Justice for whom? – Court fines community protestors against multinational’s land grab in Sierra Leone

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I practically spat out my coffee at breakfast this morning while listening to BBC Africa (podcast found here). The story was about a ‘landmark case’ in Sierra Leone where a court’s decision to fine six people $10,000 or serve up to six months’ in jail for vandalizing a palm oil plantation that is owned by the French company, Socfin. The court says the ruling is an attempt to intimidate people who resist the activities of multinationals across the country, perhaps across the continent more generally.

Socfin says it acted within the law when it obtained the land, and the government says the plots were unused, thus justifying planting a highly productive cash crop. Let’s be clear, this is no ordinary plantation and I believe those who have told me that it is one of the largest plantations in Africa, maybe even the largest. It looks more like untouched rainforest was cleared and replaced with uniform and orderly trees, than it does a stereotypical plantation.

I have written about Socfin’s activities in this earlier blog post. In 2014, I spent several months working in Pujehun district, including the Malen community where Socfin’s plantation activities operate. I have visited Malen many times to work on community farms, listen to community’s needs and develop agriculture extension services to meet those needs. A major part of my work has been to get around the displacement and disarray that Socfin’s plantation has caused. Instead of the larger scale cassava farming and processing that the community relies on, different farming groups ask me how to plant swamp valley rice. All of the land that they typically grow cassava on now has trees on it and is no longer available to use for growing food for their community. The only thing left are the swamps that they know less about.

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I have been warned about the ‘uneasy calm’ in the district since the first day I arrived in the country. Not wanting to alarm me, but this description does not explain the community conflict and disruption that this land transition has had to my work, the service providers who visit the communities on a weekly basis, market functions and other community activities. Although I was supposed to live and stay in Malen (as well as other communities) to provide more direct, technical support to farming, simply visiting the communities safely was a challenge. We had to travel in a large truck, on differing, clearer routes, only during the afternoon. As we drove towards the community, women on the side of the road with wood stacked on their heads would see our vehicle and jump into the bush, terrified –of what, I am still not entirely sure (and I never ask for fear of causing more panic). Our community meetings and farm visits are often disrupted by discussions about the land and their relations with Socfin. They seemed genuinely worried about their livelihoods, access to food and explain that things are different than before, they are getting worse. The company promised jobs, infrastructure and other benefits, but taking away their ability to grow cassava is like switching from one job to another without any training or support and still expecting them to do well. Only in this situation it means that the community might not have enough food to eat.

What the BBC Africa news story does not tell us is about the violence that this displacement of livelihoods and land has caused. Every couple of weeks I hear of a ritualistic murder, of women resorting to prostitution and family’s selling and shipping their children away. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

I used to wonder about how a tight knit community with nothing to lose could let a foreign company come in and take their only leverage -land. After reading, spending time and interviewing people I now realize how naive those thoughts are. My social and historical analysis tells me a different story. This is a community that was once occupied by rebel forces in a civil war that happened only one or two generations prior. In times of conflict, people isolate themselves and instead of rising together, they actually do the opposite and keep to themselves. The displacement caused by this land grab is in a way a resort back to old coping strategies of not being able to trust your neighbors and those who are part of your own kin, your own family. The village that is needed to raise a child (or rise against an unfair land contract) becomes dislocated.

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I should mention that the story is complex and multifaceted. That there is more going on than what community members tell me. Perhaps this is why we need more gold standard research conducted to capture the whole story, such as this study by my colleagues here. Socfin did not just come in and put palm trees down. They did so legally. They went to the government and rented the land for just over $12 per acre for the next 50 years. I also assume that there was some community consultation during these negotiations. After all, land is owned and controlled by community leaders. However, it is in this negotiation where some people win and others lose. In this case, someone has benefited and continues to benefit from the plantation, and it does not seem to be the community members who uneasily jump at any strange vehicle they see.

When I found out this morning that the court ruled against community protestors who vandalized the plantation I wondered: is this justice? Justice for whom? What makes this court case such a landmark? Is it that the community was finally fed up enough, empowered enough to lash out? Or that a multinational was still able to win and have power over them, despite all of the other crimes that are indirectly attributed to their activities. Perhaps it is the fact that courts are trying to silence their citizens. Six community members versus a multinational hardly seems fair. It is sort of like the David v. Goliath story only in reverse- this time Goliath seemingly won.

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