Sierra Leone - Context and Land Governance | Land Portal
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Sierre Leone agriculture photo by WorldFish

By Anne Hennings and peer-reviewed by Berns Komba Lebbie, national coordinator of the Land For Life Initiative in Sierra Leone

Land is an essential source of livelihood for a majority of Sierra Leoneans. Most of Sierra Leone’s population lives in rural areas and it’s GDP is largely based on agriculture [1]. The three main livelihood activities surveyed in the 2015 population and housing census are crop farming, animal husbandry and fishery, which depend largely on access to and ownership of land [2]. Smallholders mostly cultivate rice, cassava, cocoa, coffee, cashew, groundnut, palm oil, vegetables and other fruit trees.

Research reports indicate that 4.3 million hectares (70%) of all arable land is characterized by low fertility as result of slash and burn, deforestation and erosion taking place in shifting cultivation farming [3]. In addition to the arable land under cultivation, about 457,000 hectares of land areas are under protection with limited or no access [4].

Historically, the country’s land tenure system has developed twofold: The freehold tenure system governed by General Law (English Common Law and Statutory Law) in the Western Area, including the capital Freetown, which allows land sales and leases; and the customary tenure system governed by customary law, and partly general law, in the Provinces. In the aftermath of the decade-long civil war (1991-2002), Sierra Leone has attracted quite a number of investors. In so doing, mining, as well as large-scale farming operations have been set up all over the country. While Sierra Leone has a history of mostly state agricultural land investments, Chinese, Turkish, and Saudi Arabian investments have recently picked up in the agricultural sector.

Most current land-related challenges are related to large-scale projects that are supposed to spur rural development. Primarily, these conflicts are related to a lack of transparency and consent regarding land transfer, corruption, environmental issues and erroneous surveys, and, in some cases, the individual agendas of paramount chiefs. Another conflict line runs between land-using and land-holding families in the chieftaincies and related power disparities. Notably, women and youth remain excluded from land tenure decision-making process and have little say in shaping land investments.


Land Legislation and Regulations

Land tenure tends to be complex in Sierra Leone: state ownership, private ownership, communal as well as family ownership. Statutory laws recognize private freehold land in the Western Area and the capital Freetown, while customary laws govern land tenure in the rest of the country. In the Southern, Northern and Eastern Provinces, statutory law places land rights into the hands of land-holding families and recognizes paramount chiefs as custodians. Customary law, which may vary across districts, emphasizes the paramount chiefs’ key position to the degree that it might contradict statutory law in some cases. Moreover, customary law usually grants land use rights to non-land-holding households [5].

The government of Sierra Leone is in the process of reforming land legislation, and the formulation of the Customary Lands Act, 2020, is already underway. As of now, current land laws are rooted in Colonial times, when land in the Western Area was declared by the British as Crown Land, governed by Chapter 118 (commonly called as CAP 118). Ownership to all other land in the Provinces was entrusted into the hands of the tribal authorities as custodians under Chapter 122 (commonly known as CAP 122) of the Colonial Ordinance. In 1961, after independence, all Crown land was declared State land.

The 2004 Local Government Act grants local councils the right to acquire and hold land, and gives them the responsibility to create local development plans. The Chieftaincy Act of 2009 establishes that the paramount chiefs are the custodians of land. Accordingly, they are responsible for tax collection and for the promotion of improved land governance to ensure development at the local level. In 2017, the new National Land Policy 2015 was adopted. The gender-sensitive policy maintains that both men and women can govern land, and aspires to promote equitable access to land with enhanced land tenure security through efficient and innovative land management delivery systems, stimulate responsible investment and form a basis for a pro-poor socio-economic development in the country. Yet, it disregards the two-class system of land-holders and users.

In the new Medium-Term National Development Plan (2019-2023), the government identified as one of its strategic objectives  ensuring effective land management and administration by promoting equitable access to and control over land [6]. To achieve this, an autonomous and decentralized National Land Commission is proposed, a National Cadastral Records Management System shall be introduced, and a National Spatial Development Plan and Strategy developed.

Land disputes in the formal system are largely resolved by the High Court, the Magistrate Courts and the Local Courts, which are all known to be very slow and expensive. Alternative dispute resolution mechanisms at chiefdom level are also recognized within the judicial system, and known to be effective in certain instances. While traditional authorities continue to play a critical role in the arbitration or mediation of land-related conflicts, the Local Courts Act 1963 removed the power of adjudication from the Paramount Chief and vested in the Local Courts, which apply both customary and formal laws. Under the new 2011 Local Courts Act, the local courts are under the aegis of the Judiciary and determine land disputes between Paramount Chiefs and Chiefdoms. About 70-80 percent of cases in courts are land-related and a large proportion remain persistently unresolved, indicating the seriousness of land conflicts in the country and the required urgency to address them [7].


Land Tenure Classification

Sierra Leone’s land system is not only dualistic but also shows differences within and among the Provinces. In contrast to the private freehold system in the Western Area, family/community ownership and leasehold interests define access to and control over land resources in the rest of Sierra Leone. According to the Chiefdom Councils Act and the Local Government Act of 2004 (section 28d), land ownership is attributed to communities under the jurisdiction of the paramount chiefs.

In conjunction with a handful of land-owning families, the paramount chiefs thus control resource access and use at chiefdom level. In the chiefdoms, land is controlled – with few exceptions - by the male heads of the land-holding families and allocated through inheritance, loan, lease, or pledge. These lineages usually represent the “original” settlers of an area which is underpinned by the narrative of the initial conquest. Land-using families, on the other hand, constituting the majority, usually work on the land for the holders or lease part of the land for subsistence farming.

In the wake of the war, paramount chiefs were re-inscribed as mediators between local, national, and transnational politics and economics [8]. This way, the paramount chiefs and, to a lesser extent, the remaining land-holding families, were able to maintain (indirect) political control over rural Sierra Leone. Patron-client relationships have prevailed, further compounding rural poverty and the struggles of landless families.


Land Use Trends

Whereas the country increasingly faces urbanization, 58 percent of 7.7 million Sierra Leoneans still live in rural areas [9]. Most peasants engage in traditional rotational fallowing practices, using the “slash’n’burn” method of cultivation. The countrywide agricultural land area amounts to 54.7 percent in comparison to 38.9 percent in 1997. Interestingly, the employment rate in the agricultural sector has dropped from 70.5 percent (1997) to 59.2 percent (2017). Looking at these figures from a gender point of view, the agricultural sector employs close to 25 percent less women than 20 years ago. Although the reasons might be manifold, it seems that agricultural companies prefer men for plantation work. On the other hand, the daily rates for slashing and harvesting are the same for men and women, so families would rather send their young men as labourers. Also, women tend to find new income opportunities in proximity to the plantations.

There are no reliable forest-related numbers available. The last official assessment goes back to 1975 and has never been adjusted to increased forest loss during war times, floods, droughts, or clearings in the context of urbanization. That said, Sierra Leone lacks a legal definition of forest – the term is interchangeably used for land use and cover. According to the latest Global Forest Assessment, about 38 percent of Sierra Leone is forested, of which 4.1 percent is classified as primary forest. Estimates show that the country has lost about one-sixth of its forest cover since 1990 [10].


Land Acquisition in Sierra Leone

Land can only be acquired through State Land allocation (freehold & lease hold), purchase on freehold basis (private land), or inheritance (family and private land). Outside the Western Area, land can neither be sold nor bought. Alongside customary law, the main statutory law governing the lease of land in these provinces is the Provinces Land Ordinance of 1927, Cap 122 [11]. The current National Land Policy states that land can be leased for a maximum of 50 years, with provision for a one-time renewal up to 21 years [12], as provided in Cap 122.

Investors have to navigate a highly complex tenure system, in which competences and authorities overlap and are conflicting at times, such as between 1) the state government and the chieftaincy; and 2) the paramount chiefs vis-à-vis land-holding families [13]. The latter might be willing to lease out their land, for example, to land users or international companies, but cannot do so without the agreement and signature of the respective paramount chiefs [14]. Vice versa, some paramount chiefs may influence the decision of land allocations. 3) Decision-making power within land-holding families remains disputed. All family members, or at least a specified majority, are entitled to vote whether or not to lease land to families within/ outside the chiefdom or foreigners including investors. Yet, women and youth are often excluded from these decision-making processes [15].

The Sierra Leone Import Export Promotion Agency (SLIEPA), with support from FAO and DFID in 2016 within the VGGT implementation framework, drafted a one-stop-shop Agribusiness Investment Approval Process (AIAP) [16]. This shall accommodate the increasing numbers of agricultural investors considering the standards and guiding principles of the VGGT. Starting with an investor screening and an initial presentation of the investment ideas, SLIEPA conducts site visits with affected communities to check the suitability of prospective localities. If the company agrees, they start engaging and consulting with local authorities and service providers. However, prospective companies and SLIEPA often only negotiate with local chiefs or illegitimate intermediaries, and have largely failed to involve local communities.

At stage five of the impact assessment, the consultation plan, and the environmental impact assessment are drawn up including data about available water sources, the population, local dynamics and peculiarities. This is followed by the signature of the lease agreement and the development plan based on free, prior and informed consent. The MoU is then signed by the investor, the Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Security, Ministry of Trade, and the Attorney General of the Ministry of Justice. Eventually, the operation is launched, and monitoring measures put in place. At this last stage, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Ministry of Finance for fiscal monitoring, and SLIEPA for community and investor relations are involved.


Women’s Land Rights

Legally, women are not denied land ownership in Sierra Leone. Contrary to the constitution, however, women face discrimination in land tenure. The problem is that customary law is exempted from scrutiny under the non-discrimination provision. Patriarchal customary norms and the fact that most households are headed by male family members, exclude women from decision-making regarding family land transactions and control over land.  Within families, women are also often denied the rights of inheritance and succession to family [21]. In the Western Area, such rights to individual property are guaranteed in the Devolution of Estates Act 2007 [22].

In contrast to the north, female chiefs and custodians are not unheard of in the southern and some eastern districts. Yet, land access and control remain a question of gender as much as of age and class. Likewise, the impacts of land deals are highly gendered and determined by lineage and patronage [23]. Women, youth, and land-using households are largely excluded from the benefits of development.

From Port Loko in the north to Pujehun in the south, women started taking to the streets claiming their rights and protesting against exclusion and unfair land investments. Considering the key role women play in providing for their families, they demand full participation for women in all decisions regarding land, the right to own land, to say no to industrial plantations, as well as protection against intimidation and violence [24].


Urban Tenure Issues

The Government, with support from UN-Habitat, is in the process of developing a National Urban Policy as defined in the New Urban Agenda of the United Nations. With its rapid rate of urbanization and no integrated policy in place, Sierra Leone runs the risk of uncontrolled urban sprawl, poor urban basic service delivery and fragmented urban management. A new National Urban Policy shall provide a blueprint for sustainable urban development, urban economic development and spatial planning. It shall further promote equitable urban development, ensure income equity, provide employment opportunities and ensure efficient public infrastructure. Achieving sustainable socio-economic growth in Sierra Leone will depend to a large extent on how well its urban areas are managed.


Voluntary Guidelines on Responsible Tenure (VGGT) in Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone was chosen to pilot the implementation of the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests within the Context of Food Security (VGGT). During this process, multi-stakeholder platforms brought together government, civil society, and the private sector to address complex challenges in securing tenure rights. Moreover, the process of mapping and demarcating land has started [25]. In 2017, new National Land Policy was launched which serves as the basis for the current land reform program in the country. More than 90 paragraphs of the policy are consistent with the VGGT guidelines with emphasis on the core aspects accountability and transparency.


*** References

[1] FAO. 2019. Country Statistics. Sierra Leone.

[2] Statistics Sierra Leone. 2016. Sierra Leone 2015 Population and Housing Census.  

[3] Statistics Sierra Leone. 2018. Sierra Leone Integrated Household Survey 2018 (SLIHS): Book 3: Agriculture.

The Republic of Sierra Leone. 2009. National Sustainable Agriculture Development Plan 2010-2030.

[4] Environment Protection Agency Sierra Leone. 2017. Sierra Leone’s Second National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan 2017-2026

[5] Hansen, Marc & Conteh, Mohamed et al. 2016. Determining Minimum Compensation for Lost Farmland: A Theory-Based Impact Evaluation of a Land Grab in Sierra Leone. IEE Working Paper 211. Bochum.

[6] Sierra Leone Ministry of Planning & Economic Development. 2019. Medium-Term National Development Plan 2019-2023.

[7]  Sierra Leone Ministry of Lands, Country Planning and the Environment. 2015. Final National Land Policy of Sierra Leone, Version 6.

[8] Ferme, M.C. 2018. Out of war: Violence, trauma, and the political imagination in Sierra Leone. University of California Press. Oakland, California. 150.

[9] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. 2019. FAO yearbook. Rome. FAO. 198.

[10] Wadsworth, Richard & Lebbie, Aiah. 2019. What happened to the forests in Sierra Leone? Land 8: 5. 80.

[11] SLIEPA. 2012. Leasing Agricultural Land in Sierra Leone. Information for Investors. Freetown. cquisition_Process_0.pdf

[12] MAFFS. 2009. Investment Policies and Incentives for Private Sector Promotion in Agriculture in Sierra Leone. and-incentives-for-private-sector-promotion-in-agriculture-in-sierra-leone  

[13] Moyo, S. & Foray, M. 2009. Key Land Tenure Issues and Reform Processes: UNDP Scoping Mission, Freetown, 10

[14] SLIEPA, 2012: 9.

[15] Moyo/ Foray, 2009: 9.

[16] SLIEPA. 2019. An Investor’s Guide. A Private Sector Perspective on the Investment Landscape. Freetown.

[17] Yengoh, Genesis & Armah, Frederick. 2015. Effects of Large-Scale Acquisition on Food Insecurity in Sierra Leone. Sustainability 7. 9508.

[18] Hennings. 2019. From Bullets to Banners and back again? The ambivalent role of ex-combatants in contested land deals in Sierra Leone. Africa Spectrum 54: 1. 23.

[19] Hennings. 2018. Plantation assemblages and spaces of contested development in Sierra Leone and Cambodia. Conflict, Security & Development 18: 6.

[20] Millar, Gearoid. 2016. Local experiences of liberal peace: Marketization and emergent conflict dynamics in Sierra Leone. Journal of Peace Research. 53: 4. 569-581.

[21] Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). 2014. Concluding observations on the combined initial to sixth periodic reports of Sierra Leone.

[22] Sierra Leone. 2007. The Devolution of Estates Act, 2007.

[23] Ryan, Caitlin. 2018. Large-scale land deals in Sierra Leone at the intersection of gender and lineage. Third World Quarterly, 39: 1. 189-206

[24] Port Loko Declaration. 2019. “Women Say we want our lands back!”

[25] FAO. 2019. The Voluntary Guidelines: Securing our Rights, Sierra Leone. Success Stories.




This narrative was was made possible through the support of Sierra Leone's Land for Life Initiative and Welthungerhilfe in Germany.


Total spending for agricultural reserch measured measured as a share of the value added from agriculture, forestry and fishing activities

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Percentage (%)

GDP per capita based on purchasing power parity (PPP). PPP GDP is gross domestic product converted to international dollars using purchasing power parity rates.

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PPP$ 2011

Land area is the total area (1'000 Ha) of the country excluding area under inland water bodies.

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1'000 ha

Total funding (US $) for programmes still ongoing. Last updated on the 31st of January, 2019.

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US$ (Current)

Total number of programmes still ongoing. Last updated on the 31st of January, 2019.

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Total population is based on the de facto definition of population, which counts all residents regardless of legal status or citizenship--except for refugees not permanently settled in the country

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Rural population refers to the share (%) of people living in rural areas as defined by national statistical offices. It is calculated as the ratio between Urban Population and Total Population.

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Total population is based on the de facto definition of population, which counts all residents regardless of legal status or citizenship--except for refugees not permanently settled in the country

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Arable land (1'000 Ha) is the land under temporary agricultural crops (multiple-cropped areas are counted only once), temporary meadows for mowing or pasture, land under market and kitchen gardens

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1'000 ha

It measures the area (1'000 Ha) covered by forest.

Measurement unit: 
1'000 ha

Land area is the total area (1'000 Ha) of the country excluding area under inland water bodies.

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1'000 ha

Land used permanently (five years or more) to grow herbaceous forage crops through cultivation or naturally (wild prairie or grazing land).

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1'000 ha

Land cultivated with long-term crops which do not have to be replanted for several years (such as cocoa and coffee), land under trees and shrubs producing flowers (such as roses and jasmine), and n

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1'000 Ha

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