Like many other resource-rich countries in Africa, Sierra Leone, infamous for Blood Diamonds, and vastly endowed with other minerals such as iron ore, rutile, gold, bauxite, limonite, and platinum chromite as well as promising petroleum potential, has for the longest time fought against the unfair treatment of communities by mining companies, with the government often being blamed for failing to provide adequate oversight of company consultations with communities and not responding to repeated complaints about forced relocations among other human rights violations.
According to a report by Human Rights Watch in 2014 titled ”Whose Development?: Human Rights Abuses in Sierra Leone’s Mining Boom”, the then president Earnest Koroma aggressively pursued the agenda for prosperity, a strategy that yielded high rates of growth, witnessing a 21% economic growth of the country, the fastest in Sub-Saharan Africa according to IMF. The growth, however, did not necessarily match improved living conditions for Sierra Leone’s eight million people. The country has been ranked as one of the poorest in the world, in the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Index, owing to corruption and lack of transparency interference in Sierra Leone’s progress.
Large-scale land acquisitions by foreign companies for agricultural development over the years have led to immense environmental degradation and land ownership-related conflicts, with women being on the receiving end. While they are extremely important contributors to food sovereignty in Sierra Leone’s rural areas, women have had to confront customary laws closer home, which often gives men most decision-making and ownership powers. This has been happening at the same time as debates around land policy were taking place. Although women are protected by statutory laws that allow them to own and lease land, deep in the villages where vast lands are available, companies have easily acquired community land with the consent of only paramount chiefs who are the custodians of the land according to Sierra Leone Customary law.
The Human Rights Watch report and other subsequent reports by nongovernmental organizations would over the years advise the government, among other recommendations, to ensure that state land was transparently allocated per the rights of all its occupants, and put into effect the law on access to information by publicizing all mining contracts, thus allowing residents to obtain accurate information on the deployment of the countries resources. Further, authorities were urged to address longstanding human rights issues such as corruption, opaque governance, lack of clarity in land ownership, and abuses of authorities by local chiefs.
August 2022 marks a new dawn for the once war-tone country if the newly passed laws are implemented and strictly adhered to. The Sierra Leone parliament passed into law the Customary Land Rights Act, National Land Commission Act, and the Mines and Minerals Development Act 2022, an amendment of the Mines and Minerals Act 2009.
According to the new legislation, Companies are now required to obtain Free Prior and Informed consent of local communities before they start mining, farming, or industrial activities. Residents owning land will be able to veto any project affecting it, with the government expected to cover any legal fees incurred in negotiations. Industrial development including timber and agribusiness in old-growth forests and other ecologically sensitive areas has been banned, and public environmental license conditions into binding legal agreements between communities and companies are to be incorporated. They further state that women should have equal land rights, without interference and discrimination. The new legislation creates committees tasked with managing communal lands and resolving land disputes, at least 30 percent of whose members will have to be women.
The new laws have been hailed as progressive and among the world’s most protective. According to a report by the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, the laws could be a global model on consent and tackling Climate Crisis as they regulate activities on investment in the sector, protect the environment, and help promote the interest of Sierra Leone’s people.
While expected to bring to an end decades of conflicts related to land grabbing and pollution, some industry players especially in the palm oil business have termed the legislation as the “dreams of NGOs” saying it will result in company blackmails by communities and thus block investments.
The Developments in Sierra Leone come at a time when the International Alliance on Natural Resources in Africa (IANRA) has intensified the popularization of the Model Law on Mining on Community Land in Africa, which strongly advocates against governance by mining laws that undermine human rights and regard foreign investors as more important than indigenous people. The model law is a guide for communities in Africa to transform their legal and policy framework regarding the extraction of natural resources, to bring the desired positive change in human rights promotion, and meaningful contributions to the economic, social, and cultural development in Africa.
By Regina Kimanzi