As Media calls for Government Protection of Socfin: An Independent Writer reports on his findings in Malen Chiefdom and asked of whether citizens are worthy of Government Protection?

By John Adune

Last Week, I browsed through a number of local Sierra Leonean Newspapers.  One Common theme ran through all the stories; that story focused on SOCFIN, an agricultural foreign investor operating in Sahn Malen chiefdom, Pujehun district, Southern Sierra Leone. Global Times, in its 30th October headline captioned “SOCFIN CALLS FOR GOV’T PROTECTION, while another front-page caption on the same page read “Green Scenery Destroying President Bio’s Hard Work” was carried in Sierra Media on 29th October.

I was also attracted to a number of commentaries on the SOCFIN matter. Another inside page story read in “SIERRA MEDIA, quoted a representative of MALOA, an organization in Sierra Leone that supports local communities in defending their rights, was present in the demonstration in Belgium. She told “Euronews: Loans given by ING Bank to Socfin hurt us. We are victims of land grab, because all our lands have been taken away. We cannot plant, we cannot grow crops, and we cannot grow food from our own land.”

For a balance of the story, I engaged full gear to investigate the story in the national interest, those people that are affected. None of the victims were contacted by the authors of the stories. I managed to a staff of Green Scenery for their own side of the story. Unfortunately, I was informed that Joseph Rahall, Director of Green Scenery was out of the country but would return the following day. The only way to make progress then, I immediately decided to do a plan of visit to Pujehun district and interview as many people as possible regarding the authenticity of the publications. This is the only way to make the voices of the people heard in order to hear all voices affected. In spite of this hick up I decided to pursue the facts of the matter and to establish same for the good of not only Government, investors but all Sierra Leoneans.

In advancing arguments for investment in agriculture, the writer states, among other things   that “Danielle van Oijen, programme officer at Friends of the Earth, Netherlands calls ING one of the ‘dirtiest Banks’ in Europe” Socfin. She added: “palm oil leads to deforestation, it leads to land grabbing, and it leads to a lot of human rights violations so ING should stop financing palm oil.’

In the same arguments, the paper states that in an email sent to Euro News, an ING spokesperson wrote: ING gives a lot of importance to the respect for human rights.” The unchallenged critical issue is human rights protection. The issue for me should be to focus on human rights protection; and this is arguably a line of action that newsmen should take to follow up on the news with relevant action garnered from locals in the field.

I would dare ask: ‘does production of palm oil on such massive scale lead to deforestation? Moreover, does it threaten fisheries, forests and swamp agriculture in riverine areas?

Are the waters polluted for safe drinking by use of chemicals and fertilizers?

According to the report by Sierra Media, no investigation was undertaken to ascertain the extent of human rights violations. It was a matter of “who benefits.” And business as usual.

Among the questions designed for my respondents both in and outside Malen Chiefdom are outlined below:

  1. Does Socfin respect human rights?
  2. What is the relationship between Socfin and local communities in terms of cooperate social responsibility?
  3. Are local communities victims of land grabs?
  4. Have local communities enough land to cultivate and fish for food security on a sustainable basis?
  5. Does the action of Socfin threaten food sufficiency and security?
  6. Do they have areas left for local communities to cultivate their crops?
  7. Can they cultivate traditional crops lie beans, sorghum, black eyed beans, beni-seed etc.?
  8. Do they have forest lands to hunt deer, bush pigs, grass cutters and other games, or do they now live on rats and ‘ground pigs”?
  9. Compared to how much they earned before the advent of Socfin, how do they compare community profits/ earnings from land?

Another caption which beckoned me was titled “GREEN SCENERY DESTROYING PRESIDENT BIO’S HARD WOR” was again carried in Sierra Media. I found this bit particularly very interesting. After heaping praises and exaltation on Socfin for various reasons, the papers rained blame upon blame on the Director of Green Scenery and other environmental and human rights activists. These are persons who can aptly be described as human rights defenders. Sierra Media indicated in his defense for Socfin, the provision of hundreds of jobs amidst current economic hardship in the country. Let me indicate Sir that in all development issues respect for human rights is foremost, and second to none. It is core principle.

Examine this statement “how would foreign investors interested in the agricultural sector come and do business in Sierra Leone when our Government is allowing so called environmental and human rights activists to disrupt the operations of the few foreign investors in the agricultural sector?” This is in no way a very disparaging comment. But did you listen to the other side of the story, Green Scenery’s Executive Director or madam Fassia, or the voices of the voiceless living inside and outside Malen Chiefdom for example? And what yardstick did you use to inform the public that the individuals named are saboteurs blocking a ban loan to Socfin.

Again, human rights are core standards applied to all businesses operating in Sierra Leone. It’s always business and human rights. The fact that all papers carry the same in manner and matter remains much to be desired. And let me hasten to underscore the point that publications carrying the Socfin story deserves no merit, independently speaking.

Note this appeal by the paper: Sierra Leoneans are listening and watching to see how the Bio administration, which has made agriculture as one of its priorities can handle the problem between the agricultural company and the so-called environmental and human rights activists claiming to be protecting the rights of affected landowners.

A fundamental and core principle in human rights is: do no harm.

Quite interesting write up. To take up the challenge, as stated previously, I decided to visit Malen chiefdom, to listen to and hear what the people have to say. I also seized the opportunity of visiting 3 of Malen’s neighbouring chiefdoms including Sowa, Njaima Bongor and wonde chiefdoms. Some descendants of Malen chiefdom resident in Bo and Freetown also consisted of my sample on their reaction to the publications in Global Times, Sierra Media and others. Hear what they had to say:

  1. Socfin grabbed our land without adequate compensation; there was no engagement with the local people before their land was grabbed;
  2. Can you imagine that a local farmer who developed 17 acres of oil pal is compensated at 5 USD per acre? Is that a fair deal;
  3. These papers do not write in the interest of Malen people; they always side with Socfin. Socfin calls the shot while they kneel down to obey the Master’s voice;
  4. At Socfin, a worker who cannot complete his portion for the days would have to complete that portion, expect to do another portion before he receives his pay. Communal labor, another form of slavery is going on;
  5. Socfin in its operations brought in its wake untold hardship that never existed in our Chiefdom
  6. There are no longer forests and animals that we traditionally hunted. No more land available to grow our traditional rice such as rough rice which indigenes love so much;
  7. Two hectares of cultivated land containing rice, maize, beni -seed, okra, cucumber, beans including black eyed beans;
  8. The paramount chief of Malen does not work in the interest of the citizens, who are his people; rather he is always working conspicuously in the interest of Socfin;
  9. The role of women activists in Malen calling the attention of Government to address the land conflict is Malen for sustainable peace must proceed under strict mediation rules, that is to say the ability to identify the invisible stakeholders fanning the flames of the conflict in Malen;
  10. Urgently, re-examine land deals in Malen to give the people a voice;
  11. That the fact-finding teams sent to Malen do not demonstrate neutrality as Socfin and the Paramount Chief always undermine the process;
  12. State intervene in the crises should investigate Paramount Chief B.V.S. Kebbie.
  13. Residents from Malen, and here a large number of them, indicated disgust with Socfin and their P.C. for disrupting the economic livelihood and food self-sufficiency of 53 communities living in the area.

These are just a few of my findings during a short field research past weekend.

Human rights largely is directed to the poor, oppressed, marginalized, disadvantaged and socially deprived groups and persons. The Oil Palm Company should not be allowed to violate human rights unchecked. The primary function of Government is unquestionably human rights protection.

In my view, Newspapers advancing the role of Socfin as an agency creating jobs and living up to its cooperate social responsibility leaves much to be desired and therefore a nonstarter. From my long experience in the field of journalism, it is our sworn responsibility to be objective in all reportage. No middle of the road. In the words of Paulo Freire in “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” you either side with the oppressors or against them.

The more professional we are the more society looks upon us as serving humanity and not ourselves.

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