International investors in Sierra Leone

10.11.2020
Picture credits: Bread for all (header and preview)
Lansana_Sierra_Leone

Lansana Hassan Sowa is an Activist and Right to Food Expert,
Head of Programmes Sierra Leone Network on the Right to Food (SiLNoRF)
– a partner organization of Bred for all

Corporate capture – the untold pandemic

Many investors believe that Africa has cheap land, and many African governments equate foreign direct investment with promoting economic growth. But instead of development, this caused a mad rush by investors to acquire large tract of farm lands in Africa thereby dispossessing communities of their farm lands. Sierra Leone has been one of such African countries.

From our work with people affected by such land grabs in Sierra Leone and by constant exchange with organizations in other countries, we see that such land grabs often mean human rights violations of people – be it the right to food, the right to water or be it because of rampant violence on the plantations – and the destruction and pollution of the environment. The realization of the peoples’ human rights and the environmental standards is often undermined because of corporate capture, when the economic elite exerts undue influence over decision-makers and public institutions such as courts and security forces.

One example about the Socfin Agricultural Company (SAC), a palm oil company, illustrates this. SAC is owned by Socfin, with headquarters in Luxembourg, but the subsidiary that does the “plantation management”[i] sits in Switzerland. In 2011, SAC leased 6.500 hectares of agricultural land in Malen Chiefdom for a period of 50 years. Technically, the land was first leased by the government through the Minister of Agriculture Forestry and Food Security from the traditional authorities. On the same day, the Ministry subleased the land to SAC. The agreement was dubbed illegitimate and illegal by local communities as it clearly undermined the process of Free Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) as land owning families were not consulted. In 2018, the conflict escalated, two community residents in Malen chiefdom were killed when the police and the military carried out violent raids and arrested people. Witnesses reported that during these events, SAC held meetings with the security forces and chiefdom authorities to discuss the management of the crisis, and that SAC’s vehicles were made available to the police and military. This gives a clear indication of how much control the company has over the state security forces.[ii]

One of the major owners of Socfin, the Bollore Group, also manages the country’s sea and airport and hence has a huge economic influence in the country. Such influence creates a protective cover for abuses, as the government feels compelled to protect the investments. Under International Human Right treaties such as the International Covenant and Civil and Political Rights, and the Economic Social and Cultural Rights, the government has an obligation to protect its citizens. However, undue influence exerted by corporations on certain government institutions makes it difficult for them to meet this obligation when there is a violation as they mostly tend to protect the interest of the corporations.

From a Sierra Leonean perspective, it is crucial that the people can defend their human rights also in the countries where these powerful companies sit, where the companies are who exert control over the local subsidiaries. It is a global struggle and a country like Switzerland must adopt laws that make that possible.

[i] https://www.socfin.com/en/structure

[ii] FIAN Belgium (2019). Case Report 2019 – Land Grabbing for Palm Oil in Sierra Leone; https://www.fian.be/IMG/pdf/fian_b_report_landgrab_in_sl_malen_2019_full_weblow.pdf

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