Socfin in Sierra Leone: Anger and broken hopes in Sahn Malen

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Socfin claimed they would spend $16.4 million on community development over the first seven years of the project. In the end, $2.5 million was spent, just 16%, FIAN found.
Standard Times | 9 April 2019

Socfin in Sierra Leone: Anger and broken hopes in Sahn Malen

In 2011, the Palm plantation management company, Socfin opened a new palm oil plantation in Malen, in south east Sierra Leone. The subsequent eight years have seen a grave property conflict emerge between a number of local residents and the company. Beyond the palm trees, working conditions have been heavily criticized, as have the promises that are touted when renting land. Sierra Leonean journalist Ishmael Kindama Dumbuya and Belgian reporter Quentin Noirfalisse investigated the situation in Malen in December 2018.

Part 1. The weight of task work

This is Foday, he is thin and he has a look in his eyes that gives the impression he’s searching the very depths of your soul. He’s wearing green work overalls that he’ll soon remove, before heading home to think about the broken promises that surround him. His face is splattered with an ochre dust, kicked up by the Socfin Agricultural Company (SAC) that dropped him in the village of Basaleh in the chiefdom of Malen, in the region of Pujehn in the southern province of Sierra Leone.

Foday woke up at 4am to walk to the headquarters of SAC, a subsidiary of the Socfin group. The route is a seven kilometre trail, lined with palm trees as far as the eye can see. If he’s just a minute late, he risks being sent home without a single Leone.

At 6am, a manager distributes tasks and the cohorts of workers file out across the four corners of the 18,500 hectare plot[2], spreading pesticides, slashing palm trees, collecting palm oil fruits and bringing them to the roadside. In Malen the population almost doubled between 2004 and 2015. Almost 50,000 people live here, many of them drawn in by the promise of work on the plantation.

Foday and his colleague Lahai are working in a team who have been assigned the task of filling up lorries with palm oil fruits, left to grow for 7 years, they weigh around 15 to 20 kilos per stem. The lorries then head for Kotomahun to the far south-west of the plantation. Here, one of the largest industrial mills in West Africa processes 30 tonnes of palm nuts an hour, crushing, stripping and spitting them back out in order create oil destined for the Senegalese, Nigerian and Cameroonian markets.

Goodbye Education

At the end of the day, Lahai looks down at his holey boots, and complains that the the company could really buy him some new ones. Workers are given just one standard issue pair per year, and with all the walking the job requires, not to mention the daily walk to and from work, it’s not enough. Lifting thirteen kilos of fruit however, is too much for the workers, according to Lahai. All this without taking a break or receiving lunch. Foday nods his head in agreement. He was 26 years old when he began working at SAC five years ago as a day labourer without a fixed contract, paid by the task.

If he manages to complete all the tasks assigned to him, he will get his full salary, 24,720 Leones, he says, iterating the importance of the 720. In a region that is still feeling the aftershocks of a civil war ended in 2002 and Ebola in 2014, his salary converts to €2.50 per day, that’s around 16 cups of rice at market price. However, if he doesn’t fulfil his daily task list, his pay packet will be reduced. 

He would like to be able to tell the directors that the working conditions need to be reviewed. Before coming here he studied in Bo, the closest city to Malen. “We used to grow manioc and produce palm oil in order to eat and pay our school fees,” says Foday. “But in 2012 Socfin took our land. My father could no longer produce.” Foday stopped studying and returned to his village in order to get work at SAC, hoping he’d be able to save enough to return to higher education. But now Foday needs to stay at SAC in order to take care of his five brothers and sisters as well as his first child.

The plantation employs more than 1100 workers on permanent contracts, paid above the legal limit of 500,000 Leones per month (50 euros), and 2,500 day workers like Foday. Visiting the site, weinterviewed around 20 casual workers by chance in various villages. Almost all of them were critical of their working conditions. Mustapha and Joseph explained how they had to gather 250 stems each in order to obtain their 24,000 Leones per day. On a good day, they will manage just 100 each. Jusu, Lahai and Moinina pulverise insecticides without sufficient knowledge of their composition, some of them contain glyphosate.

The quantities aren’t huge they say, but one of them holds up his protective mask; it is completely destroyed. With a new mask issued only every three months, the thought of such work is eye watering, they say. Kadia, Agnes and Aminata divide up various maintenance tasks across the plantation. Kadia has been a day worker for the last seven years, but she has never seen any improvement to the working conditions. Every month she has to borrow around 300,000 Leones just to keep her household afloat.

According to a German university researcher who came to study at the plantation for a number of months, “the daily tasks are extremely difficult. In other palm oil plantations across the country, workers have much lower target thresholds. It would be much more simple for Socfin if they were to reduce daily targets and employ a larger work force. Their overheads would increase of course, but I think a company of its size is capable enough of dealing with such an increase.”

Good workers, and the others

Socfin was unwilling to share the list of tasks it assigns its workers so we might compare them with the first-hand accounts shared by workers. However, one thing is sure: the company does not believe its expectations to be disproportionate, explaining that the work is standard practice across all the plantations operated by the group. According to Socfin, “good workers who are able to finish their work quickly either have the choice of going home early, or continuing beyond their daily targets and thus increasing their salary”. Gerben Haringsma, the Socfin representative in Sierra Leone (and shareholder in SAC via the Belgian company Agrifinal who own 7% of SAC) is more straightforward: “People here produce 25% less than in other countries” where the group has outposts. Conversely to what we are told by workers, he claims only a small number of employees are unable to finish their work. 

Philip Tonks, the director of the plantation defends his management. He underlines that both men and women receive the same pay and that workplace accidents are insured for both employees and day labourers. Any dissatisfied workers are able to report to HR in the knowledge their complaint will be dealt with. But very few dare. There is too much at stake for those who can’t risk not being taken on for further work as a day labourer.

SAC has a very clear written clause on their zero tolerance stance on child labour. However, according to multiple witnesses, it sometimes so happens that day labourers will call upon members of their family to help out without the knowledge of the company. “This includes children of school age,” says Mohammed Kabba, a journalist from Sierra Leone.

The aim is to complete the necessary tasks in order to receive a full salary at the end of the day. In their internal documents, Socfin condemns all child labour; whether local subcontractors employed to undertake specific missions apply such standards with rigour however, is another question all together.

Half-time

In the evening there is little to do in Pujehun the closest city to the chiefdom of Malen. There is however, the Champions League. In this small corner of the world where food is scarce and a chicken may sometimes cost two thirds of a day labourer’s salary, watching the Liverpool-Barcelona match is no problem. This is all thanks for the French billionaire and friend of Nicolas Sarkozy, Vincent Bolloré, and his TV channel Canal + Afrique. Bolloré is a household name in Sierra Leone. As soon as you arrive at the airport in Freetown, you are met with a large Bolloré Logistics poster welcoming you.

The Breton magnate, who was indicted in 2018 on suspicion of corruption for the granting of port contracts in Guinea and Togo, has invested[ $120 million dollars in extending the port in the Sierra Leone capital. In Malen, Bolloré’s influence can be felt further still with the 38.8% stock he holds in Socfin. Socfin is, in fact, the shareholder of about 60% of Socfinaf, the 93% majority shareholder in SAC (the remaining 7% belong to a Belgian company called Agrifinal NV).

Part 2. Land and Promises

As night fell on Thursday, December 13th 2018, some of Malen’s inhabitants got on their motorbikes and gathered at Radio Wanjei, a community radio station based in Pujehun. They had come to remind Julius Maada Bio- the new president elected the previous March- of his promise to sort out the property conflict that had raged for eight years between Socfin and numerous residents of the chiefdom, brought together under the aegis of MALOA (the Association of landowners and land-users of Malen). According to the association, the company had essentially grabbed their land, and in taking it away from them had traded a promise for development and employment for their primary resource: family-run agriculture.

The official story of SAC has all the makings of a great adventure. In 2009, via an investment agency, the government of Sierra Leone called upon Socfin to invest in a palm oil project. The civil war had eviscerated the agricultural sector. According to their version, Socfin arrived, prospected, consulted local communities concerned with the project over a period of two years and presented an impact assessment carried out by a Sierra Leonean consultant, Star Consults.

They obtained universal approval from local communities and three contracts ended up being signed, allowing them to farm 18,473 hectares of plantation land of which just over 12,00 have already been planted upon today.

“Everyone could choose to be part of the project or not,” explains Philip Tonks, reiterating that certain members of the community held on to their land. “Malen was chosen because there was already a palm oil plantation here. The government’s motivation was clear- to bring modern agriculture to the country.” Soon, Socfin would start planting and thus satisfy the significant national demand for palm oil; a demand that small farmers, as the group affirms, were incapable of meeting. Above all, 2400 jobs would be created in the period between Socfin’s arrival and the year 2020.

The documents and testimonies that we have gathered tell a markedly different story.

“I am the company”

From the very beginning, one character has played a key role in this story, the Paramount Chief Brima, Victor S. Kebbie, a powerful figure dogged by corruption rumours. In Sierra Leone, Paramount Chiefs manage Chiefdoms and, notably, play the role of guardians of the land (they do not officially own it however). In Malen, Chief Kebbie was quick to take up the case for Socfin, to the point of declaring “I am the company” in an interview with a German researcher investigating the plantation.

In the same interview, he told the Researcher that he had turned away another enterprise that had wanted to farm in a smaller surface area. I don’t need you. We want big!”. And now we have a big plantation. With a smaller plantation, only the people around the Chiefdom’s town Heads would have benefitted.”

In Malen it was the government that drew up the contracts with the Council of the Chiefdom and the Landowners. The contracts were to last for 50 years with an annual rent of 5$ per acre, half of which would go back to the Landowners, 20% to the Chiefdom and the rest to the District and the Ministry of Agriculture for the Government of Sierra Leone. Every year, Landowners would thus earn the meagre total of 2,5$ per acre of land used. Thereafter, the Government sublet the land to Socfin.

Sonkita Conteh of Namati, an NGO specialising in getting legal aid to vulnerable communities, sharply criticises the fact that the Government rent the land and then sublet it to Socfin. “As a regulating body who should be able to crack down in the event of a conflict or a legal infraction, this has compromised their independence,” he claims.

According to Conteh, the desire to start work as quickly as possible resulted in community members losing out on the more rigorous consultation that would have been necessary were they to really have given their free and informed consent.

Hannah Deen, landowner and MALOA activist bitterly remembers the day that the paramount chief presented the project to the community. “The paramount chief told us that he was going to bring about development. With the authorities, he made it clear that if we didn’t give up our land we’d lose it anyway. I refused, and so they took it from me by force.”

Socfin paid landowners 1 million Leones (around 230 dollars at that time) per acre of land planted with palm trees as a compensation for the loss of fifty years’ worth of harvest. The farmers that had rented that land were compensated even less. According to Belgian NGO, FIAN, who this month published a report on the property conflict, other crop varieties weren’t even compensated. “The government and the chiefdom pretty much gave the land to Socfin. The people had no real choice, and so they accepted the money,” says Joseph Rahall, director of the NGO, Green Scenery, who have kept a close eye on Socfin’s activities since the beginning of their tenure.

Today, Socfin’s presence takes up around 70% of the chiefdom, and 13,500 hectares have been planted or turned into roads. “Communities no longer have any resources,” explains Manuel Eggen, researcher at FIAN. “The 3,500 unstable jobs that were created will never be sufficient compensation for the loss of both land and natural resources of the 32,000 people directly affected.” In an email, Philip Tonks retorts, “To say that communities no longer have land for commercial agriculture just isn’t true. There’s still available space in the lowlands, especially around the marshes.”

Rage and Repression

The conflict between Socfin and MALOA, whose spokesperson has for a long time been local politician Shiaka Musa Sama, has been nothing if not tumultuous. In 2013, twelve people were injured at a protest after being shot at by police. Furthermore, according to FIAN, various members of the association received heavy fines for having supposedly destroyed palm crops despite an absence of visual evidence.

According to Manuel Eggen: “The members of MALOA have been forbidden to assemble or to hold public meetings, and protests were systematically suppressed, with many activists becoming the victims of arbitrary arrests and malicious prosecutions.”

Philip Tonks is quick to castigate the work that NGOs are carrying out around the case of the plantation. “It’s opportunism. Green Scenery realised that there was money to be made in this process. There’s always someone in Europe happy to subsidise these kind of activities!” In response, Joseph Rahall, director of Green Scenery claims that Gerben Haringsma, the national representative of Socfin had offered him “$75,000 to do the community work and $50,000 for the research. I refused,” Rahall says, seeing quite clearly the offer was evidently a thinly-veiled attempt to buy his silence.

In the 2018 elections, Shiaka Sama was elected with over 70% support from the chiefdom’s citizens. According to the deputy, who had lost his seat in 2012, it was “a protest vote” against the dubious schemes of Socfin and the authorities, who regularly accuse Sama of being a political agitator, at loggerheads with the paramount chief.

Last November, the vice-president of Sierra Leone was summoned in an attempt to bring peace to the conflict. “The previous government failed to guarantee a clear and transparent process that would have allowed the money paid in rent by Socfin to reach the right people. We must remedy this.” Socfin do not transfer their rent directly to landowners, but instead pay via the paramount chief, who divides it between the other village chiefs. Manifold doubts persist with regards to whether this money eventually reaches its correct destination.

Toilets for some, cars for the chief

“Millions of dollars spent on salaries, decent roads,” the opening up of local markets, “financial support for teachers, electricity for the Sahn clinic, functioning wells, an ambulance…” Local boss Philip Tonks lists the initiatives that comprise Socfin’s social responsibility programme in Malen.

In the impact assessment presented to residents in 2011, Socfin claimed they would spend $16.4 million (14.6 million euros according to current rates) on community development over the first seven years of the project. A key point highlighted in the report was to be the 2012 agreement between Socfin and the government to set up a programme that would support small, independent agricultural producers and eventually help the chiefdom to achieve “food self-sufficiency.” For the period 2014 and 2018, the budget was estimated at 2.6 million euros.

The programme never saw the light of day. Socfin justified themselves by claiming to have invested in rice crop cultivation instead, but according to expenditures lists, the investments (around $200,000, according to Socfin’s documents) were significantly lower than had been promised.

According to Socfin, more than $12 million was supposed to have been spent on “new houses for the community affected outside the concession,” however, this big move never took place as residents “preferred to stay in their current dwellings.” “In the end, $2.5 million was spent on local communities- just 16% of the foreseen budget,” claims Manuel Eggen. “One third of that money was spent on roads that above all benefited the company- and a lot of the expenditure had zero social value whatsoever and- in certain cases- could be considered as examples of corruption.”

The NGO FIAN are investigating payments that benefit the local authorities. Amongst expenditures listed in a document given to the NGO by Socfin can be found $25,000 for the construction of a guesthouse for the chiefdom. Another example is the purchase of a car for the paramount chief. When talking to Reuters, Philip Tonks claimed that the car was necessary as the chief needed to “get around and speak to people when problems arose.”

Overall, according to the the list given to FIAN by Socfin, more than $80,000 was spent on fuel, tyres, repairs for official vehicles belonging to the chiefdom, the police, the district and the army, and for the maintenance of public buildings. “Despite having asked,” FIAN affirm,“we haven’t been given information by either the authorities or the chiefdom with regards to how they spend the $46,182.50 gained each year from rent.”

In order to develop its agribusiness, Socfin needs the security provided by local authorities. In exchange, the authorities gain a financial support network that reinforces their potency.

Epilogue: The Eruption

Last January saw bloodshed in Malen. In the midst of the tense atmosphere marked by mounting unrest between the paramount chief and the Community People as well as the Resident Minister South alongside Hon. Shiaka Sama, Socfin closed its doors for several days. The closure was supposedly in reaction to the “gangs of youths” that Socfin alleged were intimidating workers on Sama’s orders. All this happened in the context of a conflict between the paramount chief Kebbie and Shiaka Sama around the building of a constituency office for the latter.

According to media accounts, the Resident Minister of the province travelled to the area, speaking on the radio run by the local Poro group to critique Socfin and the ongoing property conflict. In response, young members of the society took to the streets to protest, throwing rocks at an SAC building en route.

When they eventually came face to face with police, matters escalated quickly. Two people were killed and one policeman injured. The chiefdom was put on lockdown and Shiaka Sama and several members of MALOA were arrested, before being released on bail in February 2019. Until today, they claim their innocence, something which has been supported by a report from civil society organizations published at the end of January. According to the same report, 2,500 people were forced to flee Malen over the next few days, and violence against members of MALOA was also reported.

A photo showing members of the military patrolling in a Socfin jeep has also emerged. The company claimed to have made a (now out of date) deal with security forces to lend them a vehicle- an illegal act, even if acts of such aren’t always so rare in Sierra Leone. According to Sonkita Conteh, lawyer in Sierra Leone’s High Court and director of Namati, “It’s the duty of the state to provide the police and the army with vehicles. If this kind of assistance should facilitate illegal acts or violations, the company must also be held responsible.”

The resident minister has signed a paper saying that the SAC “were not at all connected” to any fatalities. One thing is certain: this very serious incident will further complicate conflict resolution. The court proceedings have begun at the end of March.

MALOA and Green Scenery have called for an independent enquiry on the installation of Socfin in Sierra Leone. Mr Gerben Haringsma told The Standard Times Press that he was ready to address the grievances of the citizens with “a transparent and credible mediation team”.

Instead of a fully independent investigation team, the government of Sierra Leone has set up a Technical Committee (which includes Shiaka Sama, Paramount Chief Kebbie and several authorities, among others the Secretary of the Vice-President) to investigate the land conflict in Malen.

Joseph Rahall, from Green Scenery, has expressed regrets that civil society organizations have not been included in that committee. According to a previous report by the Standard Times Press, “It was suggested during the presentation of the technical committee in Malen and agreed that all the Malen Landowners and Users Association detainees should be released, court case dropped as well as encourage the Malen people who have fled to return back to their various Communities without threats and intimidations as well as lift the current curfew in the Chiefdom”.

This report is done in 2018 by Quentin Noirfalisse of Belgium and Ishmael Kindama Dumbuya of Standard Times Newspaper in Sierra Leone with the support or funding by a Journalism Grant from the Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles. 

The article was originally done in French and the English Translation for readers in Sierra Leone and other English Speaking Countries was done by Jessica Saxby and Francesca Reece


[1] The names of witnesses and certain meeting points have been changed
[2] Equal to 71 square miles
[3] By way of Bolloré Ports, a subsidiary of Bolloré Transport and Logistics

Original source: Standard Times
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