Even the birds are silent. Thoughtfully, shoulders hunched, a man walks down the path, pauses for a moment, then disappears into the endless rows of oil palms. The crackling under his slippers is the only audible sound. He goes deeper and deeper until he stops at a swampy open plain. Thin trunks stick out of the mud, in front of it the light green blades of young rice stalks. So this is what the man says calmly as he turns around. This is what’s left for him. Musa Moriba, 63, will not claim to be a rich man. In his village deep in the south of Sierra Leone, where the plaster of walls crumbles and canvases act as doors, wealth is relative. But the father of ten children had oil palms, cocoa trees. Rice fields that fed him and his family. Until one day yellow Caterpillar bulldozers suddenly appeared on his land and Moriba lost everything, trees and palms were swallowed by a multinational with big plans. More than ten years have passed since the Société Financière des Caoutchoucs (Socfin) settled in Malen, a so-called chiefdom (sub-district) in Sierra Leone’s southern province, home to some 42,000 mostly poor farmers. The Luxembourg-based holding company, which owns oil palm and rubber plantations across Asia and Africa through a series of subsidiaries, saw an opportunity in Sierra Leone. After a devastating civil war in the 1990s, the government had opened the door wide to foreign investors. In 2011, she concluded an agreement with Socfin to lease thousands of hectares of land in Malen for what would become the largest palm oil plantation in the country. But as the multimillion-dollar investment in the capital Freetown was celebrated, the Malen community became entangled in a protracted conflict with allegations of stolen land, corruption and intimidation by Malen’s powerful traditional leader, paramount chief Victor Kebbie. He played a crucial role in the arrival of Socfin. The village of Ngandorhun in Malen Chiefdom is enclosed by the palm oil plantations of the multinational Socfin. The inhabitants hardly have their own plots of land to grow their crops. Photo Eva Oude Elferink The issue recently became topical again. In September, the president signed two new laws that give far-reaching rights and protection to the local population. In this way they enable landowners to negotiate directly with investors about the value of their land. It is also prevented that this can be leased without their explicit permission. The laws, described as a win-win for businesses and the population, should allow penniless Sierra Leone to benefit more from the riches in and on its soil. And above all: preventing conflicts such as in Malen. New Laws More protection for landowners The two laws that have been passed are the National Land Policy Act and the Customary Land Rights Act. Not only do the laws provide a land registry listing all tracts of land and their owners (now only land in Freetown is registered), they also give equal rights to women and the descendants of slaves. For example, according to a colonial rule, the latter were not allowed to own land outside Freetown. In particular, they give more protection to landowners. For example, investors are required to negotiate with the families and communities themselves if they want to lease their land, and at least 60 percent of either the family members or the community must agree. Push for development “For too long, the government’s push for development has deprived families and communities of their voices here,” said Sonkita Conteh. The lawyer leads the local branch of Namati, an NGO that makes communities legally resilient, and was closely involved in writing the new laws. “Effects? Environment? It didn’t matter, as long as there was investment. That has led to all these tensions.” 26 (3) . At least 10 percent of the shares of a foreign investment in Sierra Leone will be reserved for Sierra Leoneans. The road to Malen is full of bumps and craters in which the rain has left thick rust-colored mud. All around seas of green. Marram grass, deciduous trees, palms. They lead like a gate to a small building, stretched over the road behind a rope and with a man in uniform next to it. A look from the man in the car gives access to the chiefdom and to the land leased by Socfin, which encloses about 70 percent of Malen, and an estimated 32,000 villagers. Welcome to Estate B . Musa Moriba had heard about the foreigners who wanted to take over their land. The chief of the village had gathered them together, told them how much better their lives would become. Development, development. 1 million Leones offered the white men per 0.4 hectare, about 250 dollars at the time. “A lot of money,” says Moriba, a wiry man with a gray beard. More money than most in his family had ever held. Like him, they didn’t go to school much. “But without our land we have nothing,” says the farmer. So he refused to put his thumbprint. Yet he lost his country. Musa Moriba from the village of Ngandorhun in Malen Chiefdom refused to sell his family land to the multinational Socfin, but says the bulldozers came anyway. Now all that remains for him is a few cocoa trees and a small rice field near the swamps. Photo Eva Oude Elferink Similar stories are heard in other villages. Residents say they have not signed. Or they did, but they had no choice. They would have been pressured. By the village chiefs and especially by Victor Kebbie, the paramount chief . Under customary law in Sierra Leone’s provinces, where largely unwritten rules and customs dictate who can own and transfer land, he has the last word as ‘administrator’ of the land. “They said I’d better take the money,” recalls an old man. “I would lose my country anyway.” Another accusation: Kebbie and the village chiefs appointed by him are said to have evaded unwilling family chiefs by having someone else from such a family sign. That’s how it was with him, Moriba says. Only much later, when the bulldozers had already left, did he hear that a relative had secretly signed away their land. “1 million Leones is a lot of money,” he murmurs. Other countries have factories, industry. Look at the United States, they are superb. We also want to develop Victor Kebbie paramount chief White villa It’s not long to find Chief Kebbie’s house. In Sahn, the town in the heart of Malen, a wide, white villa rises above concrete houses. On the porch, men on plastic chairs wait to be called in, some with plastic bags in hand. Kebbie himself is an imposing man, made even more impressive by the large leather armchair in which he has slumped. He’s not happy. “Nonsense. It’s all nonsense,” he grumbles. They have been knocking on his door for ten years. NGOs, journalists. Go tell him that he would have put people under pressure. Lies. “Do you really think I can take someone’s land? The only ones who make noise are people who say they are landowners, but were not. Or who just want more money.” It’s all a “political game,” he says. With his nemesis as captain. Mamie Sama from the village of Bassaleh tried to stop the bulldozers when they came to plow her land for oil palms from multinational Socfin. A family member had promised the purchase without consultation. Photo Eva Oude Elferink That man, an influential local parliamentarian named Shiaka Sama, heads the Affected Landowners’ Association of Malen (Maloa) which vehemently opposed the arrival of Socfin from the start. Over the years, this led to several confrontations and arrests. Sama was detained on charges of “sedition”, “conspiracy” and “destruction” of Socfin’s oil palms (he denies this). The truth, according to Kebbie, is that very Malen is happy with the multinational. “Other countries have factories, industry. Look at the United States, they are superb . We also want to develop.” Socfin gives people work, he says. They build schools. All he has to do is call the manager and they will take care of what he needs. Kebbie nods at the bright lights on his ceiling. “We have electricity, we never had that.” In other villages in Malen this is still not the case, no. But: “Even in Freetown they don’t have light everywhere.” 28. No investment will take place […] as long as the investor does not have the free and pre-informed consent of at least 60 percent of the adult family members or community representatives. The agreement that the government concluded with Socfin at the time was one of the largest since the civil war. In exchange for a lease of at least 50 years for approximately 19,000 hectares, of which 12,000 are now planted, the company said it invested about 285 million dollars over the past decade. Due to all the tensions that followed, it also became one of the most controversial deals. The example, says Sonkita Conteh of Namati, of how not to do it. The criticism does not only come from NGOs and the residents. Officials also warned in advance. They were uneasy about the government’s decision to act as the main tenant, to whom the villagers would lease their land. The government then leased it back to Socfin. “In this way you create a situation in which people cannot turn to anyone. The company says you have to be with the government. And how do you take on the government now?” asks John Kamara. In his yellow-walled office at the Department of Agriculture in Freetown, the Crops Director taps on his desk. Kamara knows the matter well. When elected in 2018, the current president, whose grassroots dominate the Malen region, promised to come up with a solution to the ongoing conflict. For example, he had a committee set up that would unravel everything around the deal and come up with recommendations. A year later, this committee, of which Kamara was a member, sent 17 pages of findings to the vice president. Then: silence. The report was never officially published. Yet a copy leaked out, of which Kamara endorses the authenticity to NRC . In 2012, the disabled Murie Fullei from the village of Ngandorhun in Malen Chiefdom sold his piece of land with oil palms to the multinational Socfin. Now he says he can barely make ends meet. Photo Eva Oude Elferink cheating Their criticism is harsh and endorses many of the villagers’ complaints. Such as the promises for ‘green buffers’ between the plantation and villages that were insufficiently fulfilled. Such as the tampering by local leaders with signature setters. They also question the more than $45,000 that the Council of the chiefdom , headed by Kebbie, receives annually if their share of the rent paid by Socfin – it remained unclear what that money was spent on. “The role of the government in this agreement, moreover, the committee deems as unnecessary as it is oppressive and obstructive … intended to limit the free will of the landowners.” Their verdict: the old agreements should be thrown away. Instead, the company must enter into a new agreement with the landowners themselves. Why their report was never released? No idea, says Kamara. The official points out that many of the abuses they raised are addressed in the new laws. Much more power for the family members, less for the chief . A land register that states exactly who owns how much land where. More control, more transparency. “Maybe they wanted to wait for those laws first?” he suggests. 30. The government can support communities with access to legal and professional assistance during land investment negotiations. There is rustling in the swamp. Musa Moriba steps up to a tree and turns one of the beans, the size of a small rugby ball. Some of his old cocoa trees are still here. Branches protrude from the nearby ground, cuttings from new trees he has planted there. Unlike many neighbors, Moriba did not work on Socfin’s plantations. A matter of principle. “If I take their money, I accept what they have done.” For a moment Moriba thought of going to court. But what was he going to do against a multi-million dollar company? And besides, how was he going to prove this? He has no title deeds, nobody in the provinces has them. Yet the farmer refuses to give up hope. “I want to believe that one day I will get my country back.” Rehearsal Socfin ‘Everyone has signed neatly’ On the phone, CEO and shareholder Gerben Haringsma of subsidiary Socfin Agricultural Company (SAC) strongly contradicts that land had been expropriated against the will of residents. “The people who signed got their money and were happy. Those who did not want that, still have their country.” Socfin was not involved in identifying the landowners, he says. “The agreement was signed by the government. It is up to them and the paramount chief to identify the right people. There are 62,000 people living in Sahn Malen [according to the 2021 census, there are about 42,000, ed.]. Do I have to go to the market and ask ‘who owns this?’ Then 62,000 people raise their hands.” “Sure” it is possible that the paramount chief has exerted pressure and the wrong people have been designated as family heads, Haringsma admits. “But in practice we don’t notice that much. I have distributed 7.5 million euros among the population. It is naive to think that we can take someone’s land and then no one will say ‘Wow, that money is mine’ […] How fairly did the landowner divide the money among his family? Therein lies the problem. But pointing to the firm is easier.” Haringsma declined to comment on the committee’s report, which points to fundamental imperfections in the land transactions. “There is no report, no one from the government has signed it.” Haringsma calls the new law , which requires, among other things, that companies must negotiate directly with the population from now on as a “disgrace for investors”. “You can’t negotiate a project with 50,000 people, that’s an illusion.” There will be “no more large-scale investment coming to Sierra Leone,” he predicts. “This is extremely unfortunate.” A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of October 22, 2022