SAHN MALEN, Sierra Leone (Reuters) - In a remote corner of Sierra Leone, signs of a bonanza are evident. New corrugated zinc roofs have replaced simple thatch on houses, motorbikes ply the streets and market stalls are well-stocked.
The new wealth of the villagers in Pujehun district is thanks to a land lease deal with a European investor for an oil palm plantation that has backing from the national government in Freetown right down to the local “paramount chief.”
But not everybody is happy.
“The chief brought the company here. He is the one supposed for talk to us,” 28-year-old Eddie Amara, who led local protests against the project last month, said in hesitant English in the village of Kortumahun.
“He’s not treat us good, fair,” said Amara, adding that pledges of local employment had yet to fully materialize and giving voice to local claims that villagers felt they had little choice but to hand over land.
The Sierra Leone plantation of Lichtenstein-based Socfin is one of many such projects in Africa, spurred by global demand for food and biofuel but criticized by some as “land grabs.”
Police arrested 39 local people in last month’s protests, and the row has become a political hot potato. A German aid group withdrew one of its workers from Sierra Leone earlier this year following a dispute over the case.
The saga highlights the tensions surfacing as Africa is drawn further into the global economy, triggering hope that the continent’s people will one day benefit but also concern that precious local resources will be lost with little gain.
The U.N.’s Food and Agriculture office last month warned African governments not to rush into big land lease deals for risk of deepening poverty or heightening social tensions.
Sierra Leone is one of the world’s poorest countries and desperately needs foreign investment. Pujehun District suffered heavily during Sierra Leone’s 1991-2002 civil war, a conflict that left some 50,000 dead.
The Socfin deal was completed earlier this year. The Sierra Leonean government leased land from local landowners, and the company in turn has its own lease with the government. It is adamant that the project is a win-win proposition.
“You cannot start a project like this in Africa against the will of the people,” Gerben Haringsma, general manager of Socfin Agricultural Company Sierra Leone Ltd, told Reuters.
“When there is no harmony there is no profit,” adding that if all goes well the initial stage of the project will stretch to a total 12,500 hectares and could be expanded further to include rubber cultivation.
The project currently employs 1,500 Africans, many on a temporary basis and not all of them locals. When production begins, the headcount is due to rise to 3,000.
The daily rate is $2.30. That compares to Sierra Leone’s national income of $340 a head, as measured on the World Bank’s Atlas scale — just under a dollar a day.
The row has been fueled by the fact that in Sierra Leone, as in other African countries, there is an uneasy co-existence of traditional chiefdom structures with Western-style government that has muddied key issues such as land ownership.
Local paramount chief Brima Victor Sedi Kebbie has championed the deal in contrast to the local member of parliament who opposes it. People in Malen chiefdom accuse Kebbie of having pressurized them into giving up their land.
“The chief said whether you agree or don’t agree they will take the plantation by force,” said Brima Lappia, a 42-year-old from the village of Semabu who chairs an association recently formed by disgruntled landowners.
Kebbie was not in the area and did not reply to messages left on his phone. His deputy, “chiefdom speaker” Shemgbe Robert Moiguah, strongly defends the deal.
“If we know it cannot develop our people, we would not go in for it,” he said.
A 2004 government document stipulates that land in provincial areas is “held in communal ownership under customary tenure and is controlled by traditional rulers who administer it on behalf of their communities in accordance with customary principles and usage.”
However, Francis Sankoh, director of Sierra Leone’s ministry of agriculture, said that does not give paramount chiefs the right to force farmers to give up their land.
“They are not supposed to. It is not in the laws of Sierra Leone,” he told Reuters.
A particular bone of contention is the compensation the company is paying for crops destroyed when they took over land. Locals rejected an initial offer of 500,000 leones per acre but later accepted 1,000,000 ($224).
Much of it seems to have gone on the new houses, motorbikes and stocking market stalls and, following the spending spree, locals now say the compensation was insufficient.
In response, the company claims they do not appreciate that the 1,000,000 leones is not the only money they will receive, as Socfin is also paying an annual rent of $12.50 per hectare (2.47 acres). Sankoh said between 40 and 50 percent of that amount should go to local landowners.
It is in this atmosphere that protest took off in October, when local people blocked a road to the Socfin site.
A few weeks later in Kortumahun, where Socfin has leased much of the land previously used by villagers, Amara brandished a photo of arrested protesters taken by Shiaka Musa Sama, the local member of parliament.
Detractors say Sama, a member of the opposition Peoples’ Movement for Democratic Change party, is trying to make hay the year before an election by inciting local trouble and feuding with his old enemy Paramount Chief Kebbie.
Sama says he is merely standing up for his constituents.
“It’s not about my reelection, it’s about the land,” he told Reuters. “It’s about thieving,” he added in an assertion which is categorically denied by both Socfin and Kebbie’s deputy.
The project is going ahead despite the protests, yet the episode has given some in Sierra Leone pause for thought.
Sankoh at the agriculture ministry concedes the agreed rent of $12.50 a hectare may have been too small, and signals that such projects are going to require careful handling by governments across Africa.
“It’s possible that it was done too fast, too quick, and it did not give time to the landowners,” he said.
“The land ministry should have done more work.”
Editing by Mark John and Keiron Henderson