Non-profits and business team up for land governance in Sierra Leone
Since 2016, the civil society organisation Solidaridad and the company Natural Habitats Sierra Leone (NHSL) have joined forces for land rights, livelihoods and sustainable business practices. The collaboration was enabled through the DFID-funded LEGEND programme. ECDPM’s Jeske van Seters and Poorva Karkare interviewed Nicholas Jengre, Solidaridad country manager for Sierra Leone, to learn about this collaboration and tease out early lessons from the partnership experience.
ECDPM: LEGEND stands for “Land: Enhancing Governance for Economic Development”. What does the programme aim to achieve, and what are the key elements of this approach?
Nicholas Jengre: Analyses show that land deals in Sierra Leone typically lack transparency, adequate documentation and consultation. They also do not include free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) of the communities directly affected. As a result, companies entering into these land deals may face significant disputes with the local community. The Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests (VGGT) were developed by the Committee on World Food Security to address land tenure issues by serving as a reference and providing guidance on land governance to ensure equitable access to land.
The VGGT informed Sierra Leone’s new land policy. The DFID-funded LEGEND programme seeks to contribute to implementation of the new policy. In particular, it has been engaged in connection with a large palm oil investment by the company Natural Habitats Sierra Leone (NHSL) in the Makpele chiefdom in the country’s south. The programme aims to contribute to protection of land rights, livelihoods and food security of vulnerable people, while promoting sustainable business.
The project involves a range of interventions. It includes facilitation of stakeholder consultations, training on land governance and land rights in local dialect and support to farmers to organise themselves and apply good agronomic practices for production of certain staple foods.
How does a multi-stakeholder approach help resolve issues around land ownership?
Nicholas Jengre: NHSL inherited a master lease covering the entire chiefdom of Makpele (almost 40,000 hectares of land) from an earlier company. But there were serious disputes in the local community, which was not adequately consulted at the signing of the land deal. NHSL has a strong ambition to produce organic and RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) certified crude palm oil. For the company to meet these standards and to comply with the national land policy (NLP) it is important to engage in consultations with the community. Moreover, the NLP stipulates that an investor must not acquire more than 5,000 hectares of land at a time for large projects.
Consequently, the company decided to surrender the entire lease and – through engagement and consultation with the local communities – started a process to get FPIC from landowners and ensure more transparency on new leasing arrangements. However, it needed a partner to do this effectively and provide a neutral convener who made sure that all voices were heard before the new lease was finalised. Thus, they formed a consortium with Solidaridad and national NGOs such as NAMATI, WOHRAD, Green Scenery and UNFAO Sierra Leone.
Solidaridad also engaged in rigorous consultations with the community and the private company. Through these consultations, land was mapped in a participatory way. Agreements were made not only between the company and the community on which land was to be leased and which was to be kept for farmers, but also between farmers within the same community to set boundaries and help avoid disputes in the future. The new lease now covers some 2,300 hectares, well within the NLP-stipulated threshold. Moreover, each lease (68 lease agreements in all) includes four signatories (instead of the two previously), making the process more transparent and inclusive. Furthermore, as a result of this participatory process, communities came up with their own “recommended land acquisition steps” for investors based on their experiences with NHSL.
It is important to institutionalise such multi-stakeholder approaches. In this spirit, and in line with the NLP, the process resulted in the establishment of a multi-stakeholder platform at the chiefdom level and eight multi-stakeholder community land committees. These communities are now organised to decide on land use planning or outside requests from investors.
To reach a consensus and have mutually acceptable land acquisition there needs to be trust between the stakeholders. How have you built trust, and what opportunities and challenges have you encountered?
Nicholas Jengre: Initially, it was a challenge to gain the trust of the local communities. They viewed Solidaridad as working for the big company and serving its interests, since we did not have our own office at the start and operated from the company’s compound. We had to work hard to gain their trust. It helped when we took community representatives to the wider chiefdom, provincial and even national level to meet other stakeholders, because they now realised that we were working on a larger, nationally embedded agenda to ensure responsible land-based investments. We slowly gained their trust, also by proximity and providing them valued support.
Tensions between the community and the company were running high, mainly because of the way the previous lease had been signed. The local communities did not trust NHSL, and quite a few landowners were unwilling to lease their land. By surrendering the old lease, NHSL demonstrated its commitment to engage with the communities in a meaningful dialogue.
It proved important to involve a wide range of local stakeholders. We had numerous consultations at the community level with actors like chiefs, councils of elders, security services, teachers and others. These helped diffuse tensions between the community and the company, and gave us a chance to explain the NLP and best practices for land governance and generally build capacity among the communities, most of whom are illiterate. This helped promote dialogue within groups across communities that had been at loggerheads due to disagreements over the land lease, as some agreed to lease land while others did not. It was only after these consultations at the community level that stakeholders were brought together at the chiefdom level, with representation from each of these groups, along with representatives of women’s groups, farmers’ associations and youth organisations.
The participatory land mappings mentioned earlier included not only those who had agreed to lease their land but also those who had not agreed. This was an important aspect of the trust-building exercise: all relevant stakeholders were included, regardless of their views and positioning.
At the same time, tensions did arise between Solidaridad and the company. The company felt that it was not being given due credit, while Solidaridad received all the praise for building capacity within the local communities. This turned out to be mainly a communication issue and was resolved. It does illustrate the delicate task of operating as a neutral convener and becoming and remaining the trusted partner of different parties, including a large investor and local communities.
The project tested an operational tool to help investors apply the VGGT– that is, the Analytical Framework for Due Diligence in Responsible Land-Based Agricultural Investment, developed by the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition. It was the first time the framework was applied by a large-scale investor in Sierra Leone. What lessons did you learn?
Nicholas Jengre: The tool helped us identify red flags in investments and avoid them. It provided useful information to guide due diligence efforts. However, such a document can be seen as static when compared to the complex reality of changing dynamics. Due diligence is a continuous effort which requires reflection and adjustment. When is community engagement fully satisfactory? You find that out in practice. Hence, overall, a big lesson is that while an analytical framework is helpful, it has to be applied with care and taking into account on-the-ground realities.
Moreover, we realized that dealing with the conflict around the land lease wasn’t enough. Sierra Leone is the third most hungry country in the world. When seeking to talk with communities about land rights, they raised immediate food security concerns. Thus, we integrated this important aspect into the LEGEND programme. We supported farmers to organise themselves into farmer groups and provided training in good agronomic practices for production of certain staple foods, including development of food crop demonstration plots. In the future, some of those farmers may act as oil palm out-growers for the company.
You paid particular attention to gender issues. What has this entailed and how has it played out?
Nicholas Jengre: More than 70% of the women in the country are engaged in agriculture. However, they have limited access to and control of land. So one of the project objectives was to ensure that women get that access. We worked towards this through various, interlinked means. For instance, we embarked on gender-sensitive land tenure training. Apart from this, we engaged with community chiefs, referring to the NLP, which urges that women not be discriminated against and must have ownership of land. At the same time, with the gender family model we gathered men and women to train them to mobilise local resources to improve their livelihoods, such as by growing cassava, rice and peanuts. We also promoted community savings groups in a structured way.
All these simultaneous interventions resulted in a general improvement in the livelihoods of farmers through more food security and better savings. These developments led to better treatment of women in the family. Today, some 35% of the new lease signatories are women, which enhances their say over a part of household income. This is historic for a country like Sierra Leone, where women’s rights are not very strong and the starting point is low.
You told us that LEGEND seeks to contribute to implementation of the new land policy. From LEGEND’s experiences so far, what is your view on the role government plays. Do you have any recommendations for policymakers in Sierra Leone and beyond?
Nicholas Jengre: The national land policy includes essential measures in line with the VGGT. Going beyond the policy though, several things come to mind. For instance, the government needs to play an active role in ensuring that its policies are implemented. It is not just about designing policy, but also about putting it to practice. Government needs to demonstrate leadership and hold companies to account This is increasingly happening in Sierra Leone. As a case in point, the government is developing an approval process for agricultural investments to ensure that investors and investments meet certain criteria.
The government needs to go beyond a mere rule-setter role. The land policy changes people’s rights, and government should support communities to know and make use of those rights. Furthermore, when useful, it can act as a convener between companies and communities, making sure that all voices, including the vulnerable, are heard. This can be done by putting redressal mechanisms in place.
While Solidaridad is a firm proponent and facilitator of multi-stakeholder approaches, the role of governments remains crucial.