Communities being able to participate on an equal basis in land governance is key to food security and inclusive development. How can securing land rights pave the way for responsible investments and what can we learn from experiences with the palm oil industry? To answer these questions we turn to West Africa where two activists are fighting for their communities’ right to land. ‘If we want to move forward, we need to share the wealth that the land brings.’
Palm oil is something of a miracle product that has become indispensable to billions of consumers around the world. Found in everything from peanut butter to chocolate, cereals and shampoo, it has already spawned a $60bn industry, and demand continues to grow. To quench this insatiable thirst for the product, palm oil companies are desperately looking for new lands to clear for production. While palm oil from Indonesia and Malaysia still dominates the global market, plantations in Latin America and West Africa are on the rise. Unlike in Southeast Asia and Latin America, oil palm is native to West Africa, and an important traditional crop. Opportunities therefore seem abundant for profitable business ventures that would increase food security, deliver employment and secure inclusive growth. However, evidence suggests that instead of a development opportunity, land deals for large-scale palm oil production could turn out to be a poverty trap.
Poverty instead of prosperity
The Netherlands Academy on Land Governance (LANDac) is an authority on land governance and land rights, conducting research on the increasing land inequality and new land-related conflicts and bringing together stakeholders who might not otherwise meet. Research by LANDac-researcher George Schoneveld into large-scale land deals in sub-Saharan Africa, shows that such investments often come at high local costs, such as displacement of communities and environmental degradation, and employment opportunities are often considered inadequate.
These issues are nowhere more visible and acute as in the palm oil industry in West Africa. In the early 2000s, after nearly a decade of civil war, the governments of Liberia and Sierra Leone were desperate to spur economic growth to rebuild their countries. Direct foreign investment seemed to provide the perfect opportunity to bring economic prosperity back to this corner of the continent and so the courting of large-scale agriculture and mining investments began. The palm oil industry was one of the biggest newcomers and quickly got hold of large tracts of land for production. Within the first years many communities in Liberia and Sierra Leone lost their land in opaque deals and were subjected to police harassment when they spoke out. Consequently, instead of a development opportunity, the advent of the palm oil industry often led to exploitation of communities and environmental devastation, bringing poverty instead of prosperity.
What can we learn from experiences with the palm oil industry in West Africa when it comes to land rights and inclusive development? Is there a way to harness the development potential and protect communities at the same time? To answer these questions, we turn to Liberia and Sierra Leone where two activists-turned-development-professionals, are paving the way for more equitable land governance in their countries.
Silas Siakor is currently lead programme manager on land rights at the Sustainable Trade Initiative IDH in Liberia and has been working on issues of land governance in Liberia for nearly two decades. Siakor founded the Sustainable Development Institute in 2005, a Liberian civil society organisation run by grassroots activists which directly supports communities to secure their rights. Siakor became somewhat of a celebrity when in 2018 the documentary Silas was released about his fight against illegal logging, land grabbing and corruption. His work, for which he also won the Goldman Environmental Prize, showed how Liberian president Charles Taylor used timber to fund the country’s civil war, destroying communities and the environment along the way. His research led to an international ban on the export of Liberian timber, temporarily saving some of Liberia’s forests.
Daniel Sesay works as a senior program officer at NAMATI, a grassroots organisation promoting legal empowerment in Sierra Leone. Sesay’s work for the Truth and Reconciliation commission inspired him to become part of the organisation: ‘Injustice is why people take up arms, so if we want to bring the country forward and prevent another civil war, we need to fight injustice wherever we can.’
According to Siakor and Sesay, in order to understand the issue of land rights one has to look at the specific country’s land governance, i.e. the rules, processes and structures through which decisions are made about access to land and its use.
Siakor: ‘In Liberia, land ownership was often not formalised but based on cultural traditions and norms, also known as customary land tenure. This made farmers vulnerable to land grabbing and exploitation because governments acted as if land without a formal claim was public property.’ Consequently, about a quarter of Liberia’s land mass has been given away by the government to multinationals, much of that in illegal permits and Siakor does not think the end is in sight. ‘The demand for land to expand palm oil plantations in Liberia is growing every year, while the available land is becoming scarce as the population continues to grow. As a result, private companies become ever more desperate to get land and put increased pressure on communities. They do this with the help of local elites to whom they offer financial and other incentives. These elites, who often live in the capital Monrovia but still maintain their membership of the community in the countryside, position themselves as mediators between corporations and the community. In an effort to convince landowners to sign away their lands, they promise them the world: better roads, electricity, schools and employment, but these promises almost always turn out to be empty.’
Sesay recognises Siakor’s characterisation and says a similar dynamic is at play in his neck of the woods. ‘In Sierra Leone, land governance is still based on a law that dates from 1927 which was last amended in the 1960s. This law stipulates that the Paramount Chief is the custodian of the land, meaning that he has the ultimate power to decide what happens to the land. One of the law’s provisions does state that the chief has to get consent from landowners before he can sell or lease the land, but this has often been ignored as chiefs are paid by companies to broker a deal on behalf of the community. It is not uncommon for the community to find out their land has been sold only when the company arrives with bulldozers to clear it, depriving them of their livelihood and future.’
According to Sesay legal empowerment is therefore key when it comes to land governance. ‘Those who seek to exploit people and their environments often rely on others’ ignorance of the law to avoid accountability. When people are aware of how the law works, they can use it to defend their environment and seek justice for any harm they might have suffered. We are therefore training community members on the basic concepts of law so they can negotiate a fair deal with companies.’
A recent example of this approach is NAMATI’s mediation between Dutch-owned palm oil company Natural Habitats Sierra Leone (NHSL) and the Makpele chiefdom in the east of the country. When NHSL acquired an oil palm concession of over 30,000 hectares from a previous owner they wanted to start clearing the land for plantation straight away. However, when the company arrived in the district they encountered a lot of resistance as it turned out the Paramount Chief had not only signed off the communities’ land without the consent of the landowners, but had also included its rivers and a national park in the deal. To find a solution to this conundrum, Natural Habitats entered into a partnership with International NGO Solidaridad. As the local partner in the project, NAMATI stepped in to train the communities on their rights and help them renegotiate with the company. As a result of the project the total concession size was eventually reduced to approximately 2,300 ha and new lease arrangements were negotiated with the landholding families concerned. Not only did the community manage to get a better price for their land, they also received inputs, training and extension services for the production of rice, cassava and groundnuts.
‘When mediation fails we have no option but go to court,’ states Sesay. In 2015 NAMATI sued Chinese owned Orient Agriculture and the Paramount Chief on behalf of eight villages to get their land back after it had been illegally sold. After a yearlong trial, the judge ruled in favour of the community and ordered the company to give the land back and pay compensation for damages caused. This was the first time in Sierra Leone’s history that a foreign-owned company and local authorities had been held accountable for land grabbing. Although a clear victory for the community, Sesay stresses that a court battle is really the last resort: ‘Going to court wastes a lot of time and money for both sides. Our aim is to empower people so they can negotiate with companies on an equal footing. In the end this not only benefits the community but also the company, because instead of resistance they get cooperation.’
A (wo)man’s right to land
Siakor agrees with Sesay that legal empowerment is key when it comes to protection of communities and environments. ‘We shouldn’t leave land rights to politicians. In an attempt to win votes they make promises to protect communities, but they remain just that: promises and expressions of good intentions. If they change their mind or another party comes to power, everything could change again so we have to make sure these promises are enshrined in the law. It does take more time and effort, but it is the only way to really protect communities.’
In this regard, the Land Rights Act that was passed in 2018 has given communities in Liberia new hope for justice as it enables communities to become legal owners of their traditional homelands. To claim their rights, communities are required to formalise their land claims and develop a Land Use Plan that accounts for the interests of all members of society. This ensures the land plan not only captures the interests of the elites but also includes women, youth and other marginalised groups in the process. According to Siakor this is a crucial element of the new law. ‘Traditionally, women in Liberia are not allowed to own land which made their income and livelihoods very insecure. The new Land Rights Act recognises women as part of their community, able to own land and participate in land governance. This is a huge step forward and we have to make sure these rights are upheld in the communities as well.’
On the basis of the Land Rights Act, IDH was able to help six communities in the Foya district in northwest Liberia to get full ownership of ancestral land, a major milestone when it comes to protecting land rights of communities. ‘For the first time in history, the law is on the side of communities and can be used to strengthen their bargaining power towards big companies. We want to use this success to increase community land under collective title before the next election comes, so even if things change politically, communities will remain protected.’ However, Siakor concedes, the law is no guarantee for protection. ‘Companies are always trying to get the best possible deal so if they face resistance in one community they will find another. We have to fight our corner at every turn, it is exhausting.’
In addition to local laws about land rights, there are international standards that aim to protect communities and environments from large corporations. The UN Voluntary Guidelines on Responsible Governance of Tenure (VGGT) provide guidance for governmental policies and processes on land governance and outline clear responsibilities for business conduct. The OECD guidelines for Multinational Enterprises focus on promoting sustainable business by helping large-scale companies avoid and address adverse impacts related to workers, human rights and the environment that may be associated with their operations. In addition to these general guidelines, there is another framework specifically designed for the palm oil industry: the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). This international standard aims to protect communities and environments from the negative effects of palm oil production.
Sesay feels these standards are very helpful in empowering communities as they force companies to think about the negative impacts of their operations on their international reputation. Siakor is more sceptical however and feels the standards don’t have teeth: ‘Even when companies have endorsed these guidelines they can easily find a way around them as what they are doing might not technically be illegal, but it is often immoral and unethical. They would say: “We have talked to communities and they signed away their lands willingly”. However, if you ask people if they know what they signed up for it appears they have often been misinformed or misled. So the whole idea of due diligence whereby companies have to make sure to prevent any potential adverse impacts is nice on paper, but doesn’t always work in practice.’
Farming-group-in-training-on-improved-farming-practices (photo IDH)
This is where organisations like IDH and NAMATI come in, according to Siakor. ‘NGOs can help communities formalise their complaints and get international attention for any wrongdoing. However,’ stresses Siakor ‘NGOs must resist the temptation to speak for communities. It is much more convincing when someone from the community speaks out about injustices than when an NGO speaks for them. We need to hear their stories and put them in the driver’s seat of their own development.’
Sesay agrees and adds: ‘We can’t be there forever, so people need to be able to take action themselves so they can claim their rights with investors and the governments themselves. All we can do is give them the tools so they can do this in the most effective way.’
Looking to the future, Siakor and Sesay, both stress the need for communities to be able to participate on a more equal basis in land governance. Siakor: ‘When I close my eyes and envision where we are in ten years’ time, I see partnerships between communities and businesses that are not only based on production, but also on inclusion, so that communities can share in the wealth of their produce. For too long, people in countries like Liberia and Sierra Leone have been exploited. While governments and elites got rich, rural communities stayed poor. If we want to move forward, we need to share the wealth that the land brings.’