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.

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