New Laws in Sierra Leone Reshape Environmental Battleground

DAKAR, Senegal — It’s a battle that communities the world over have confronted: stopping firms from grabbing their lands, polluting their surroundings and forcing them to relocate.

When a significant investor sees a possibility to revenue from a mine or large-scale agriculture, long-established methods of life, and even land possession rights, typically show to imply little.

However in a single West African nation, Sierra Leone, the principles of such struggles could also be about to vary drastically.

Underneath new legal guidelines handed this week, firms working in Sierra Leone must receive the specific consent of native communities earlier than beginning mining, industrial or farming actions. Residents proudly owning land will have the ability to veto any venture affecting it. And corporations must assist pay for any authorized charges that the native communities incur in negotiations — which means that they’ll more than likely finance authorized experience used in opposition to them.

Environmental and land rights consultants have hailed the legal guidelines as a daring step for the nation of eight million individuals, which stays among the many world’s poorest regardless of in depth pure sources, and whilst intensive mining and palm oil and sugar cane plantations have led to deforestation, landslides and soil erosion.

The brand new legal guidelines, which the president is predicted to signal subsequent week, are among the first of their variety to use throughout most of a rustic’s territory, and can be among the many world’s most protecting, in accordance with human rights and environmental observers.

“To our data, there may be not a authorized regime anyplace, in both hemisphere, that grants such sturdy rights to communities going through hurt,” mentioned Sonkita Conteh, the director of the Sierra Leone program at Namati, a nonprofit offering authorized coaching to native communities.

The laws has additionally generated pushback, with firms warning that it might hamper any new land growth. At the very least one important investor mentioned that he would not attempt new projects in Sierra Leone due to one of many new legal guidelines.

Nonprofits and worldwide organizations have lengthy fought to power governments and companies to hunt consent from native populations earlier than beginning large-scale tasks, with Latin and Central American international locations on the forefront of this battle.

“Often firms are given concessions earlier than they receive the consent from the populations, after which they ‘inform’ them,” mentioned Natalia Greene, a local weather change activist primarily based in Ecuador. “They provide individuals a sandwich, make them signal one thing, and that’s it.”

In Sierra Leone, till now, most communities have had little say over tasks. Corporations mining gold, titanium or diamonds, or rising palm oil, have typically bypassed residents by means of agreements with native chiefs or authorities officers to function on their lands, in accordance with observers.

Cormac Cullinan, a Cape City-based environmental lawyer, mentioned the correct to what authorized consultants name “free, prior and knowledgeable consent” was a worldwide situation.

“Those that stay someplace have the best ethical rights to be consulted and to say no,” mentioned Mr. Cullinan, who represents Indigenous South Africans in search of to halt the development of the African headquarters of Amazon in Cape City.

“However that proper is usually not acknowledged in legislation.”

That is altering in a handful of nations. In 2018, Sierra Leone’s neighbor, Liberia, adopted a legislation requiring prior consent from rural populations throughout a lot of the nation’s territory, though in contrast to in Sierra Leone, the federal government can nonetheless circumvent native communities to permit mining actions. In February, Ecuador’s highest court docket enshrined an identical proper, nevertheless it applies solely to the nation’s 14 acknowledged Indigenous teams.

Two of Sierra Leone’s new legal guidelines, the Customary Land Rights and Nationwide Land Fee Acts, are going the furthest, in accordance with environmental consultants, capping a decade of fights by native organizations in opposition to land grabbing and air pollution. A 3rd legislation, adopted on Tuesday, strengthens group protections in opposition to mining actions.

The legal guidelines will apply to every of Sierra Leone’s provinces, however not the capital metropolis, Freetown, and its suburbs, which have a distinct authorized system. Round 95 % of the nation is ruled by customary legislation, with unwritten guidelines and oral traditions figuring out who can personal, use or switch land, typically on the drawback of sure ethnic teams and girls.

One of many legal guidelines may even finish a colonial-era rule stopping descendants of freed slaves from proudly owning land exterior Freetown.

Mr. Conteh, the authorized knowledgeable at Namati, mentioned that till now households might simply be dispossessed of their lands, both as a result of they’d little proof of possession, or as a result of firms would strike offers with intermediaries.

The brand new laws in Sierra Leone transfers energy from intermediaries reminiscent of group leaders to individuals proudly owning or straight utilizing the land.

It additionally states that girls ought to have equal land rights, with out interference and discrimination, an issue that has lengthy plagued Sierra Leone.

Whereas ladies make up nearly all of the nation’s agricultural work power, they typically face obstacles to proudly owning land, in accordance with Aisha Fofana Ibrahim, a professor of gender research on the College of Sierra Leone. It has left them depending on their husband or male kin and susceptible to dropping entry to land in case of divorce or loss of life, she mentioned.

The brand new laws creates committees tasked with managing communal lands and resolving land disputes, not less than 30 % of whose members must be ladies. “The legislation is a big win for ladies,” Dr. Fofana Ibrahim mentioned.

However Idrissa Tarawallie, a professor of political science on the identical college, mentioned he was extra ambivalent concerning the laws’s advantages. One of many legal guidelines might strengthen communities in dealings with international firms, he mentioned. However one other, which guarantees new processes to find out who owns land, might pit some Sierra Leoneans in opposition to each other.

“Land in Sierra Leone is tied to problems with tribes, ethnicity and origin,” Dr. Tarawallie mentioned. “However after Ebola and Covid, it’s the new diamond,” he added. “Making use of a liberal method to land possession and not using a thorough software of custom and tradition would possibly result in clashes.”

Some corporations have additionally criticized the laws. Gerben Haringsma, the nation director for Sierra Leone at Socfin, a Luxembourg-based firm that has grown palm oil within the nation for a decade and has faced accusations of land grabs, argued that the legal guidelines would make new large-scale investments in agriculture inconceivable.

Mr. Haringsma mentioned in an electronic mail that he welcomed laws clarifying who owned land in Sierra Leone. However he argued that with the land rights legislation, too many group members would now should be concerned in buyers’ resolution processes.

“With this legislation, populations should not have to be protected as main buyers can not begin main tasks anymore,” Mr. Haringsma mentioned.

Ms. Greene, the Ecuadorean advisor, mentioned Indigenous individuals and native communities worldwide ought to have higher details about tasks affecting their livelihoods, in addition to the correct to veto.

And given the chance, they might use that veto, she mentioned: “A lot of the communities, in the event that they’re correctly knowledgeable of all of the environmental impression, will say no.”

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