February 19, 2015 By Alusine Sesay
More than 300 small local landowners in Jong and Sogbeni Chiefdoms in Mattru Jong, in the southern district of Bonthe, have been involved in an ongoing dispute with the Sierra Leonean government over the ownership and management of an oil palm plantation on their land. The landowners allege that, since 2010, they have been the victims of an illegal land grab by the government.
The alleged land grab has had dire effects on the lives of the landowners, for the majority of whom the plantation is their only means of livelihood. One of the landowners in the Jong Chiefdom, Joe Patrick Duramany, says that he and others now have no land to farm as a result of the government’s actions, and that they have been prevented even from accessing the plantation: “We have no source of income, and this has [also] affected our children because we cannot afford to pay their school fees.” What is even more frustrating to the landowners, says Duramany, is that while the landowners are left with no income, the government-affiliated Project Implementing Unit (PIU), which operates under the supervision of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Food Security, sells the fruit of the oil palms for great profit.
A landowner in the Sogbeni Chiefdom, Abdulai Onniel, expressed similar frustrations to Duramany, noting that the government’s actions have disturbed the entire lives of his family. “We find it difficult to pay school fees for our children. We cannot produce our own food because there is nowhere to farm.”
How the conflict arose
This story begins in 1967, when the Sierra Leone Produce Marketing Board (SLPMB) – a government entity responsible for adding value to agricultural products for international markets – established over 7,000 acres of oil palm plantation covering both the Jong and Sogbeni Chiefdoms. According to Henry Yamba Kamara, the Managing Director of the Sierra Leone Produce Marketing Company (SLPMC) – the successor to the SLPMB – in 1978 the government handed over management of the Mattru Jong plantation to the African Development Bank.
Sylvester Fonnie, Chairman of the Land Holders’ Executive Committee, Gambia/Mattru Oil Palm Estate in the Jong and Sogbeni, confirms that the landowners had a 27-year land lease agreement with the African Development Bank, and that, upon the expiration of this lease in 2005, the SLPP government of Alhaji Dr. Ahmed Tejan Kabbah handed management of the plantation back to the landowners.
“Unfortunately, no official document exists to prove this,” says Fonnie. “But the fact remains…[that] the then president made an open pronouncement that they were not in business, hence the plantation should be handed over to us.”
At the general election of 2007, The All People’s Congress (APC) came to power in place of the SLPP. Then, in 2010, the APC’s Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Food Security, Dr. Sam Sesay, in collaboration with the then Minister of Finance and Economic Development, Dr. Samura Kamara, signed a five-year loan agreement for US$15 million with the Islamic Development Bank to transform the Mattru Jong plantation.
According to the loan agreement, this transformation would involve replanting the old oil palm trees, purchasing an oil palm factory with the capacity to process 10 tons of fresh fruit per hour, and constructing 60km of feeder roads and office facilities for staff. The agreement also pledged the signatories to provide basic social facilities for the Jong and Sogbeni Chiefdoms, including three primary schools, three health centers, two markets and three water points for the community.
The agreement had three signatories – Dr. Sesay, Dr. Kamara, and the President of the Islamic Development Bank, Dr. Ahmad Mohamad Ali. The Government of Malaysia also had a role in the project. It committed to providing three experts in oil palm plantation development, processing, and scheme development, as well as training for the project executing agency, oil palm farmers, and processors.
Critically, this loan agreement was not signed by any of the landholders of Mattru Jong. The landowners therefore claim that their land has simply been grabbed in order to execute the project, which is entirely managed by the current government. According to Sylvester Fonnie, there has been no transparency and accountability in the project, and the landowners have been totally left out of the management of the plantation.
Alusine Kallon, the Project Coordinator of the Project Implementing Unit (PIU), which runs the project on a daily basis under the supervision of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Food Security, says that the PIU organized consultations with landowners at start-up workshops prior to the loan agreement being signed. While Fonnie concedes that the government did indeed inform the Land Holders’ Executive Committee about the Islamic Development Bank project, he emphasizes that the critical outcome was that the Executive Committee was not offered any new lease when the agreement was made. “The government grabbed the land from us, as well [as selling] the palm fruits to whosoever they wanted to,” he states angrily.
Little transformation so far
The landowners are now concerned that the whole idea of the transformation project was simply an elaborate facade for this land grab. This concern had arisen from a lack of visible progress in the implementation of the project, five years after it began (the end date has been deferred to December 2016, due to a delay in implementation caused by the disagreement between the government and the landowners). Neither did the Malaysian government uphold their commitments to provide experts and training for the project. Despite this lack of progress, Abubakarr S. Darmay, the Head of Public Relations of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Food Security, confirms that the government has no plans to hand over the plantation to the landowners until after the transformation project is complete.
Alusine Kallon, the PIU Project Coordinator, claims that work on the transformation project is imminent, and that the PIU has sent its requests relating to the construction of the rural infrastructure, the oil palm factory and the office facilities to the Islamic Development Bank for approval. “We are waiting for their approval so that we [can] invite bids from contractors. I believe that all infrastructural development relating to the project will be carried out before the end of 2015.” Kallon also discloses that the IDB has so far disbursed only US$1 million from the US$15 million agreement, adding that disbursement of funds is tied to the project activities.
There has also been interest in the Mattru Jong plantation from private investors, specifically Pan African Agriculture, the founder shareholders of Goldtree Holdings, a commercial palm oil plantation based in Kailahun. The landowners appear well disposed towards this. Sylvester Fonnie, the Chairman of the Land Holders’ Executive Committee, says that Goldtree Holdings assisted the landowners to clean up the Mattru Jong plantation in the early 2000s after it had been abandoned during the civil war. Fonnie discloses that Goldtree Holdings has expressed interest in the plantation to the landowners, but that there has been no formal agreement between the two parties.
Speaking on behalf of Pan African Agriculture, Luke Marriott, the General Manager of Goldtree Holdings, says that Pan African is now in discussions with the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Food Security regarding Mattru Jong: “The dispute between the landowners and the ministry is fundamentally a misunderstanding, the Ministry of Agriculture has the best interests of Sierra Leone at heart.”
What support is there for the landowners?
The landowners of Mattru Jong find themselves in a very difficult situation. They have faced intimidation by the government when they have protested for the reinstatement of their land rights. In May 2014, twenty landowners were arrested and detained by the police following a protest that broke out in Mattru Jong over the government’s use of the plantation. Currently, the case rests with the magistrate’s court, but a verdict is yet to be passed. Outside help for the landowners is not plentiful – there is no non-governmental or civil society organization that is advocating for their rights at present.
However, there do exist some sources of support. Brima Conteh, the Member of Parliament for Constituency 097, where the plantation at Mattru Jong in Bonthe District is located, feels strongly that the landowners have a right to feel aggrieved. “The people are let down and disappointed. All activities under the project have not materialized. The Ministry of Agriculture has failed in everything that was to be done for the people,” says Conteh.
Conteh accuses the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Food Security of making money through the plantation, through depriving the landowners of their right to use the plantation for income. He alleges that while the government is taking the lead on this project, there is a complete lack of information about the disbursement of funds for the project’s implementation. “People have been asking as to where is the money meant for the project…I hope that the Ministry of Agriculture [Forestry and Food Security] is not misleading the president that there is money for the project…The question people have been asking is how long [before] this project will materialize,” he continues.
It is by no means certain that the landowners of Mattru Jong will discover the answer to this question in the near future.