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Advocacy campaign against landgrabbing in Sierra Leone

MADAM | June 2010

by Council of Churches in Sierra Leone and Mankind's Activities for Development Accreditation Movement (MADAM)

Land-acquisition shows many faces

Hunger is one of the major problems in Sierra Leone – one of the poorest countries in the world. Here of all places Addax Bioenergy – part of the Addax & Oryx Group, headed by Swiss oil magnate and financier, Jean-Claude Gandur – has subleased land from communities in the northern part of the country to grow sugar cane. Addax Bioenergy wants to use over 20,000 hectares of land for sugar-cane / ethanol production for export to Europe. Unofficially, sources claim it could be increased to as much as 70,000 hectares. Sierra Leone comprises about 7.2 million hectares, 5.4 million hectares of which are suitable for agriculture. Currently less than 1 million hectares is cultivated. Therefore a huge amount of arable land is available. This is attracting investors like ADDAX. Could the northern area benefit from the investment? Staff members of the Council of Churches in Sierra Leone, MADAM – a local non governmental organization with its headquarter in Makeni -- and a human rights activist visited affected communities in the north to find out.

A dusty, sandy road leads to "Lungi Acer Farm.“ As far as the eye can see are green sugar cane plants. Forty hectares are currently used for cultivating the seedlings. With a gesture, the project manager, Nick Alan Johns, proudly points out the dimensions of the plantation, saying: "From 2010 to 2012 we intend to cultivate as much sugar cane as possible. We need the plants to produce ethanol. In total we want to use an area of 12,500 hectares.” But that's not all. He speaks about the company's other plans. Adjacent to the sugar cane field, ADDAX has started growing cassava plants – the most important basic food in Sierra Leone second only to rice. "This is a pilot project. In the long run we want to grow 180,000 tons of cassava.“ The overall goal is to produce ethanol from both sugar cane and cassava on the land that Addax has subleased from the community.

A community feels betrayed

Only a few minutes by car lies the village which has subleased its land to ADDAX for the next 50 years. Lungi is a quiet village seemingly untouched by development. Mud huts with roofs covered with palm fronds stand along the sandy unlit streets. "ADDAX has taken our arable lands. They have asked for dry land. Now they have simply taken our land,“ says Pa Brima Serry, the chief of the village, in an agitated voice. Gesturing wildly, he points to the land that lies directly behind the village.

Hopelessness lies in the air

During the assembly, one after the other speaks up about their experiences with ADDAX. "They have destroyed our fields. Now we no longer can grow rice or cassava,” says one woman. She is worried because she has no idea how she will feed her children in the future. Her concern is that the price of rice will increase because less rice can be cultivated. “This will kill us” says another woman with tears in her eyes. On their fields, they had cultivated rice and cassava which sustained them. But only a few cassava plants are left.

The villagers want more development

Staff members of ADDAX came to Lungi to promote their sugar cane project. "They said they would bring development: secure jobs, advanced payment for five years, help to improve our agriculture and additional farm land," say the villagers. As is the custom, ADDAX had to negotiate with the chiefs of Lungi. The paramount chiefs have the last word in this matter. A sale of the land to foreigners would contradict the traditions.

"We want our land back“

Now the villagers feel betrayed by ADDAX because the company hasn't fulfilled its promises. A young father says indignantly: "I want my land back so that I can feed my family again." Young people are particularly hard hit. They had hoped for jobs. But so far their dreams of a secure future haven't come true. Only a very few were hired to work on the plantation, mostly as casual workers. A young man is angry that he worked for fifteen days but was paid for only three days. Women too suffer from lack of payment. They all wonder who is looking after their rights. No one has written contracts in the village. They feel let down by everyone. The elderly are silent. Their silence signals sympathy with the youth but also fear that an explosive situation has arisen.

Land-Acquisition – no new development in Sierra Leone

Thirty years ago the Sierra Leonean government entered into a contract with the Chinese government that provided land for sugar cane cultivation. In Magbass a factory was built for ethanol production from the sugar cane. Another Chinese investor subleased the area for another thirty years in 2004. This information was given to the villagers from a government delegate. A conversation with the factory workers isn't possible, as the risk is too big. They fear for their jobs if they speak out. The situation in the nearby village is quite different. Everyone is ready to talk there.

Protests against land acquisition

600 people live in Magbass. The village is larger than Lungi. But like Lungi, the streets are unpaved and there is no electrification. The people here are outraged. They protested because they feared that the “land owners” want to take more and more of the land away from them. "I wake up in the morning, and bulldozers stand in my land,“ one man reports. Here nobody seems to know how much land the Chinese are entitled to under the terms of the contract. As in Lungi, no contracts have been submitted for them to review. The village community wants to protest further. But they hesitate because a human rights activist from their community was arrested after the last demonstration. His wife bursts into tears during the assembly because she doesn't know how she shall feed their nine children without her husband. She doesn't know either how long he will remain in jail.

Only a few benefit from the promised jobs. Just two of the 600 residents are employed on a regular basis. All others work as casual laborers. And nobody works longer than three months.

Contaminated rivers

The residents are not only afraid that the land on which they are cultivating rice will be taken away from them. In addition, they fear the effects of poor water quality: the groundwater has been polluted by the chemicals from the adjacent factory. The residents use the water to drink and also to fish. The fish can no longer survive in the polluted river.

Money flows only slowly

For more than 25 years they waited for the money. Then six years ago the first monies came: 1,600 Euros. With this they built a school. Since then, however, no further money has been paid.

Rosy prospects of Malal Mara?

The situation in the chiefdom of Malal Mara looks quite different. Near this village, ADDAX wants to build a factory for ethanol production. They also want to lease land to cultivate sugar cane. The villagers are mostly optimistic. ADDAX officials have held frequent meetings here. "Every time they come, they cook for us. They say they are coming to bring development to us,“ a young resident reports approvingly. ADDAX has offered to build a hospital, set up a secondary school, create jobs, take electricity to the village and pave the streets. Many residents wait eagerly for the factory to be built.

Scepticism remains

But not everyone is optimistic. "We need help to develop further. We are poor. Because we are poor, we give our land away,” says one young villager. Nevertheless, they still hope that ADDAX will bring about the longed for progress. For every acre of land, the company will pay five dollars. The individual land user will receive only $1.60 with the remaining money going to the government, the district and the land owners. They worry about future difficulties. Those who own the land live either abroad or far outside the village. To whom, then, can the villagers address their problems? ADDAX has promised them legal advice, but whose interests would the lawyer represent? Despite scepticism, euphoria dominates here.

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