Ernest Bai Koroma
President of the Republic of Sierra Leone
State House, State Avenue, Tower Hill
Freetown, Sierra Leone
Dear Mr. President:
We would like to express our deep concern over the impact of an investment project
of SOCFIN Agricultural Company Sierra Leone Ltd. (SOCFIN), a subsidiary of the Belgo-Luxembourgeois company SOCFIN (part of the French group Bolloré). This project, which operates large-scale industrial palm oil plantations in Malen Chiefdom, Pujehun District in Sierra Leone, has deprived the communities living in the area from their access to farmland and related natural resources.
We join the recent letter directed to you, Mr. President, by a large coalition of 42 organizations gathering members of the Global Convergence of Land and Water Struggles in West Africa, members of the Global Network for the Right to Food and Nutrition, members of the European Alliance “Hands on the Land for Food Sovereignty” and other international social movements and civil society organisations (CSOs) working on food sovereignty, the human right to food and nutrition, land rights and the protection of human rights defenders.
This project has had serious adverse impacts on the livelihoods and enjoyment of their human rights of Sierra Leone’s citizens, especially their right to food and nutrition. The affected communities affirm that the land acquisition was not transparent, and that neither proper community consultation nor participation in the decision making process was ensured. We also observe an increasing criminalization of community leaders and land rights activists related to this land grabbing. You will find attached to this letter a detailed background of the case and the human rights abuses and violations (Annex I).
Mr. President, as you recently stated, “your government will never back SOCFIN in any attempt
to exploit [the people of Sahn Malen]” and “is always open for round table talks if the need arises."
We believe an urgent solution is required to avoid new escalation of the conflict in the Malen Chiefdom and to put an end to the human rights abuses and violations suffered by communities and land rights defenders. According to national and international human rights law, the Government of Sierra Leone has the obligation to respect, protect, and fulfil the human rights of its citizens with special attention to marginalized and disadvantaged groups, such as the rural communities in Malen, and especially women and children (see relevant human rights instruments in Annex II). We also note that the Government of Sierra Leone has expressed specific commitment to implement the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security (VGGT) as it was reaffirmed in the process of the elaboration of the National Land Policy and in the “Land Partnership” signed in December 2015 between the Government of Sierra Leone, the FAO, and the Government of the Federal Republic of Germany.
In line with those human rights obligations, and based on the demands of the Malen communities,
we request the Government of Sierra Leone to:
• ensure that the Malen communities are not deprived of their access to and control over land and related natural resources on which they rely to cultivate their own food and economic crops and to meet their basic needs (Constitution of Sierra Leone, article 21 and International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights – ICESCR, article 11).
• Guarantee that any process of acquisition of land is conducted with all affected parties ensuring
their active, free, effective, meaningful and informed participation (VGGT §9.9, 12.10 and 3B6).
In this regard, the lease agreement with SOCFIN need to be reviewed and renegotiated based
on good-faith consultations with the communities without intimidation and in a climate of trust
(VGGT, §9.9) and taking into account existing power imbalance (VGGT, §3B6). The Government
should not serve as an intermediary by leasing the land to the Tribal authorities but should rather
make sure that the agreement respects the human rights of the affected people. Measures must
be put in place in order to ensure that land and plantation owners are not pressurized to lease
their land and have the possibility to choose if they want to get restitution of their land (VGGT
§4.9) or lease it to the company.
• Regulate the operations of SOCFIN to protect the human rights of the communities and to ensure compliance with the provisions of the VGGT regarding responsible investments (VGGT §12).
This includes ensuring that private land acquisitions do not contribute to food insecurity (VGGT
§12.12). In this respect, a minimum of 500m “buffer zones” around villages should be respected
by the company and adequate plots of farmland should be relinquished to the communities for
food production and adequate support programs for farmers put in place.
• Ensure the protection and security of the land rights activists of MALOA and to effectively guarantee their right to meet and assemble peacefully (Constitution, article 26 and UN Declaration
of Human Rights Defenders3, art. 2 and 5). In this regard, we believe that the Government should
offer presidential amnesty to the formerly convicted prisoners and restitution of the money paid
for the fines as a first step in the de-escalation of the land conflict. Any other judicial procedure
against MALOA members or other supporting groups related to the land dispute should be put
on hold. The Government should also investigate the restriction measures taken by local authorities and the local police to hinder meetings and activities of MALOA and about the use of force by some members of the local police to repress peaceful demonstrations of the communities.
Those responsible should be held accountable for their actions.
• Ensure the right of the Malen communities to complain and have their complaint promptly reviewed before an independent, impartial and competent authority (UN Declaration of Human
Rights Defenders, art. 9 and VGGT §21). In this respect, the mediation work on the case initiated
in 2013 by the Human Rights Commission of Sierra Leone (HRC) could be revived and serve as
starting point. However, given the previous difficulties experienced in the mediation process,
we believe that the work of the HRC needs to be reinforced in order to ensure sufficient capacities
and strong independence of the procedure. In this regard, the Government of Sierra Leone
should seek the assistance of the international community to provide additional capacities (technical, financial and human) and ensure the independence of the procedure. The Land partnership between Sierra Leone, FAO, and Germany should provide additional capacities and monitor the process.
• Provide adequate legal assistance to the communities during the mediation/dialogue process
• Create an independent monitoring mechanism after the mediation/dialogue process to ensure
the implementation of the decisions.
• Put in place effective safeguards that protect the human and tenure rights of affected people and communities in the context of land acquisitions (VGGT, §12.6).
In addition, according to the Extraterritorial Human Rights Obligations of States in the Area of Economic,Social and Cultural Rights (See Maastricht Principles on Extraterritorial Obligations of States in the Area of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights), we call on the international community to support the Government of Sierra Leone in the conflict resolution and to ensure that the human rights of the Malen communities are respected and protected. In particular:
• Belgium, Luxemburg, France and Switzerland as home states of SOCFIN/Bolloré should take necessary measures to regulate SOCFIN’s operations in Sierra Leone and to ensure that SOCFIN
do not nullify or impair the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights. These include
administrative, legislative, investigative, adjudicatory and other measures. (Maastricht Principles,
• FAO and Germany, which are engaged in a Land Partnership with the Government of Sierra
Leone, should support the Government in the conflict resolution (Maastricht Principles, article 33
and objectives 3.1 and 6 of the Land Partnership).
• The EU and the World Bank, which promoted the land deal through their support to the Sierra
Leone Import and Export Promotion Agency (SLIEPA), should also provide international assistance
to the communities and to the Government to solve the land conflict. (Maastricht Principles,
article 33 and VGGT §12.15).
• All States have the obligations to ensure the protection of the human rights defenders addressing economic, social and cultural rights (Resolution of the Human Rights Council Protecting
human rights defenders, whether individuals, groups or organs of society, addressing economic,
social and cultural rights, Doc A/HRC/31/L.28).
Excellency, we thank you for your attention and kindly request you to keep us informed about the
actions taken by your Government.