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

What next for Sierra Leone’s endangered forests?

by Sonkita Conteh

Communities that bear the brunt of deforestation must be at the fore of rebuilding our environment

Last week, the government of Sierra Leone announced that all forest logging concessions are to be suspended “with immediate effect”, warning of repercussions for any violations.

In a country with less than 5 percent of original forest cover remaining, this was welcome news. Now the government must work to ensure that the communities that bore the brunt of deforestation are at the fore of rebuilding our environment for the future of our nation.

This action by the government comes after considerable effort by civil society organisations (CSOs) and activist citizens who, on a daily basis, witnessed the systematic destruction of the country’s forests.

In early 2018, before the country’s historic elections, some 4,000 citizens and 12 CSOs asked political parties and their candidates to endorse the “Wi Land Na Wi Fyuchɔ” pledge,  a set of commitments to respect tenure rights and protect the environment.    

A key demand in the pledge is reversing the trend of national deforestation by preventing exploitative activities in forest areas and supporting community-based afforestation and conservation.

The Sierra Leone People’s Party, which came into power in April, publicly endorsed the pledge and, after some initial inconsistency, looks to be heading in that general direction. The suspension of logging concessions is the first step in a long and arduous journey to “bring back the nation’s forests.”

The government appears to recognise that the public can play an important role in tackling deforestation across the country. The September 17 press release announcing the suspension of timber cutting called on the public to “notify the Ministry through the Director of Forestry of any illegal logging activities within their communities.”

But there is much more the public could do beyond policing the newly imposed timber ban. Any government worth its mandate would avail itself of the opportunity to join hands with its citizens for the common good. The country’s traders, drivers, chiefs, teachers, journalists, farmers, and nurses hold the key to a successful forest regeneration programme.

In the short term, we need to ensure effective implementation of the suspension order. The press release alone will not cut it. Communities in and around forest areas should be made aware of this suspension and encouraged to work with forests guards to protect what’s left of their forests.

They could also be encouraged to adopt by-laws internally to prevent individuals from within colluding with “power-saw poachers” to beat the ban. In Sierra Leone, community-level rule making and enforcement has been shown to be far more effective than mandates from far-off central authorities.  

The process of revising the framework for the awarding of forest concessions should adopt a multi-stakeholder approach with clear provision for consulting and receiving input from forest communities and the general public. An initial stock-taking of forest cover should be conducted to get a sense of those in good health, those critically endangered and those virtually extinguished.

Access to information is critical to a successful review process. As such the government should share information on existing forest concessions. Namati Sierra Leone has already lodged a formal right to information request with the Forestry Division. It would be useful for CSOs to have access to such data to share with the communities affected by these concessions. The data would also shed light on whether this sort of exploitation has a net positive result.

If we are to break the back of climate change, before it breaks ours, we must remain surefooted that our people and environment are placed ahead of profits.

A forest is the life-blood of a community. Once it is destroyed the community begins to die. The fight to save Sierra Leone’s forests is a fight to save the life, the soul of a nation. It requires everyone playing their part because everyone has everything to lose if the forests disappear.

Annihilation by deforestation; how the pursuit of short term “gain” will be the death of a country

By Sonkita Conteh, Director, Namati Sierra Leone 

2019 was a terrible year for Sierra Leone’s forests. According to the 2020 annual pubic finance audit report, more than 10 million slow-growing, rosewood trees were shipped out of the country.  Approximately two hundred thousand acres of forest cover was destroyed in the process. These irreplaceable resources, the report showed, were exchanged for a meagre US $25 million in revenue for the government- less than US $2.50 per tree. 

Had it not been for the Covid-19 epidemic, the rate of plunder in 2020 would have equalled or surpassed this magnitude. How the current government continues to see the destruction of the nation’s last remaining ancient forests as a source of revenue continues to beggar belief. 

Successive governments have pursued an “exploit to extinction” policy ostensibly to break the population out of poverty. In reality, such actions over time have exacerbated penury and misery across the population. Fish stocks have been depleted, coastlines shaved of sand and forests set to become grasslands. In August 2017 a deadly landslide on the hills overlooking the capital city killed over a thousand people and rendered over three thousand homeless, in a matter of minutes. It followed years of unrestrained destruction of tree cover on the hills. This tragedy seems to have been quickly forgotten as the plunder of other areas of the peninsular forest continues unabated and with the connivance of public officials. Governments past and present have been firing on all cylinders in this deadly race to the abyss. 

China, the destination of choice for many of the plundered rosewood from sub-Saharan Africa has been jealously guarding and nurturing its own forests, while merrily demolishing the ecosystems of its African “friends”. Over a period of 20 years, the Chinese government spent US $ 47 billion protecting its natural forests. In 2018, the government deployed 60,000 soldiers to help grow 6 million hectares of new forests.  The country currently boasts the fifth largest forest area in the world and has set an ambitious target to add 4.5 billion cubic metres of forest by 2030. These domestic actions by China seem to have been lost on African governments who continue to submit their rapidly dwindling forest resources to Chinese exploitation.   

The Sierra Leone government continues to peddle a narrative of a country basking in the abundance of multifarious natural resources newly opened for exploration. This may have been true some 100 years ago, but the state-of-affairs now presents a much more sobering picture- that of a country on the brink of an exploitation apocalypse. 

Most of the north has become drier with many communities forced to drink dirty water. Farming patterns no longer hold constant as rainfall has become erratic and violent. The World Food Programme has stated that these unreliable precipitation patterns, along with recurrent climactic shocks are what has led the food insecure population in the country to increase from 34% in 2019 to almost 48% in 2020. 

When trees are felled other animals and plants including micro-organisms that rely on them eventually die, thus cascading the effect of the loss. The quality and stability of the soil becomes compromised ensuring that crops will not thrive. Forest loss affects rainfall patterns and the supply of clean water. The country’s leadership continues to ignore the hard facts, determined to extinguish the less than 5% of original forest cover remaining, in the name of generating revenue. This mercenary attitude to nature’s gifts will be the death of our nation.   

The current lull in the destruction of forest resources, resulting from the pandemic, affords the nation an opportunity to introspect, take stock and course correct. Is the US $ 25 million revenue price tag a fair exchange for the loss of our prized ecosystem?  

Action must be taken to prevent the current situation from degenerating into an unmanageable crisis. Government should immediately end the practice of timber exportation. The losses now and in the future far outweigh any revenue that is being generated. We need to save what is left of our forests and work on restoring them. Communities where these forests sit should be empowered to play a role in their protection and renewal. Fifty years ago, Sierra Leone had more than 60% of its original forest cover intact. Today, only a fraction of that remains. At the current scale of plunder, getting to zero will be achieved in a few short years.     

Political leaders perhaps have already formulated their personal escape plans for when the country hits rock bottom. The rest of the population is not so privileged. Their hope lies in acting now and stopping a trade that has not and will never be profitable for the nation. Government should put the country’s interest above anything else.