‘Malen Chiefdom is under siege to SOCFIN
By Joseph S. Margai
Chairlady of Malen Affected Land Owners and Users Association (MALOA), Hannah Deen, has claimed that the entire chiefdom is under siege to SOCFIN Agricultural Company, a Belgian company that has invested in oil palm plantation in Malen chiefdom, Pujehun district, southern Sierra Leone.
The company cultivates 12.5 hectares (approximately 30,000 acres) of community land, leaving the people, whose predominant occupation is farming, with only swamps (wetlands) to farm.
Already, stakeholders have written several letters to officials of the company demanding that they comply by the land lease agreement signed by all parties. A One such letter is dated 4th June, 2016, signed by 42 section and town chiefs, including members of Malen Youth Development Union (MAYODU).
There had been several strike and court actions against the company by aggrieved landowners. On Monday, 22nd May, 2017 stakeholders of MAYODU ordered labourers of SOCFIN to down tools, in reaction to what they described as “the company’s neglect of the problems affecting them”.
Last Saturday (7th October) morning, in Sahn Malen town, Hannah Deen told Concord Times that their voices as stakeholders are not being heard in the chiefdom despite several efforts to ensure that the proper things are done for the benefit of all the residents of Malen chiefdom.
She said a community centre that was provided by defunct oil palm planters, the state-owned Sierra Leone Produce Marketing Board (SLPMB), has been transformed into an office space by SOCFIN, leaving the people with no place to hold meetings and other entertainment events.
“The quarters SOCFIN’s staff are occupying were built by SLPMB. They have taken from us all the buffer zones. The surface rent that SOCFIN pays to land owners is not even enough to pay a school fee for a primary school going pupil,” she said.
Madam Deen explained that prior to the advent of SOCFIN in Malen, there were boundaries demarcating lands and plantations owned by communities, families, and stakeholders, adding that those boundaries are no more since SOCFIN invested in oil palm plantation in the entire chiefdom.
“This will have adverse effects on the future generations because they would not know the demarcation where their inheritances are situated when SOCFIN should have left,” she opined.
She revealed that most of the toilets that have been built by SOCFIN as part of their corporate social responsibility now lay in ruins.
At Kassay Malen village, Sima Mattia, Secretary of MALOA, said chiefdom authorities and management of SOCFIN have deafened their ears to the people’s cries, noting that members of MALOA wanted dialogue but local authorities and company bosses have spurn the overtures.
Mr. Mattia said that on 21st September, 2017 as people around the world organised activities in oil palm plantations, women in the chiefdom observed the day by mobilising their peers to go to Pujehun town.
“It was on that day that the women had wanted to express their grievances against SOCFIN. Unfortunately for them, four minibuses loaded with the women were barricaded by the police from entering Pujehun town,” he narrated.
The MALOA secretary said many inhabitants of the chiefdom have been jailed because they were found with oil palm fruits, which the authorities claimed were the same variety as SOCFIN’s oil palm fruits.
He mentioned Amadu Mattia from Kassay village, who according to him, was found with oil palm fruits and charged to court, adding that on his first appearance in court he was jailed for five years.
“There were two others from Kortumahun village, who appeared once in court and were jailed for three years each. Three others were caught in Baimba village,” he added.
Quizzed if the varieties of oil palm fruits that the accused were caught with could only be found at SOCFIN’s oil palm plantation, Mr. Mattia replied that many of such varieties are found in Malen chiefdom. He added, “I even have the same variety that is at SOCFIN oil palm plantation.”
He claimed that the one million Leones payment that was done for one acre of land by SOCFIN was only agreed upon by people in one village and not all of the sixty-three (63) villages in Malen chiefdom but that same amount was given to all the landowners because the company claimed that it was part of the agreement.
The MALOA secretary accused SOCFIN of being selective as to where they implement their corporate social responsibility in that many villages, including Kassay Malen, have never benefited from the gesture.
However, General Manager of SOCFIN, Philip Tonks, denied that any land was forcefully taken away from the people of Malen chiefdom, revealing that they paid the sum of one million Leones for one acre of land to land owners.
Responding to allegation about transforming the community centre into a SOCFIN office, Mr. Tonks said prior to its occupation by his company, the edifice was burnt down, adding that a mutual agreement between the company and paramount chief enabled its rehabilitation and transformation into an office space.
In relation to accusations that the company had given deaf ears to local grievances, the general manager said they host a social and grievance committee meeting each month, where sub-committee members are expected to present proposals and grievances to the committee and which are acted immediately.
“In the area of corporate social responsibility, SOCFIN does not select where to implement any projects. If a proposal is brought to our monthly meeting about areas that we should implement projects, we would surely do without hesitation. In the area of the damaged doors on the toilets we built, the people should bring it to our notice and we will maintenance,” he said.
He lamented that the major challenge they grapple with is theft as many people have been stealing their oil palm fruits.
He added that the company pays school fees for children in the children, dole microfinance loans to 35 villages in the chiefdom, and pay salaries of teachers who are not on the government pay roll.