How safe foreign investments in Sierra Leone – President Bio must know this

Thomas Vandi Gbow: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 28 October 2018:

According to report, about 30 activists last Tuesday staged a protest in front of the ING Bank in Brussels, Belgium, carrying billboards reading: “Stop toxic investments”, “reclaim human rights” and “stop green washing”.

The activists, identified as part of a coalition of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) including Friends of the Earth Europe and FIAN, are accusing the ING Bank of investing in palm oil in several countries, which they claim threatens the environment and runs against a sustainable model of development. They also blame the bank’s sustainable investment campaign, which they say amounts to “green-washing”.

One of the projects targeted by the activists is the palm oil producing company – SOCFIN, which is active in Sierra Leone. The company is operating in the Sahn Malen Chiefdom in Pujehun District, Southern Sierra Leone.

A major problem successive governments in Sierra Leone have grappled with for many decades now, is how best to encourage, attract and win Direct Foreign Investments to establish industries, create employment, increase foreign exchange earnings and raise much needed government revenue to pay for healthcare and education.

Over forty-four million hectares of arable lands remain uncultivated, while the country continues to import staple food – rice, to the tune of over US$2 million annually.

Newly elected president Julius Maada Bio and his New Direction Government are quite rightly spending a lot of time and money globe-trotting to woo foreign investors to invest in various sectors of the economy – including agriculture, mining, tourism, and fishing.

But this task is being made all the harder for the president by a few overzealous environmental and human rights activists, who are instigating gullible people to rebel against genuine investors that have made long-term investments in the country – running into tens of millions of United States Dollars.

These companies are creating employment for poor communities in their areas of operations, improving living standards of local people.

So why the fuss about  Socfin Agricultural Company?

Socfin Agricultural Company had entered into a legal land agreement with the Government of Sierra Leone, the local authorities and the affected people in Sahn Malen Chiefdom whose Paramount Chief was also a Member of Parliament for Pujehun District.

But sadly, the Director of an environmental organization called Green Scenery – Joseph Rahall, the Independent Member of Parliament from Sahn Malen Chiefdom – Hon. Siaka Sama and others claiming to be fighting for the rights of the people, have declared  war against Socfin Agricultural Company, despite the company legally operating in the chiefdom, creating employment for locals and fulfilling its corporate social responsibility.

Since Socfin Agricultural Company has the largest oil mill in West Africa and wanted to upgrade its production from 30 tons per hour to 60 tons per hour, it went into a US$15 million loan agreement with ING Bank in Brussels, Belgium to help deliver the project in Sahn Malen, Sierra Leone.

The company and the bank agreed the loan deal. But no sooner the latter had approved the loan, the Director of Green Scenery, Joseph Rahall went to Brussels with a local resident – Margaret Fassia Vandy, whose land at Banalleh Village was not affected or impacted by the company, to block the loan deal.

Both antagonists of the company told ING Bank not to release the money to Socfin Agricultural Company to expand its investment in Sahn Malen.

The so-called Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) including MALOA, Earth Netherlands and Green Scenery were very specific about the activities of Socfin that involves palm oil in Sahn Malen Chiefdom.

They claim, among other things, that they support local communities in defending their rights, pointing out that the loans given by ING Bank to SocFin is hurting them because their lands have been taken away through land grabs.

The demonstrators called ING one of the “dirtiest banks in Europe,” saying that palm oil leads to deforestation, land grabbing and human rights violations and therefore urged ING Bank to stop financing palm oil.

An ING spokesman however wrote: “ING gives a lot of importance to the respect for human rights. As a general rule, when ING is made aware of problems, we engage in a dialogue with our clients in order to find a solution. We really believe in exerting influence via engagement and dialogue rather than through exclusion. Exclusion cancels all influence that we could have on this topic. And stopping this relationship will not guarantee any changes. Engagement allows us to advance together, which takes time. If there is no engagement or changes with some of our clients or sectors, we end the relationship,” she added.

Consequently, ING Bank reportedly cancelled the loan deal with Socfin Agricultural Company because of the unpatriotic behaviour of Joseph Rahall and Margaret Fassia Vandy, who claim to be protecting the rights of the landowners despite knowing that the operations of the company in Sahn Malen were endorsed by the Government of Sierra Leone, the local authorities of Pujehun District and the landowners of Sahn Malen Chiefdom.

Why is Joseph Rahall destroying the country’s economic progress by blocking a loan that would lead to the upgrading of the company’s production and exporting of palm oil?

If the US$15 million was released by the bank, it would have gone a long way to improving the company’s production capacity and export of palm oil that could generate much needed foreign exchange for the country.

Now that Joseph Rahall has succeeded in blocking the release of the bank loan, it means that Socfin Agricultural Company will definitely go insolvent.

The ramification now is that thousands of people employed by the company will lose their jobs.

If the Government of Sierra Leone who authorized the agricultural company to legally operate in Sahn Malen Chiefdom allows Joseph Rahall and other saboteurs to have their way, it will have itself to blame when hundreds of Sierra Leoneans would have lost their jobs amid the current economic hardship in the country.

How could foreign investors that are interested in investing in the agricultural sector do business in Sierra Leone, if the government is allowing so-called environmental and human rights activists to disrupt the operations of the few foreign investors in the agricultural sector?

How could foreign investors with whom the New Direction Government is currently discussing,  invest in the agricultural sector if the so-called environmental and human rights activists are allowed to defy agreements between the Government of Sierra Leone and foreign investors?

By and large, the Government of Sierra Leone would be held responsible should the operations of Socfin Agricultural Company fail in Sahn Malen because of the unpatriotic behavior of Joseph Rahall and others.

The company did not come into Sierra Leone and started its operations without entering into an agreement with the Government of Sierra Leone, the local authorities of Pujehun District, including the District Council, and stakeholders of Sahn Malen Chiefdom.

I believe that with the intervention of the Government of Sierra Leone, the bank loan that has been unpatriotically blocked by Joseph Rahall and his cronies after protesting in Brussels, would be released to Socfin Agricultural Company to upgrade its production, thereby creating more jobs for the local community, pay taxes and carry out its corporate social responsibility.

Sierra Leoneans are listening and watching to see how the Bio administration, which has made agriculture as one of its priorities, will handle the problem between the agricultural company and the so-called environmental and human rights activists claiming to be protecting the rights of affected landowners.

To emphasize the statement made by an ING Bank spokesman: “ING gives a lot of importance to the respect for human rights. As a general rule, when ING is made aware of problems, we engage in a dialogue with our clients in order to find a solution. We really believe in exerting influence via engagement and dialogue rather than through exclusion. Exclusion cancels all influence that we could have on this topic. And stopping this relationship will not guarantee any changes. Engagement allows us to advance together, which takes time. If there is no engagement or changes with some of our clients or sectors, we end the relationship.”

This therefore calls for the direct intervention of the Government of Sierra Leone to see how best it can engage the activists, ING Bank and Socfin Agricultural Company so that the interests of all parties would be satisfied, and Sierra Leone would certainly be the beneficiary.

It is also alleged that Green Scenery and Joseph Rahall are also trying to undermine natural habitat investments in the country.

President Julius Maada Bio in Kenema recently urged residents to pursue farming. He said that “Cocoa and Coffee are better than diamond,” President Bio asserted: “Therefore, stop the mining and do agriculture, we as government are committed to supporting you”.

This statement by President Bio is a clear manifestation that the New Direction will not allow misguided organizations such as Green Scenery and Joseph Rahall to openly sabotage the government, given the efforts of President Bio to woo investors to help reshape the economy.

4 Comments

  1. The Government of Sierra Leone entered into lease agreement with SOCFIN in 2011 for a period of 50 years with an option of 25 years renewal period and a clause to revisit the said lease after every seven years.

    The problem is entirely the question of personality conflict between the Paramount Chief who is the chief custodian of the land according to law and the Hon member of Parliament who is aided and abetted by Joe Rahall of Green Scenery.

    This problem started way back in 2007 during the electioneering period when the Hon was contesting for PMDC whilst the Chief was supporting SLPP. The New Direction in trying to close the gap, must endeavour to look beyond SOCFIN and come up with a lasting solution.

    The question of Joe Rahall trying at all cost to stall foreign direct investment is unpatriotic. Yes there must be problems but these cannot stop investments. The role of both Hon and Joe Rahall is to help Government to proffer solutions taking into consideration the people and the investors views but not inciting people to take up arms, vandalise and steal company property. This is just my take.

  2. I think they should have leased the land and not bought it outright. That should be the plan moving forward. Learn from Zimbabwe, South Africa and the others. Lease the land, pay some money upfront and pay the rest quarterly or biannually.

    The owners may choose to borrow against a steady stream of income. Better still, use the land as a % of ownership in the company – the land owners get paid through the profits of the company.

  3. I am an environmentalist and cares passionately about the environment, but I also believe that the author of this story has the right to put the case of the company into the public domain.

    Sustainable development is about ensuring that industrial and economic development activities are sympathetic to the environment, and that both coexist harmoniously. It is difficult to achieve, but government must try to ensure that sustainability is put at the heart of its strategy.

    Hence, it is the duty of the government of Sierra Leone to ensure that any foreign investment in agriculture abides by the country’s environmental protection regulation, after conducting an environmental impact assessment of the company’s proposed project.

    If any local resident is disputing the land acquisition deal entered into by the company and the authorities and community heads, then this matter must be heard by the country’s Ombudsman or a court of law. Lobbying a Bank to stop providing finance for a business that has been approved by the government is not the solution. It will only hurt the country and its people.

    Countries like Sierra Leone cannot do without foreign investments. But there must be a balance between environmental protection and economic development activity. Both must be pursued in harmony so that risk to losing jobs and government revenue are minimised.

    I absolutely agree with the author that the government must urgently look into this matter to ensure that all sides are fairly heard. Sierra Leone cannot afford to chase away foreign investors, especially at this very difficult phase in the country’s economic cycle.

    This is a good story and I hope the people fighting against Socfin will publish a response, so we can get the views of all sides, even the government.

  4. A very one-sided report. There is a big protest against the behavior of this company not only in Sierra Leone for years. So, these people who protest and demonstrate are all unpatriotic?

    The call to engage and invest more in agriculture and the countryside is absolutely right, to reduce the imports of food. But, why has this always to be with big foreign companies?

    I believe with more support from the government and organized as cooperatives, the people of sierra leone can afford themselves.

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