The Blame Game and the Usual Criminalization of Green Scenery Starts Again: But how safe are Sierra Leoneans at the Hands of Transnational Corporations?November 21, 2018
By Joseph Rahall
One thing I have learnt in Sierra Leone in all of my active years is the fact that you should not be straight, when you are, you become the enemy of progress. This has been the situation since I started my human rights debut in Sierra Leone linking this fine discipline with journalism. In the past as a journalist I have been blamed for acts as low as irresponsibility to as terrible as plotting coup. In recent times, Green Scenery and myself have been blamed for defaming SOCFIN or for damaging the image of the state in the international realm, forgetting that we serve as a mirror to their actions.
I have remained silence in the public arena not just because I am chickening out but for one advise I got a long time ago which goes: DON’T WRESTLE WITH PIGS, THEY WILL ONLY GET YOU DIRTY AND THEY LIKE IT. What I eventually got from this advise is don’t allow yourself to be diverted in your work by distractions that are so revoltingly tempting to suck you into what the distractors want. So we have maintained the position that it is not strategic to open up too many frontiers of fight; it is counter productive and energy draining, because focus on the actual engagement will be lost. However, as Kenny Rogers would say “Father you have to forgive me, sometimes you need to pick a fight to be a man.” This article intends to shed a glimpse on the facts that are been twisted by our writer friends on events in Malen Chiefdom, the operational area of SOCFIN.
I have read the story item in the Sierra Express Media, the Sierra Leone Telegraph and the Global Times by Gbow; headlined “How Safe are Foreign Investors in Sierra Leone” with a SOCFIN logo in the middle of the online article. I have also read special commentaries in the following newspapers: Sierra Media Express, Global Times, and others that I may not have seen. Interestingly they all carry the same line of argument, meaning the commentary and or the media item originates from one source. The articles seek selfishly the singular interest of the Trans National Corporation, SOCFIN, none of them from ethical perspective seek our side of the story, neither did they go and seek the views of thousands of their compatriot citizens in Malen Chiefdom whose land were taken from them with little participation, no transparency, no free prior and informed consent and quite often forcefully. In short, their land rights were completely ignored. This is an indictment on the conscience of these writers.
Chiefdom size and SOCFIN concession
Chiefdom with size 27,000ha, population 49,000 people and just over 65 villages, Malen is now home to 12,500ha of oil palm plantation. But the company still lays claim to over 18,000ha in some literature they cite 20,000ha, meaning only 7,000 to less than 9,000 ha of land is presumably left and applying to the total built up areas of villages and the few swamps. SOCFIN had claimed a number of times that they are paying for all of their concession area of over 18,000ha and we have always posed the question to them and the paramount chief: How is the money paid and how is it distributed. We have to date not received an answer from SOCFIN or the Paramount chief.
The land in question was ascribed by the Paramount Chief in the Koroma led Government and passed over to the government of Sierra Leone in a shady manner. Even though landowners protested on the onset that they disagreed with the taking over of their land, they were victimized, arrested, or intimidated by just saying no or by protesting. On scores of times Sierra Leonean citizens of Malen Chiefdom have been arrested, brutalized, kept in police prisons, or on trumped up charges taken to court and imprisoned or fined. The UN special rapporteur on Human Rights defenders denounced this criminalization. Authorities of the Chiefdom, the district and the central government condoned all of these human rights violations in the guise of protecting the TNC and neglecting the citizens whose rights they swore and signed international treaties to protect.
Communities have in the past and always have raised the issue of the survey exercises of their land. According to them the company through its surveyors and the Paramount chief cheated them during surveys. The plantation lands were badly surveyed, as the survey team would only give what they felt to give the land and plantation owners. So if the plantation is ten acres, based on their whims they can allocate 5 acres. All other plots of land without plantation are normally taken with no recourse to the owner. On countless times we have asked SOCFIN to give us a comprehensive map of the chiefdom showing parcels of land belonging to the families. Over five years on no such information has been available.
Land Availability in Sierra Leone; the facts
Gbow or his faceless accomplice asserts that over forty-four million hectares of arable land remain uncultivated while the country continues to import staple food. I am certain that Gbow is not one of the many journalists that Green Scenery has had his capacity built on land issues otherwise he will know that according to government figures 4.4 million out of 5.4 million ha of land is utilized for farming (not fourty-four million hectares). However, there is an empirical research report by two German specialists Bald and Schröder, 2011, page 19 who concluded, “there is no remaining potential to significantly enlarge the area under cultivation anywhere in Sierra Leone.” What Gbow and his cohorts are made not to believe is that patches of uncultivated land seen are often land waiting to be farmed because our smallholder farmers the backbone of our food security practice fallow farming; allowing the land to naturally rejuvenate before re-farming it and fallow periods have now significantly dropped. By his assertion Gbow and co. wrongly implies that the company may also be in rice production.
SOCFIN’s massive jobs, what is kept in the dark?
In Gbow’s assertion thousands of jobs are at stake. Others have claimed that 4000 jobs are being provided by SOCFIN and this is feeding, the homes of the Malen people. Should Gbow be sensitive enough he could have done a background check. For the good of the public I will do the basic maths; 65% of Sierra Leone’s population are self-employed and depend on farming. Malen has a population of 49,000 (male 25,000, Female 24,000) of which 31,850 or 65% are employed as farmers. This number has for 7 years been unemployed by SOCFIN’s operation in the Chiefdom simply because there is no more farm land in Malen.
Therefore the SOCFIN’S, 4000 (or more precisely 3583 according to the last figures in the SOCFIN annual report) jobs is far insufficient to address the harm caused by unemployment. But only a small fraction of the jobs are permanent (1178), the rest is casual and seasonal. Our investigations have shown that labourers can get up to 2 months; 3 months work and lay off for another 2 – 3 months. Workers have always complained that they will never get their wages due because the company formulates daily tasks that will never be completed by even the strongest of men.
This way workers pay packages as we examined all fall short of the minimum wage of Le500,000. Little wonder women often refer to the SOCFIN job as slave labour. Although we have never contested the SOCFIN claim of their employment figures, we have however asked a number of times for the list of categories of casual workers along with the daily tasks they are supposed to complete as well as their contracts to prove the correctness of their statement. This none rocket science question has never been answered.
Fassia as an embodiment of women of Malen
Fassia Vandy is a woman of great inner strength and courage. She saved her little oil palm plantation in the early days, by defying the bulldozer and its driver from felling her palm trees. With determination, she stubbornly stood in front of the machine even though the driver moved the soil as high as her knees around her. For three days this movie played as SOCFIN tried to take her plantation. Fassia may have been injured and no questions would have been asked or investigations mounted. She was able to save her tree crop but she lost the rest of her farmland with no compensation. Fassia is an embodiment of the women of Malen, many of whom suffer ignominiously in silence, carrying the family burden.
Yes the Malen women have been reduced to lower animals (according to a clip that was sent out recently by demonstrating women) and forced into approaching the company for insurmountably daily tasks likened to “slave labour” by many workers. For the past years women have witnessed their children drop out of school because they can’t afford school charges. Families languish with simple diseases because they have lost income sources that will otherwise pay for a quick cure of such diseases.
Many women are now becoming single parents as their husbands die from frustration due to the loss of livelihoods as a result of loss of their land. Fassia was given the opportunity to go out and speak on what women are going through in Malen to people who might otherwise listen and support their struggle to make life better for them and their families from what obtains now. She was able to speak bravely in many meetings and forums appealing for the world to act on their behalf for our government to commission an independent investigation in the land matter in Malen chiefdom. On behalf of the suffering women of Malen she said that if the conditions continue like this any new loan to SOCFIN is bound to hurt them further. Fassia’s plea is not unconnected to the recent peaceful demonstration staged by the women of Malen that resulted into attracting high power government delegation for 3 days in that region to try to resolve the problem.
But coming back to the ING bank loan. What we know about it is mispresented by Gbow’s article and this shows dishonesty. We know that the ING loan was not for SAC SL alone but for SOCFIN’S activities in General. We are also informed that the loan was already granted last year. These are all pointers to transparency issues and public scrutiny. A loan of such magnitude must have been publically disseminated.
The land lease agreement and the memorandum of understanding and agreement of 2011 states that 12,000ha will be the cultivated plantation size, with oil mill of 30 tons of palm fruit per hour and the estimated labour and contractors will be 2414. Given that the plantation size of SOCFIN is supposed to be 12,000ha however the current size is larger according SOCFIN. Equally, the company has also ascribed to itself extra land size amounting to more than 6,000ha. We are knowledgeable with information that SOCFIN is paying for this extra land when they are in effect not using it. The question we have asked was to whom, or to where is this money paid.
There are also four plots of the SOCFIN plantation for which we have always seek questions as to the lease agreement of plots C and D as a measure of testing the transparency of the company as portrayed in their sustainability report of 2014. The answers to these questions are never forth coming. It is hard to imagine that the very people whose land has been taken away cannot even access that basic information.
The payment of the lease and the distribution of the lease money is as murky as the land deal itself. Up until this date, landowners and citizens of Malen have little or no idea how much money is paid out by SOCFIN for lease rent, no citizen of Malen has a clue as to how the lease rent is distributed. In Green Scenery’s monitoring exercises the question of the list of landowners and how much they receive have never been answered either by SOCFIN or by the Paramount chief. There is so much information hidden by the company yet they claim in their sustainability report of 2014, their high level of correctness in transparency.
The company’s human rights record is dismal. There is ample nexus between human rights violations of the company and the complacence or active engagement of state security. There is countless documentation of human rights violations catalogued from 2011 to 2017 in our possession. In its undated sustainability policy the company have emphasized high standards in respect for human rights, yet the human rights abuses continue as the company security and police indiscriminately arrest and maltreat citizens for simply being in possession of palm fruits or palm oil, many of which are legitimately owned. These victims have faced kangaroo courts and are fined monies they can hardly afford. For instance Amara Sallu of Kpanguma was apprehended for being in possession of palm. He was required to pay Le 400,000 to the police with his oil confiscated and released. At the moment 29 containers of palm oil were confiscated in homes in Monogor village the owner was required to pay Le 300,000 to the police to be released. The money was paid but was later returned. Monogor village has remnants of palm trees left in the perimeter of the village, which has served as source of palm oil.
Our Multiple Country Action, what dividend?
With our international partners, Green Scenery and a woman member of MALOA were opportuned to visit three countries; Belgium, Switzerland and Luxemburg. The one aim was to advocate and lobby as many governments as we can and international partners to gently approach our government that has shown commitment in resolving the land conflict in Malen Chiefdom. In the process we should stage public actions to denounce corporate entities that have no respect for human rights, often and forcing states to behave likewise through threats of court actions when they feel threatened by the outcomes of there own behaviors.
In the past two years we had met with ING bank advising them to stay any loan to SOCFIN if they are not ready to seat and be part of the solution to the Land problem, which they have fanned to a very large extent. Because ING bank was green washing its image in Brussels by supporting sustainable development, it was important that they were reminded that the SOCFIN loan if granted will hurt more people by subjecting them to more inhuman conditions as was described by the woman representative.
This action was also in line with the public action in Geneva during the 4th Open Ended International Working Group mandated to develop a UN binding treaty on Trans National Corporations (TNCs) and other Business Enterprises with respect to Human Rights. The world is now clamoring for this binding treaty because soft laws such as the OECD guidelines and other guidelines have failed to put a check on the TNCs to respect human rights and subjecting poverty to those they victimize.
OECD and SOCFIN
SOCFIN is a case in point. In Cameron where they have violated human rights and other issues, the company was brought to the National Contact Point of OECD in France by SHERPA, CED, FOCARFE and Misereor. During more than 3 years a plan action was negotiated between the different stakeholders. But in the end SOCFIN ignored the OECD recommended conclusion in 2013. The matter was transferred in 2015 to Belgium since the company was a Belgian company. Again the National Contact Point of the OECD in Belgium required them to respond to the issues raised against them from Cameron. The matter dragged until 2017 at the NCP with no cooperation from SOCFIN. The matter has since not been resolved and the NCP concluded that SOCFIN was not willing to cooperate. There is nothing the NCP of the OECD Belgium can do except continue to monitor the actions of SOCFIN.
The likes of SOCFIN are too many around the world, carrying themselves on high horses and subjecting weak governments to violate the rights of their citizens by way of protecting the TNCs because they chant what the politicians want to hear: jobs, development, infrastructure, CSR etc. But the truth is that all of these are framed to maximize their profits to the detriment of weak governments and corrupt state functionaries. Governments must be encouraged to support in the quickest possible time the Binding Treaty’s completion and ratification if the likes of SOCFIN are to be regulated by international treaty.
President Bio, like all well meaning Sierra Leoneans want investors for Sierra Leone but the President is very clear on the type of investors. Recently at an international gathering President Bio called for transparency and accountability in the extractive sector as part of his fight against corruption. “We have been using various tools and different approaches to fight corruption. But we believe corruption fights back. More worryingly, rogue actors and rogue beneficiaries have squandered wealth from extractives through opaque ownership arrangements and illicit international financial flows,” he said. This cannot be better said and it applies to all investors including SOCFIN.
Conclusion and recommendation
Back to the Malen land issue, which the President had promised he would resolve. I have since the days of the National Provisional Ruling Council observed the attributes of the President and one of his greatest attribute is he listens and stick to his commitment. A number of meetings have been held on the Malen land conflict and the meeting held on the 23rd of August proposed that the government commissions an independent investigation. This I believe serves as the hub of the solution to the problem. An independent investigation will surely bring out the fault lines, the issues and common grounds and proffer recommendations that will lay a true basis to any sound dialogue hence laying a good foundation to a peaceful resolution of the Malen land conflict.
For the government to have a free hand in doing so it must relinquish certain responsibilities that will give government the where withal to undertake an objective role. The government must be bold to release itself from the head lease. That is to say relinquish that role and serve as a facilitator during negotiations that will pass on the lease over to the landowners. This can be one option for the government to save itself from the embarrassment caused by being a head leaseholder done by the previous regime.