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Advocacy Group Exposes Land Deals in Pujehun District

28 March 2014 at 18:21 | 1274 views

By Mustapha Wai, Washington DC, USA.

According to Green Scenery, a local NGO doing work in Environmental Promotion and Protection in Sierra Leone, 62% of the total area and 82% of arable land in Pujehun, one of Sierra Leone’s twelve districts have been leased to companies, many without proper consent by landowners.

Below are excerpts and highlights from a report recently issued by Green Scenery about the Pujehun District land leases:

- Lease varies in size from 6,575 hectares to 47, 567 hectares

- Total areas leased is 286,998 hectares out of the 410,500 hectares, the total land area of Pujehun District.

- Seven out of the eight leases described below amounting to 248,294 hectares of land have been confirmed by the Office of the Registrar General to have been registered with the Sierra Leone Government.

- Lease term: 50 years plus options to renew for up to 100 years.

- Lease Rent: $0.23 (Le 1,000) to $12 (Le 52,800) per hectare.

- Purpose: Vague terms and in instances for Oil Palm Plantation.

- Investors Confirmed by the Office of the Registrar General:

Red Bunch Ventures (SL), Ltd., 44,882 hectares in Barri Chiefdom.

- Biopalm Energy Limited (SIVA) Group, 39,429 hectares in Galiness Peri Chiefdom and 19,724 hectares in Kpaka Chiefdom.

- West Africa Agricultural Number 2 Limited, 30,700 in Makpele Chiefdom.

- African Oil Palm Limited, 39,320 hectares in Panga Kabondeh Chiefdom.

- SocFin Agricultural Company (SL) Limited (SAC), 6,575 in Malen Chiefdom (Note that SocFin is now in operation in Malen Chiefdom).

- West Africa Agriculture Limited, 20,095 hectares in Sorogbema Chiefdom.

- Aristeus Palm Oil Limited, 47,568 hectares in Sorogbema Chiefdom.

- Redtree Agriculture Limited, 38,704 in Sowa Chiefdom (registration status not yet known).

- Who are the biggest investors according to the report:

- Five of the companies above seem to be run by the same small group of Sierra
Leoneans and foreigners from the United Kingdom.

- The group holds lease under different companies totaling 176,388 hectares and over half of the arable land leased.

- The same actors appear in Pork Loko and other districts.

- Some of the companies (capitalizing on the lease agreements) have been bundled and sold to other foreign companies by the same players (appears like investment portfolios designed for speculators and vulture investors).

- For example, African Oil Palm Limited holder of 39,320 hectares lease in Panga
Kabondeh Chiefdom was sold to Biopalm Energy Limited for $1.5 million dollars.

- Red Bunch Ventures, Ltd. has been sold to Agriterra, Ltd. at an unknown price

- Using these questionable transfers of interests, Biopalm Energy Limited, a
Singapore registered company and part of the Indian SIVA Group is now the
largest land investor in Pujehun District.

- Evidence suggests that locals have not been fully informed about the details of these agreements and in instances have been lured and/or unduly influenced into signing or signed for. The Office of the Sierra Leone Investment and Export Promotion Agency (SLIEPA), the government agency responsible for investment promotion and facilitator of these kinds of investments in the country has been contacted for clarification on some of these arrangements. As of the moment of this piece, SLIEPA has not provided the clarification we are seeking.

- Our inquiry comes against the backdrop of reports of unfair treatment and abuse of landowners and local residents as some of the above companies have begun operation. A case in point is the operation of Socfin Agricultural Company which has begun operation in Malen Chiefdom, Pujehun District, that has allegedly left many communities devastated. Here is an excerpt from a letter recently written by an Australian-based advocacy group, Rainforest Rescue to the president of Sierra Leone:

“Fact-finding mission reports have revealed that the whole arrangement and the procedures suffered from a lack of transparency. Landowners were not given even basic facts about the agreement. Their land was not properly surveyed and mapped. Their livelihoods were not assessed and as a result not adequately compensated. To date, the lease agreement has not been made available to them. Reports on working conditions are causing more concerns how families can improve their livelihoods through such investment. Contracts are mainly casual, labourers that once were productive farmers now walk hours to the company site, for wages of just 10,000 Leones ($2.00) a day, which cannot compensate them for the loss of their farm income.

The company provides them no working clothes or tools, and no medical care. The one-off compensation of one million Leones (less than USD 230) for an acre of productive smallholder palm oil plantation for 50 years and the annual lease of USD 12.5 per hectare paid for the land,the generous fiscal advantages and tax incentives and other provisions (water access and use, stabilization clause amongst others) guaranteed by the Government of Sierra Leone to the company
raises doubts about what benefits there are for Sierra Leone from such a land deal.

Grievances and recommendation letters of affected landowners seemed to be ignored by stakeholders; instead arrests and intimidation of landowners followed their peaceful approaches.

Fifteen landowners are already facing the court and very recently, tension between the company and their workers have led to harsh police intervention and more arrests. Landowners are disputing the lease agreement and workers are protesting about the delay of payments and other grievances.

Heavily armed police presence is now felt in the chiefdom with rumors that they are being paid and supported by the company. They have even interrupted leisure and cultural activities such as dances in villages, which makes things worse in an already tense situation.

The above described condition is unacceptable in the global market place today. Companies are expected to act in ways that meet certain prescribed international corporate responsibility standards and laws including those provided for under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural
Rights (ICESCR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights; all of which require member states and foreign corporations to ensure the fundamental rights of the world’s most vulnerable is protected and
preserved. In that light, corporations like above are expected to ensure fair, credible and transparent business dealings with the world’s most vulnerable; particularly in a case that has to do with the most important factor of production to sustain their livelihood. Needless to say that it will be in the long- term best interest of these companies to ensure that local landowners fully understand and consent to the stipulations in any lease agreement having to do with their land.