BY JAMES COURTRIGHT
On a muggy afternoon in Kegbema, a village of 500 people nestled in the verdant Sula mountains in northern Sierra Leone, Momahed Koroma sits in the shade of a mango tree reminiscing about his childhood. Back then, he helped farm rice in nearby swamps, learned how to hunt in the forest and fetched water from nearby streams. But everything changed, he says, in 2010 when London-based mining company African Minerals Ltd. (AML) leased 227 square kilometers of land adjacent to Kegbema to build what would become one of the largest iron mines in Africa.
Early disagreements between surrounding communities and AML ended in violent police crackdowns in late 2010. Three villages were forced to move. After production began in 2011, Koroma says the water in their streams started tasting strange. During the rainy season, iron tailings — toxic by-products of iron mining — seeped into nearby swamps, poisoning the soil. Farmland was bulldozed, and they were told their forests now belonged to the company. Promises of employment and education came to naught.
Initially, the community felt helpless, recalls Koroma, shaking his head in despair. But in 2016, the village joined a growing tide of community-led legal campaigns — supported by paralegals from a Sierra Leone–based group — against big firms that have pushed them off their land.
In eastern Sierra Leone, communities in Nimiyama Chiefdom won a legal battle in 2016 against Orient Agriculture Ltd., a Chinese company building a rubber plantation there. In the south, communities forced to relocate by an expanding rutile mine, and a village whose water source has been tainted by a nearby bauxite mine, are taking help from the paralegals. In the north, Kegbema and the villages of Ferengbeya, Foria and Wondugu that were displaced in 2011 are fighting for their land in court. Courts are beginning to rule in favor of the displaced communities, and companies are feeling pressured to offer compromises.
“Previously we were amputees, but very recently we are now having our two full hands because the law is with us now,” says Koroma.
At the heart of the deepening battles is a tussle over Sierra Leone’s development model. As the country began to rebuild in the 2000s following a decade of brutal civil war, it experienced a surge of foreign investment in mining and agriculture. But communities that host these massive projects — while keen to see their country develop — began complaining they were losing their land in opaque deals and were victims of industrial pollution, subjected to police harassment when they spoke out.
In 2013, Orient Agriculture Ltd. bought 1,486 acres of land in Nimiyama for a rubber plantation. Francis Gbindo, one of the landholding families from Nimiyama, says he didn’t know about the deal until surveyors began demarcating the land. Worried, he and other landowners approached their paramount chief — the community leader — and asked him what was going on. “It was very alarming,” he recalls.
The paramount chief, one of the signatories to the sale, ignored them. When they went on the radio, the local authorities had them arrested. Without money and formal education, their prospects for justice appeared dim. Then, in 2014, they heard about Namati, a Sierra Leone–based network of paralegals who live in regional capitals and teach communities about their rights, gather evidence of alleged industrial abuses and forward challenging cases to lawyers in the capital.
“We help negotiate fair, balanced agreements that ensure concerns of communities are reflected and that there are adequate provisions to protect the environment in the areas targeted for investment,” says the group’s director, Sonkita Conteh. “We help communities understand that even if it’s hard, there’s a way to squeeze justice out of a broken system.”
It wasn’t long before Namati was formally representing a coalition of concerned landowners in Nimiyama. Paralegals collected evidence and formally relayed the communities’ concerns to the company and local authorities. The police harassment stopped, but the land dispute remained. “So, we took them to court,” says Daniel Sesay, a program officer for Namati who worked on the case.
After a yearlong trial, the judge ruled in favor of the community. Gbindo and other landowners got back their land, and the company and local officials were ordered to pay damages. It was the first time in Sierra Leone’s history that a foreign-owned company and local politicians had been held accountable for trampling the rights of a rural community. The paralegals have since taken up the other cases — across the country.
This growing movement could have a larger impact on how the government and multinationals conduct themselves in the future, says Genesis Yengoh, a researcher for the Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies. “I think it has the potential of making investors rethink how they engage with local people,” he says. “It sends a message out to other large-scale investors that maybe you can’t have as much impunity as you think.”
Despite these recent gains, communities adversely affected by foreign investment still face an uphill battle, says Abdulai Bangura, director of the business and human rights unit at the Human Rights Commission of Sierra Leone. “If there’s a legal action against a government interest, the judiciary is not that strong to resist,” says Bangura. “The government will have the interest of the company because they will have direct benefit from what the company is doing, leaving the people.”
Indeed, broken promises litter the landscape, as we walk through rows of company-built houses where former residents of Ferengbeya have been resettled. Suliman Kamara, among those who had to move, points to residences whose roofs were blown off during the last rainy season. “We were promised our new home would be paradise,” says Kamara. “They were not talking the truth.”
Still, there’s a fight in the communities now, and a hope. After pursuing their own investigation, Namati paralegals approached Shandong Steel — the Chinese company that bought out AML in 2015 — with the communities’ complaints last year. Unsatisfied with the company’s response, the communities recently filed class action lawsuits demanding their farmland be rehabilitated and they be awarded damages. Two months ago, Shandong offered a cash settlement.
But the communities wanted their land, not a onetime payment, says Koroma. “We rejected the money,” he says. The case is still in court, but the communities believe they have a shot at the justice they had once given up on.