DAKAR, Senegal — It’s a struggle communities around the world have faced: stopping companies from taking their land, polluting their environment and forcing them to relocate.
When a major investor sees an opportunity to take advantage of a mine or large-scale farming, long-established ways of life and even land ownership often turn out to mean little.
But in a West African country, Sierra Leone, the rules of such struggles may be about to change dramatically.
Under new laws passed this week, companies operating in Sierra Leone will have to obtain the express consent of local communities before starting mining, industrial or agricultural activities. Residents who own land can veto any project that affects it. And companies will have to help pay for any legal fees the local communities incur during negotiations – meaning they will most likely fund legal expertise used against them.
Environmental and land rights experts have hailed the laws as a bold step for the nation of eight million, which is among the poorest in the world despite extensive natural resources, and even as intensive mining and palm oil and sugar cane plantations have led to deforestation, landslides and soil erosion. .
The new laws, which the president is expected to sign next week, are some of the first of their kind to apply to most of a country’s territory, and will be among the most protective in the world, according to human rights and environmental monitors. be world.
“To our knowledge, there is no legal regime anywhere in either hemisphere that grants such robust rights to communities facing harm,” said Sonkita Conteh, director of the Sierra Leone program at Namati, a nonprofit that provides legal services. provides training to local communities. .
The legislation has also led to a setback, with companies warning that it would hinder any new land development. At least one major investor said he would not attempt any new projects in Sierra Leone due to any of the new laws.
Nonprofits and international organizations have long fought to force governments and businesses to ask locals for permission before launching large-scale projects, with Latin and Central American countries at the forefront of this battle.
“Usually companies get concessions before they get the consent of the people, and then they ‘inform’ them,” says Natalia Greene, an Ecuadorian climate activist. “They offer people a sandwich, have them sign something, and that’s it. “
Until now, most communities in Sierra Leone had little say in projects. Companies that mine gold, titanium or diamonds or grow palm oil have often bypassed residents through agreements with local leaders or government officials to operate on their land, according to observers.
Cormac Cullinan, a Cape Town environmental lawyer, said the right to what legal experts call “free, prior and informed consent” is a global issue.
“Those who live anywhere have the greatest moral rights to be consulted and say no,” said Mr Cullinan, who represents indigenous South Africans who want to halt construction of Amazon’s African headquarters in Cape Town.
“But that right is often not recognized in law.”
This is changing in a handful of countries. In 2018, Sierra Leone’s neighbor Liberia passed a law requiring prior consent from the rural population in most of the country, although unlike in Sierra Leone, the government can still bypass local communities to allow mining activities to stand. In February, Ecuador’s highest court upheld a similar right, but it only applies to the country’s 14 recognized indigenous groups.
Two of Sierra Leone’s new laws, the Customary Land Rights and National Land Commission Acts, go the furthest, according to environmentalists, bridging a decade of struggles by local organizations against land grabs and pollution. A third law, passed Tuesday, strengthens community protections from mining activities.
The laws will apply to all of Sierra Leone’s provinces, but not to the capital Freetown and its suburbs, which have a different legal system. About 95 percent of the land is governed by customary law, with unwritten rules and oral traditions determining who may own, use or transfer land, often to the detriment of certain ethnic groups and women.
One of the laws will also end a colonial-era rule that prevents descendants of freed slaves from owning land outside Freetown.
mr. Namati’s legal expert, Conteh, said that until now, families could easily be robbed of their land, either because they had little proof of ownership or because companies would make deals with middlemen.
The new legislation in Sierra Leone transfers power from intermediaries, such as community leaders, to people who own or directly use the land.
It also states that women should have equal land rights, without interference and discrimination, a problem that has long plagued Sierra Leone.
Although women make up the majority of the country’s agricultural workforce, they often face barriers to owning land, according to Aisha Fofana Ibrahim, a professor of gender studies at the University of Sierra Leone. They are dependent on their spouse or male relatives and are at risk of losing access to land in the event of divorce or death, she said.
The new legislation creates committees charged with managing common lands and resolving land disputes, whose members will have to be at least 30 percent women. “The law is a huge victory for women,” said Dr. Fofana Ibrahim.
But Idrissa Tarawallie, a political science professor at the same university, said he was more ambivalent about the benefits of the legislation. One of the laws could empower communities when dealing with foreign companies, he said. But another, promising new processes to determine who owns land, could pit some Sierra Leoneans against each other.
“Land in Sierra Leone is tied to issues of tribe, ethnicity and origin,” said Dr. Tarawallie. “But after Ebola and Covid, it’s the new diamond,” he added. “Applying a liberal approach to land tenure without a thorough application of tradition and culture can lead to clashes.”
Some companies have also criticized the legislation. Gerben Haringsma, the country director for Sierra Leone at Socfin, a Luxembourg-based company that has grown palm oil in the country for a decade and has faced allegations of land grabbing, argued that the laws would make new large-scale investments in agriculture impossible.
Mr Haringsma said in an email that he was happy about legislation that makes it clear who owns the land in Sierra Leone. But he argued that with the Land Rights Act, too many community members should now be involved in investor decision-making processes.
“With this law, populations do not need to be protected, as large investors can no longer start large projects,” said Mr. Haringsma.
Ms Greene, the Ecuadorian consultant, said indigenous people and local communities around the world should have better information about projects that affect their livelihoods, as well as the right to veto.
And given the chance, they would veto that, she said, “Most communities will say no if they’re knowledgeable about all the environmental impacts.”