By Titus Boye-Thompson
For the casual observer, news that six people face prison terms for standing up for their rights to their land in Pujehun District, Southern Sierra Leone would raise eyebrows of government neglect and the over bearing influence of big business over poor rural communities. The case of concessions being given to large scale agricultural enterprises to the detriment of social and environment considerations, to the sensitivities of local people or the practicalities of indigenous people and their self-survival are all high falluting concepts that overcome what on closer inspection would be a more intricate set of process and events. The emotional issues raised in such cases tend to be swayed on the side of those facing incarceration, they are seen as freedom fighters, local activists, environmentalist protectors but never viewed as structural protagonists or agent provocateurs and disavowed antagonists, some acting out of anger based on their interpretation of the process that may have rejected their influence or otherwise opposition to what the rest of their community would have allowed to proceed irrespective of their objections.
What is easily available for comment here is whether the due process of law has been triggered in this case. Sad as the outcome may have been, the law has to be the harbinger here for good order to prevail in society. Yes, it may be true that with all the information now at hand, some sharp practice may have resulted in the dispossession of the lands in question but surely, there are many ways to seek redress than to have attempted to destroy property of a legitimate custodian. The question therefore is whether the allegation of violence and lawlessness levied against the six in question was properly applied. With this question firmly etched in the public conscience, then a value judgement has to be made as to the effectiveness of the criminal and justice system and the level of punishment that the law applies to those found guilty of such acts of wanton destruction. The fact that a former Member of Parliament and by all accounts, a prominent and influential figure in the locality was also found to be guilty of incitement, is a very troubling development. It would be expected that people of such prominence in society must adhere to the normal rules of engagement and provide leadership to errant youths and other abject personalities when local temperaments begin to flare up in such situations. It is unarguably a sad matter to deliberate on but the facts remain what they are. The actions of those who have now been found guilty of malicious or wilful damage to property faces the rancour of the courts and the fines imposed have been set at such a level to underscore its deterrent value.
Having set in focus the illegality of the people now found guilty, it is necessary to reflect somewhat on the characteristics of deceit and nuanced behaviour that gave rise to such a degree of civil disobedience. The agribusiness company that is involved in this dispute is not a stranger to the concept of “de-localisation” of agricultural land for large scale mechanized farming. SOCFIN (SL) Ltd has been the subject of extensive research and background checks. It is inconvenient that most of the information now available and in the public domain may not have been at the disposal of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Food Security (MAFFS), nor to the Paramount Chief of Malen Chiefdom and its environs PC Kebbie when they were approached for the use of land in Pujehun to revitalize and expand on a pre-existing palm oil plantation. The prerequisites for local area development is paramount in such situations and the offer of money being paid for land that was hitherto unused and not in any economic production is usually welcome news. The lack of expertise in dealing with these savvy investors is a very significant driver in the negotiations and because the local people were operating in an imperfect market, their lack of access to relevant information on land values, comparative residual land costs and agricultural land valuations left them open to abuse.
That this disadvantage to local farmers in the prices and terms negotiated on their behalf by Government Officials and their traditional elders was not restricted to one case but largely characteristic of the various land lease agreements entered into in various parts of the country is indicative of a lack of capacity and a dearth of knowledge in handling such matters. The level of corruption notwithstanding, it is not altogether impossible that the lack of experience coupled with a desire to demonstrate success in attracting inward investment and expansion of agriculture techniques from small scale farming to much more profitable exploration of industrialised farming for cash crop production were all drivers to engendering such copious deals to have been approved and in most cases spurred on by officials as development vehicles. Local communities were promised income from land that lie unused, employment from international companies and the expectation of local value added through supply chains and farm yield externalities such as increased availability of farm produce and reprocessing of waste products – palm oil being a most dextrous crop that is re-produced for several uses is a very good example of such externalities.
In an imperfect market, information flow is usually one sided. Parties who have access to information and technology occupy a position of greater advantage. In engaging a policy of expanded agriculture, it is reasonable to expect that Government would have predetermined its obligations to secure the right mix of expertise on market dynamics. It is a shame that the land tenure system in Sierra Leone and the adjunct customary law provisions often tend to act as pinions in the restrictive nature of land disbursements to the extent that Government’s traditional role in leveraging access to such imperfect markets has been perfunctorily distorted. The mistakes that have been made can be understandable but not insurmountable. It is now a matter for the deployment of an appropriate mix of policy interventions that hold the key to solving these anomalies.