* Frictions mount between landowners and investors
* Police chief says shots were intended as warning
By Tommy Trenchard
FREETOWN, Dec 10 Police in Sierra Leone opened
fire on Tuesday on an armed protest against the expansion of
palm oil plantations operated by the international agro-investor
Socfin Group, a police chief said.
The Luxembourg-registered company, part of the business
empire of the French tycoon Vincent Bollore, has been
embroiled since 2011 in a bitter feud between agricultural
groups and local landowners in the Malen chiefdom.
Police Inspector General Francis Munu said a crowd armed
with shotguns and machetes had tried to burn down a police
station in the southern Pujehun province on Monday, prompting a
"We tried to use tear gas but then we had to use bullets to
repel them," he said.
"They came out of the bush after a ... meeting, kidnapping
people, taking people's properties. They were opposed to
(Socfin) extending (its operations)."
Munu said the bullets were fired as warning shots. But the
head of an association of landowners affected by the Socfin deal
said dozens had been injured and that one man had been shot in
"They opened fire on us just for fighting for our rights to
the land," said Sima Mattia.
Residents say the $5 per acre ($12.50 per hectare) they
receive for their land per year is not sufficient and argue they
did not understand the lease agreement, or were coerced into
Socfin's director, Gerben Haringsma, said on Tuesday the
company had consulted every landowner and had the full support
of the community. Socfin says it has provided extensive
infrastructure projects and social services, as well as jobs.
Sierra Leone was devastated by civil war between 1991 and
2002. Since then, has succeeded in luring foreign investors in
agriculture as well as resources such as iron ore and bauxite.
Palm oil is the world's most important vegetable oil and is used
to make margarine and soap.
The government has signed several large-scale land deals in
recent years, including a $1.3 billion deal with China Hainan
Rubber Industry Group earlier this year.
Addax Bioenergy, a Swiss biofuel company that has leased
14,300 hectares in Tonkolili district for the production of
sugar cane, has faced similar criticisms, most recently in a
report by the NGO Action Aid.
Addax Bioenergy said in a statement that it "refutes
categorically the accusations made by ActionAid", adding that it
had injected over $50 million into Sierra Leone's economy.
(Writing by Emma Farge; Editing by Kevin Liffey)