An open letter to President Bio: government needs to enact the Customary Land Rights and Land Commission Bills as part of action on land reform in Sierra Leone

Dear Mr. President,

Please accept the assurances of our highest consideration.

We are landowners, land users, women and community leaders and persons affected by large-scale land transactions in Sierra Leone. We hail from every region and every district in the country, from Bombali in the north to Moyamba in the south and every district in between. We request your urgent intervention in the ongoing national land reform process, particularly with respect to the drafting of the Customary Land Rights and Land Commission bills.

We wholeheartedly commend your government for continuing the ambitious undertaking of improving and harmonizing our dual land tenure system. Across our various communities, there is significant support for this process and considerable expectation of a positive outcome.

In February this year, hundreds of us participated in regional consultations, on both proposed laws and made input to improve their content. We applaud the Ministry of Lands for facilitating the consultations and for leading the national land reform process. 

In many respects, the proposed laws are a monumental step forward for our nation’s development. They align with the National Land Policy 2015 and best practices on tenure protection and administration around the globe.

We support the establishment of an independent, multi-tiered National Land Commission, which will be responsible for land administration across the country. The commission will, among others, set up a new title registration system including one that maps and registers customary land rights. The benefits of such a system will be immense. It will provide better protection for the land rights of Sierra Leoneans, especially those in the provinces. As you are aware, the current situation in the land sector is chaotic and prone to conflict and corruption. An independent, devolved, land administration body will help fix these problems and increase confidence in our land tenure system.

Mr. President, for many generations now, title to land in the provinces has only been guaranteed by word of mouth, with general trusteeship responsibility vested in chiefdom councils. As populations increased and competition for land intensified, this arrangement proved to be less than satisfactory. Across the country, land conflicts have become more frequent and serious while chiefdom councils have oftentimes not acted in the best interest of their people, especially in relation to large-scale land investments. To obviate this twin-challenge, the National Land Policy 2015 provides for the vesting of title to customary land in the groups that actually own the land, namely families and communities. The proposed Customary land Rights law has set out quite succinctly how family and community titles will be recognized, registered and protected. We whole-heartedly support this important transition and strongly believe that not only will it reduce the incidence of land conflicts, by vesting land in the people, the opportunity for better stewardship of our land and environment will be guaranteed. 

The proposed customary land rights bill will give landowning families and communities greater control over their land, especially in decision-making relating to large-scale land acquisitions. In many towns and villages, land investments have proceeded with little or no informed consent of landowning families and those most directly affected by such investments. This has resulted in rights violations and increased conflict, sometimes leading to loss of lives. From Tonkolili to Pujehun, our recent history shows that failure to allow effective participation of landowners in investment processes can have tragic consequences.

Mr. President, the need for urgent action at this time is necessitated by happenings on the ground and our firm belief that the proposed laws will not only help to address the shortcomings and injustices of the current system, but will usher in a new and wholesome dispensation in land administration nation-wide. 

We continue to witness communities getting the short end of the stick during investment negotiations. Often, they do not have access to independent legal assistance or professional help during the process. Sometimes, the companies they negotiate with offer to procure legal advice for them but end up conflicting the process by directly paying the lawyers on the communities’ behalf. The lawyers end up serving the interest of the company. This scenario has played out in Lugbu, Marampa, Gaura and many other chiefdoms across the country. We believe that the provisions in the proposed Customary Land Rights law establishing a Community Justice Fund and making independent legal advice for communities mandatory, will address this vexing problem and help maintain a balance of power between communities and investors during negotiations.

Over the years, women have been discriminated against in the use and control of land. Under several customary laws in the country, women are considered as minors, requiring the agency of male relations to access and utilise land belonging to their family. They are also excluded from decision-making on land, including in negotiations with investors. In one example, a certain paramount chief withheld land rent that was due to a family because the male relatives had died. He claimed that women, by custom, had no business with land and so could not receive the rent on behalf of the family. Such high-handed display of patriarchy is inimical to the right and well-being of the largest demographic of our population and to development in general. The proposed Customary Land Rights law effectively rectifies this aberration by explicitly guaranteeing the rights of women to own, hold, transfer and use land on the same level as men. The proposed law outlaws any custom, practice or rule that discriminates against women in the enjoyment of their rights to land.

Mr. President, space and time will not permit us to amplify the many progressive, realistic, and common-sensical provisions in the proposed laws. When enacted, these laws will truly make us “one country, one people” as they will effectively end the native/non-native citizen discrimination that is currently legally tolerated. For this and the other reasons outlined above, we are anxious for these proposed laws to be enacted quickly so that we can begin, as a nation, to enjoy their benefits.

During the regional consultations, some six months ago, we were assured of speedy action on the proposed laws. We wish to remind you, most respectfully sir of the slogan of your government- “talk and do”- and urge you to take prompt action on these proposed laws.

We wish to assure you of our continued support and commitment to the process of land reform and look forward to hearing from you, most favourably, on our petition.

Yours sincerely,

Landowners, land users, women and community leaders from across the country.

Now that the Sierra Leone Land Policy 2015 has been officially launched – An open letter to President Koroma

Dear Mr. President,

Last Thursday I was at State House to witness the low-key start of a potentially profound revolution in the land sector. For decades, our people and the environment have borne the scourge of a broken land tenure system. Many attempting to buy land to build a future for their families have lost their life savings to unrepentant swindlers who have taken advantage of our fragmented land administration system. Over the years, the hills surrounding Freetown have been slowly divested of their precious flora and fauna by merciless land grabbers aided by certain selfish or dishonest public officials. With our landscape stripped or left bare, our city is left more vulnerable than ever before to adverse climatic changes.

In rural areas, increased competition over land for mining and plantation agriculture has combined with unpredictable weather patterns and outward population movements to threaten the existence of whole villages. The rural landscape is changing fast. Ties that used to bind are coming undone, leadership that once protected villages now exploits them, and the unchecked excesses of big businesses undercuts people’s belief in the rule of law. Many rural dwellers feel disconnected from the centre, forgotten entirely except when there is some valuable resource for the taking.

I could regale you with many stories of challenges, frustrations and despair, as well as a few of hope, victories, and hard-won solutions.  At Namati, we have kept careful records of our experiences in providing communities access to legal and paralegal services as they interact with investors.  A few of these cases stand out:

Once, a paramount chief decided that a landowning family should no longer receive their share of the rent paid by an agriculture company because the last surviving male relative had died. Women, he claimed, had no right to land;
Or consider the case of the agriculture company that leased 1015 acres of land from a community for 25 years for the total sum of Le 600,000 ($150) per annum. The community wanted a bridge across the Rokel River in place of a normal rent and the company agreed to build one. The company also agreed to plant two trees for every tree cut down as compensation. The lease agreement, however, did not bind the company to any of these promises.  Eight years later the company has not built the bridge or planted the trees but it has been harvesting its crops. Last year it did not pay rent. The company claims it is not bound by the promises it made–only by what contractually exists in the agreement;
Then there is the village that desperately desires to be relocated because extensive mining has destroyed its farmlands, rivers, and ground water sources. The inhabitants do not see any future for the community if they continue to stay, but the mining company is reluctant to resettle the 600-plus individuals who live on the lands it has so badly damaged. The village relies on tank water supplied by the company and a few boreholes;
But lastly, before we lose hope, we should consider the case of the responsible agriculture company—the one that pays $12.50 per hectare as rent, and still allows the community to farm the unused portion of the land it has leased. The company helped organise the landowners into associations, has provided school materials for pupils, and started a university scholarship scheme. Recently, at the request of several communities, it built “barrays,” or meeting places, for these villages as part of its commitment to corporate social responsibility. In the lease agreement, the company agreed to pay 5% of its net profit annually into a community development fund for development projects.

We have seen the way that Sierra Leone’s vast natural resource base presents many threats, but also brings many opportunities. We have to determine how to manage these resources for both the good of the people and the environment. The National Land Policy 2015, which you have now officially launched, provides a framework to minimise and eventually eliminate those threats and amplify those opportunities.

The policy lays out transformative provisions that, among other important achievements (i) guarantees women equal rights to and control over land (ii) enables communities negotiating with investors to have access to independent legal and paralegal services (iii) situates stewardship of natural resources at the community level (iv) secures the tenure rights of individuals, families and communities through a system of mapping and title registration. The policy also contextualizes international standards and best practices such as the Voluntary Guidelines for the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the context of National Food Security.

Mr. President, there is no guarantee that your successor (whoever she or he may be) would exhibit the same passion and commitment to land reform that we have seen over the last 5 years. It is important that until the last day of your presidency you continue to use your office to ensure that the ground-breaking provisions in the National Land Policy improve the lives of ordinary Sierra Leoneans. For this to happen, there must be some serious financial commitment to land policy implementation. New laws need to be enacted, new governance structures set up, and new land administration systems deployed. Across the country, people need to know about these laws, structures, and systems to be able to use them effectively in practice.

While development and civil society partners continue to support the reform process, we remain discouraged by government’s lukewarm financial commitment to this crucial enterprise. Budget allocations in 2016 and 2017 for land policy implementation have been minuscule compared to what is needed to bring this transformative policy to life.  Sierra Leone’s goal of reaching middle income status by 2035 can never be achieved without addressing the current challenges of land use and administration through robust land reform implementation. If our hearts are truly set on this dream, then we need to commit our treasures to achieving it. We are asking the government to contribute at least 20% of the cost of reform implementation.

In closing, I would argue, Mr. President that in years to come the biggest achievement of your government may not be the roads constructed, the power grids installed or the water pipes laid. How well you lead this land revolution may be your defining moment in history.

Please accept the assurance of my highest consideration.

Yours Sincerely,
Sonkita Conteh
Director, Namati Sierra Leone

Please Keep Plunderers Out Of Our Endangered Forests For Good – An Open Letter To President Bio

Dear Mr. President,

When your government, on 9th April this year, announced the suspension of timber exportation with “immediate effect”, it felt like the start of a course correction for our nation. Sierra Leone has lost significant ancient forest cover over the past 30 years. Estimates of what is left are below 5%.

However, by public notice dated 21st May 2018, your government has set up a committee to review the ban on timber export, with one of its terms of reference being to “recommend an appropriate governance framework underpinned by transparency, accountability and reporting mechanism for the resumption of the timber trade and export.”

It is difficult to understand, Mr President, why your government is considering a resumption of timber exportation in the face of its deleterious effect on our environment. Our forests are critically endangered and I write to urge you to stay the course and choose long-term stewardship over short-term economic gain. Our forests must be protected.     

I have just returned from a trip upcountry, where I provided legal advice to communities targeted for largescale mining and conducted training for over 70 paralegals on how to use our land and environmental protection laws to help communities secure their land and natural resources. In Port Loko I met some very worried farmers. They had ploughed their lands and planted in anticipation of the rains. They are still waiting. Groundnut and rice that were planted after the early rains in April have gone bad. Wells and rivers have dried up. There are similar stories in Bombali and Kenema. A national catastrophe of manifold dimensions is beginning to unfold.

Loss of forest cover has been linked to less rainfall. If we continue to cut down trees for export, we should also prepare for the mass exodus of our compatriots to other nations as climate refugees in search of water, food and arable land. The lack of rainfall this year portends a challenging future for our people. Some are already calling for humanitarian assistance in anticipation of widespread hunger and the outbreak of water-related diseases later this year.

No amount of money will equal the value of forests lost. Pursuing revenue at the expense of our forest is short-sighted and dangerous. There is no net positive in resuming timber exportation from our primary forests.

Across towns, villages and chiefdoms, people are becoming aware of the existential threat of our country’s vulnerability to climate change due largely to unrestrained exploitation of our natural resources. And they are taking action to both protect what’s left and regenerate a better environment for the future generation.

For example, the people in Gbo Chiefdom in the south are helping to conserve their forests by rejecting charcoal burning in the chiefdom. This act of stewardship is helping to preserve thousands of trees in that community.

Similarly, with help from my organisation, villages in Pakimasabong chiefdom in the north and Selenga chiefdom in the south have developed community by-laws to create protected zones, prevent logging along water catchments and regenerate deforested areas, as part of a community land protection programme. These communities understand that failure to take decisive action now will leave them with nothing for the future.

Resumption of timber exportation will give the impression that your government does not care about their efforts to protect their common heritage, our common heritage. Your government needs to back this exemplary demonstration of local leadership with decisive, supportive action at the national level. It would be a great disappointment if these efforts are scuppered by a resumption of timber exportation.   

Mr. President, I would like to draw your attention to a national commitment your political party made before the March 2018 elections. At a “land, the environment and elections” conference in February 2018, your party and several others signed up to the “Wi Land Na Wi Fyuchɔ

Pledge” which contained commitments to protect our land and natural resources. In particular, your party agreed, if it won power, to “reverse the trend of national deforestation by prohibiting mining or largescale agricultural investments in forested areas and supporting community-based afforestation and conservation.” Your party also agreed to “prioritise alternative forms of land investments that are less harmful to the environment….”  

You will agree, Mr. President, that resumption of timber exportation will be a desecration of these pre-election commitments. Your party’s word is your word and a person’s word is their bond.  

Finally, your government could support responsible timber exportation, with no threat to our declining primary forests. Properly registered and environmentally-compliant timber companies could lease degraded land from communities on which to grow trees for export. A good example of this approach in practice is Miro Forestry Limited’s logging project in Mile 91, Tonkolili District. This Forest Stewardship Council-certified investment grows its own trees on land leased from communities. It is not worth doing business with any timber company that is unwilling to make this type of investment in our country.

Mr President, Sierra Leone is particularly vulnerable to climate change. The ancient forests are our last line of defence. It will be unwise to strip the nation of this protection and leave the people at the mercy of the elements.

Please accept the assurance of my highest consideration.

Yours sincerely,

Sonkita Conteh

Director, Namati Sierra Leone