. Three of them are held by Biopalm Energy, which is acquiring vast land holdings in Africa and Asia to "become the largest global player in the production of sustainable palm oil." According to Green Scenery, the Siva Group is now the largest landowner in Pujehun District, with close to 100,000 hectares, nearly one quarter of the total area of the entire district. The company is part of the complex corporate web of the Siva Group, an Indian conglomerate registered in Singapore and owned by the elusive Indian billionaire, Chinnakannan Sivasankaran.
Five other large land leases in Pujehun have been taken out by four different companies, which involve a very small group of associates from Sierra Leone and the UK. Since 2009, using seven different companies, these individuals have been involved in eight leases totalling close to 265,000 hectares of land in Sierra Leone. Two of those companies - and thus the land leases - have already been sold off to Biopalm Energy, one for US $5 million and another for $1.5 million.
In 2011, another company, Redbunch Ventures Limited, secured a lease for nearly 45,000 hectares in Barri Chiefdom in Pujehun District. Redbunch was subsequently taken over by Agriterra, a cattle and grain-trading business, when it acquired the parent company, Shawford Investments Inc.
As Green Scenery notes, such deals smack of speculation and quick profits, and have nothing to do with genuine investment. According to the District Officer who represents the Sierra Leone government in Pujehun, it is a recipe for trouble. "Imagine those people, you come and enter into an agreement with people and then you begin to sell what you don't own," he says. "The people will agitate."
But the land rush in Sierra Leone is by no means limited to Pujehun. According to a former agent for Quifel Agribusiness (SL) Limited, a subsidiary of Quifel Natural Resources of Portugal, it has three leases in Port Loko District in northern Sierra Leone, although staff in the Registrar's office could find just one. In 2010, a Quifel country representative reported that the company held a total of 120,000 hectares [296,526 acres]. Another large chunk of Port Loko District (41,582 hectares, 102,751 acres) is owned by one of the companies that Biopalm Energy purchased, Sierra Leone Agriculture. And yet another has been leased by West Africa Agriculture (32,441 hectares, 80,163 acres), a company that is linked with the same British and Sierra Leonean individuals that have scooped up so much land in Pujehun.
Addax Bioenergy Limited, a subsidiary of the Malta-based Swiss company, Addax & Oryx Group, originally acquired 57,000 hectares [140,850 acres] straddling two districts in the north of the country. The land is for sugar cane plantations to provide the raw stock for ethanol for export to Europe. According to Derek Higgo, Health, Security, Social Affairs and Environment Manager of Addax Bioenergy, by March 2013 the company had surrendered more than half of the land, but still held about 24,500 hectares [60,541 acres].
The Sierra Leone government is providing the Chinese company Hainan Natural Rubber Group 135,000 hectares [333,592 acres] of land in the country for rubber and rice in exchange for a 10 percent share. An Italian company, FNP Agriculture Limited, holds a lease on 15,000 hectares [37,066 acres] in the north of the country. Other investors claiming large land holdings in the country include the British firm Lion Mountains Agrico. Ltd (14,000 hectares or 34,594 acres), and another British firm, Whitestone Agriculture (SL) Ltd. (542,279 hectares or 1.3 million acres) in the north of the country.
Legal experts from the US-headquartered legal empowerment organization, Namati, note that Sierra Leone's progress is "precarious" and that there have already been ugly conflicts between communities and foreign investors. They warn that without adequate protection of community rights over land and environment, the government strategy to push large-scale foreign investment in the country is a dangerous one that "can lead to gross exploitation and violent conflict."
Green Scenery is now calling on the government of Sierra Leone to put an immediate moratorium on large-scale land acquisitions in the country, and to undertake a thorough review of all existing leases. "The government has the obligation to protect its citizens," says Joseph Rahall, executive director of Green Scenery. "We ask for prompt action. Land is at the heart of a sovereign state."