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.