Condoning Corporate Malfeasance In Large Scale Land Acquisitions: Is Sierra Leone Becoming The “Wild West”?

By Sonkita Conteh, Director, Namati Sierra Leone

 

 

Sonkita Conteh, Director, Namati

I read with dismay a report in the Awoko Newspaper of 23 June 2016 captioned “Police stops EPA from closing ALA, Carmanor.” According to the report, two agriculture companies, African Lion Agriculture (ALA) and Carmanor Ltd, failed to comply with the provisions of the country’s environmental protection laws by not obtaining an environmental license for their joint agriculture project.

In 2013 ALA leased over two thousand acres of farmland in Imperi and Jong chiefdoms, Southern Sierra Leone, to set up rubber, oil palm and cocoa plantations. The company agreed to pay $5 per acre as annual rent to the landowners. Farmland in the Imperi chiefdom, where the bulk of the land was obtained, is in very short supply as the area also hosts the most destructive mineral sand mining operation in the country. For several decades, the mines have yielded rutile, a type of titanium dioxide mineral, used in the manufacture of white pigment. The mineral right owner, Sierra Rutile- a company listed on a submarket of the London Stock Exchange – uses a multi-storied water-based dredge to mine and process a thousand tons of the product per hour. The dredge leaves in its wake artificial lakes which make the mined-out land unsuitable for any useful purpose. ALA is a subsidiary of Sierra Rutile. In June 2015, Carmanor and Sierra Rutile reached agreement for the takeover of ALA. In exchange for expanding ALA’s plantations and constructing an oil palm mini-mill, Carmanor will “earn-in” to ALA.

Sierra Leone’s environmental protection laws require any company seeking to undertake large scale agriculture to first obtain an environmental license. As a pre-condition for the license, the company should undertake an environmental impact assessment (EIA).  The assessment should set out, among others, the potential environmental and social harm the project might cause and mitigation measures. It is an offence for a company to undertake such a project without holding a valid environmental license. EIA processes the world over, are critical for any environment-altering intervention. They allow for expert evaluation of the potential risks of a project, so that those who make decisions are better informed. The participatory nature of the process also allows members of the public to bring their perspectives to bear.

The ALA/Carmanor plantations have been operating since 2013 without an environmental license, and therefore in breach of environmental law. After babysitting ALA and Carmanor for three years, the environment regulator finally decided to enforce the law this month, only to be stymied by a police force that seems to have lost sight of its mandate.

It is normal practice for regulators and court officials to request police protection when punitive legal provisions or orders are being enforced. The environment protection agency in this case requested for police personnel to accompany officials effecting the closure of ALA/Carmanor project. According to the report, the police local unit commander, informed the EPA that his superior, an Assistant Inspector General “instructed me not to let this operation happen.” The commander finally gave the excuse of inadequate capacity stating that: “…we do not have the five armed personnel requested for…”.

Sierra Leone has a police force of around 12,500 and a paramilitary wing- the operational security division- numbering at least a thousand. In the 2016 budget, the police have the second highest allocation after the military. They also provide private security services to businesses and individuals on the side. It is inconceivable that the police are plagued by personnel problems. I understand from the report that a former Assistant Inspector General of Police, who now heads security at Sierra Rutile, the parent company of ALA reportedly said that, “we have to be careful in implementing the law”.

In 2012, the Director General of the Food Agriculture Organization compared the spate of large scale land acquisitions in Africa to the “wild west” and called for a “new sheriff” to “restore the rule of law”. This call really resonates with our context. Our sheriff seems to be aiding the breach of the law, running a protection racket for errant, gangster companies. Government institutions admittedly have their fair share of dysfunction and territorialism but the conduct of the police in this case underlines a much deeper problem. At best, this makes the government look dreadfully incompetent and confused. It does little to dispel the perception of corruption and political interference in large scale land investments.

If there were a ranking of regulatory compliance by companies operating in Sierra Leone, ALA/Carmanor would be among the worst performers. ALA leased the land using a flimsy memorandum of understanding (MoU). No proper lease was drawn up or registered. Further, the company has paid only one year’s rent to the land owners but has been cultivating the land continuously since 2013. The land it took and did not pay for was the source of livelihood for the land owners in an area under pressure from destructive large scale mining. It wouldn’t have taken a lot for the company to honor its obligations, with each acre of land leased costing a paltry $5 per year. Sadly, it seems ALA and Carmanor could not be bothered by the predicament of the land owning families.

Namati is currently working with 8 villages from the two chiefdoms to seek redress against ALA/Carmanor. On 31 May 2016, on behalf of the land owners, I terminated the MoU between ALA and the landowners for non-payment of rent, pointing out that their conduct had caused severe harm to these communities. From experience, I warned ALA/Carmanor not to attempt to contact the landowners directly. On 3 June I got an email response from the CEO of Carmanor Ltd in the United Kingdom stating that they had received the termination and the board was reviewing it. She promised to revert in a week but has yet to do so. Meanwhile, in a clear ruse, on 7 June, staff of Carmanor and Sierra Rutile approached some of the families offering cheques and getting them to thumb-print documents that they did not read or explain to them. Evidently they were attempting to change the facts on the ground in an exploitative way. In the coming days, Namati will commence court action against ALA/Carmanor, who are still proceeding as if everything is normal.

Whatever the motivation, the action by the police undermines the rule of law and makes nonsense of our regulatory mechanisms. Aiding the commission of an offence is criminal. By preventing the Environment Protection Agency from carrying out its mandate, the police have become a party to the commission of an environmental offence. The Executive Management Board of the police and the Police Council need to address this aberrant and unconstitutional behavior by the police, who are meant to be “a force for good”. Some companies in Sierra Leone would like nothing more than a “wild west” scenario. We must not let that happen. Our sheriff should be helping to uphold the law, not undermine it.