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An aerial view of a village surrounded by rainforest
Jao, Sierra Leone

Socfin and the Palm Oil Business: How Industrial Plantations are Costing West Africa’s Farmers Their Livelihoods

It was a windy afternoon with the radiant sun shining through branches of trees hovering over one of the few remaining communities in the Malen chiefdom in southern Sierra Leone that still boasts of untouched farmlands. The small farming community of Jao, to the northeast of Socfin Agricultural Company’s palm plantation, sits plainly on a small hill overlooking a vast area.

Aerial view of a town
Jao is one of the few communities in the Malen chiefdom that still boasts of some remaining bushland for farming / Credit: Saidu Bah for China Dialogue.

Somewhere in the middle of this bushland is Bockarie Landa’s own small oil palm plantation. Landa has a wife and five children and palm oil is what they process to earn a living. On a busy afternoon, Landa navigates his way delicately through the thick bush with a bunch of palm fruit strapped to a machete. Though it was not easy, Landa and most of the people here refused to lease their land to Socfin in 2011. The chiefdom council, headed by the paramount chief Victor Kebbie, the main force behind the land deal, made it almost impossible for locals to resist leasing their lands. But Landa and others got the support of the Malen Affected Landowners Association, MALOA, whose members themselves have suffered repeated persecution including jail terms.

A man holds a palm plant in his arms
Bockarie Landa harvests his small palm oil plantation, but since Socfin came to his village, he now processes palm oil in hiding / Credit: Saidu Bah for China Dialogue.

MALOA has led the charge in the fight against what its members describe as plantation injustice, organizing peaceful protests and attracting local and international attention. 

The land conflict

Sahn Town buildings
Sahn town, the chiefdom headquarters of Malen chiefdom. This place used to brim with all sorts of agricultural produce, but the arrival of SAC has changed everything / Credit: Saidu Bah for China Dialogue.

Locals have criticized the land deal since its inception. Aggrieved landowners described the deal as lacking in transparency and informed consent and that the compensation on offer for their land was a pittance. As a result, Malen chiefdom has been the epicenter of a decade long land conflict since 2011 when Socfin Agricultural Company (SAC), a subsidiary of agro-industrial multinational the Socfin Group — arrived in the chiefdom after securing a 50-year land lease agreement with the government of Sierra Leone and the local authorities.

People walk along a road in between palm plantations
A busy highway separated by SAC’s plantation that stretches as far as the eyes can see. With little or no farmland left, young men now take to motor bike riding for a living / Credit: Saidu Bah for China Dialogue.

In the original lease agreement, SAC secured 16,248.54 acres (nearly 6,576 hectares). But, additional agreements over the years have seen a substantial increase of the company’s concession with its plantation covering nearly 70% (just over 18,000 hectares (ha)), of the chiefdom’s total area of 27,000 ha. The past eleven years have seen the landscape of Malen chiefdom transformed — gone are the once thick farm bushes that were typical of this region, replaced by thousands of hectares of monoculture oil palms.

Palm trees in a plantation stretch as far as the eye can see
Over 70% of the Malen chiefdom have been transformed into palm oil plantation and the company continues to clear the natural vegetation to make way for expansion of their plantation / Credit: Saidu Bah for China Dialogue.

To this day, the exact number of households or individuals affected by SAC’s plantation remains unclear, but what is certain is the real impact the company’s arrival has had on the local palm oil economy and the people who drive it. 

A woman processes palm oil in the rainforest
Landa’s elder sister processing palm oil. She used to process a lot of oil, which gave her enough money to survive. But things have changed since SAC came, and now she processes the oil in hiding and makes far less than before / Credit: Saidu Bah for China Dialogue.
a young plantation worker faces the camera
A Socfin worker just finished harvesting palm fruits. He hopes to make some money from the job to look after his family.
What were once vast stretches of forests and natural vegetation in Malen Chiefdom, Socfin has transformed into thousands of acres of monoculture palm oil plantation with attendant threats to livelihoods and biodiversity for the locals / Credit: Saidu Bah for China Dialogue.

In 2019, the Belgian organization, FIAN, described how the people of Malen grew a variety of nutritious foods and even left land unfarmed to regain its fertility. But all this is no more and the loss of farmlands has dealt a heavy blow to food security in the region, FIAN adds. 

What were once vast stretches of forests and natural vegetation in Malen Chiefdom, Socfin has transformed into thousands of acres of monoculture palm oil plantation with attendant threats to livelihoods and biodiversity for the locals. 

This is why Landa, from Jao village, is disappointed that “to this day the government has not listened to our cries and has instead prioritized the company’s investments at the expense of its people.” 

In January 2019, fatal violence broke out that resulted in the deaths of two men from alleged gunshot wounds. Local and international human rights organizations have since condemned the incident, describing it as a deliberate attempt to intimidate and suppress dissent. 

To men stand staring at some houses
To this day, the villagers still live in fear after seeing people killed and some jailed, while affected families still wait for justice / Credit: Saidu Bah for China Dialogue.

Not all leased their lands

In the face of unrelenting pressure from the government and the chiefdom authorities, people like Landa still managed to keep his land, but this came at a cost. He and others who resisted leasing their lands now face a different battle. They complain of not being allowed to process their small palm oil plantations. Those who manage to are subjected to harassment and accused of stealing palm fruits from SAC. “If we are caught transporting oil, we are arrested and forced to pay hefty fines or risk being thrown into prison,” he says. 

A man crouches next to palm fruit
Although Landa and his children work their own small plantation, they have to do so in hiding and smuggle the processed oil in small wooden boats across rivers to the market, otherwise, they’ll be arrested and fined hefty sums / Credit: Saidu Bah for China Dialogue.

With nowhere to channel their grievances, Landa and many others have resorted to smuggling palm oil in jerry cans across rivers to market centers.

“We will have to find a way to make them listen to us, but it is not easy for us right now. If I do not smuggle my oil to the market, my family will starve,” he says.

A person pours processed palm oil from a bowl
Bockarie Landa lives with his wife and five children. He has just finished processing palm oil, but plans to smuggle it across a river to sell in the market. If he is caught, he will be arrested by company workers and jailed, if he fails to pay hefty fines. Credit: Saidu Bah for China Dialogue.

Women bear the cost

Before the industrial plantation, palm oil was produced locally by smallholders using traditional methods with women providing most of the labor. This meant that households had enough to eat, sell and to reserve. Women, in particular, have traditionally gained a great deal of social prestige from producing palm oil, since it is they who drive the local economy. 

Women carry clothes along the road
Women are the main movers and drivers of the traditional palm oil economy across Sierra Leone, but the arrival of SAC has made life more difficultdisrupting cashflows and threatening food security / Credit: Saidu Bah for China Dialogue.

But their struggle began in 2015 when SAC established its oil processing mill in the Malen area, which is expected to produce over 45,000 metric tons of crude palm oil this year, according to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. Things have changed since then. 

The deficit of what in Sierra Leone is an essential part of daily diet is undoubtedly apparent in its high cost. A pint of palm oil has more than tripled in just over a decade; sold now at 6,000 Leones ($USD 0.48) in local markets. 

Women who relied on palm oil as a main source of income can no longer process enough to eat or sell, which means that those without alternatives struggle to afford enough food, pay medical bills and school fees. 

A woman carries a bucket on her head
Women now have to find alternative means of livelihoods since they can no longer process palm oil or make farms. This woman now has to fish to feed her children, but even that is not easy / Credit: Saidu Bah for China Dialogue.

Hawa Koroma, a widow in her early sixties, has suffered traumatic experiences since she reluctantly leased her land to SAC in 2012. “I could have lost both the land and the small money on offer if I had resisted signing the deal. I had no choice,” she said. 

A woman sits at a table outside a house
Hawa Koroma lives in regret every day for having leased her land to SAC. With no farm to work on, Koroma now sells biscuits, batteries, cigarettes, etc. to make ends meet / Credit: Saidu Bah for China Dialogue.

Koroma received US $200, which is now equivalent to 2,644,000 (two million six hundred and forty four thousand Leones), for her property. Landowning families in Malen chiefdom were paid a one-off compensation of 1 million Leone (around USD$100) per acre of land by SAC, according to Mongabay. But for a global company that reported a pre-tax profit of 60.5 million euros in 2020, one wonders how the price was decided. 
Many people like Koroma now stare in the face of abject poverty as they lost a priced asset that many in her community equate to life itself–palm oil. When she had her land, Koroma could plant different types of crops and processed enough palm oil to sell, which guaranteed her a steady flow of income. Because she no longer has land to farm, she currently runs a makeshift stall in her veranda selling cigarettes and other small food items to cater for her family.

A building emits pollutants
SAC’s Mill on the main road leading to Kortumahun Village puffs huge smoke in the air. Locals say that waste from the mill pollutes their rivers, killing crops and fish. Credit: Saidu Bah for China Dialogue.

The environmental cost

Beyond the loss of farmlands, SAC’s presence in the area also has implications for the environment and forests that once provided bushmeat, fuel and herbal medicines. But more pronounced on the ground and less reported in the media is pollution and the implications it has for the people. The agrochemicals used on the palms to keep them productive, are considered the main pollutant plus waste from the mill directed through pipes and ponds into swaps and rivers.

In the interest of environmental safety, both the company’s Environmental, Social and Health Impact Assessment — a necessary precursor to obtaining an environmental license to operate from the government of Sierra Leone — and the RSPO’s Principles & Criteria emphasis the need for buffer zones or greenbelts around the company’s plantations. 

The buffer zones were meant to serve as protection of watersheds and for the conservation of climate balances, biodiversity and ecosystem functions. But SAC’s failure to adhere to these safety precautions, is having an effect on rivers and the environment generally. 

A polluted swamp
The edge of a swamp polluted with waste from one of SAC’s pipes. Locals have complained that this kills the rice in their swamp, but no one is paying attention. Credit: Saidu Bah for China Dialogue.

A resident of Massao village, 1.5km from SAC’s mill on the banks of the river Malen, Salia Lebbie, describes how their river is being polluted and “there are times we see dead fish floating and the water changes color to brown,” he says. Lebbie accuses the company of polluting the river by releasing wastes from the mill, through ponds and pipes emptying directly into rivers and swamps. 

SAC certified as sustainable, only for a while

An office with people standing outside
Socfin’s administrative office in Sahn Malen Town. Most of the decisions made here have had a telling impact of lives of the locals, but the aggrieved community members have nowhere to complain / Credit: Saidu Bah for China Dialogue.

Despite all the controversies besieging its investments in Sierra Leone, last year, SAC was accredited with an initial certification by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, the RSPO. The certification means that SAC carries the guarantee that its production meets the accrediting body’s Principles & Criteria — a wide-ranging set of standards that serve as a benchmark for measuring sustainability within the palm oil industry. 

The RSPO certification now means that SAC’s plantation in Malen has some element of permanence about its existence. Currently, the company already employs over 3000 people and all parties to the land conflict in Malen seem to be in agreement about SAC staying. 

Even a leaked government’s 2019 report clearly states that all the parties agree “the company should continue with its operations” but people want to see this happen in an inclusive, respectful, trustworthy and mutually beneficial atmosphere.  

People sit in discussion in a room
A monthly microcredit meeting being held in one of the community centers built by SAC. Since there are less income generating activities after losing their lands, some communities have embarked on a monthly microcredit scheme as a self-help project / Credit: Saidu Bah for China Dialogue.

Note: All efforts to get the company to reply to some of the allegations went unanswered. 

This story was produced with support from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network and China Dialogue. It was published by Mano Reporters on 28 July 2022; a version of it was first published on 8 July 2022 in China Dialogue. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Banner image: Jao is one of the few communities in the Malen chiefdom that still boasts of some remaining bushland for farming / Credit: Saidu Bah for China Dialogue.