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Palm oil profits trump self-sufficiency in Sierra Leone

Victoria Schneider
September 28, 2016

When a multi national palm oil company expanded into Sierra Leone, rainforests were leveled and local livelihoods disappeared. Some say that this is the price of development while others want their land back.

Sierra Leone Reportage Palmölplantagen
Image: Maja Hitij

Crespo is not from Sahn Malen but he knows that everything is different there. He only occasionally brings people there on his motorbike taxi and what he sees there alarms him.

"People say that even our elders want to give the land away," said Crespo as we headed out of the town of Pujehun. "They also say that the company has also offered to buy our lands as well. But then we would be suffering just like the people from Sahn Malen."

Crespo waits for customers everyday in the town of Pujehun, the largest in the region. It is located about 30 minutes from Sahn Malen. The road is dotted with oil palm plantations and swamps in a wild medley of green. 

Before long though you reach a gate manned by policemen and private security guards. Beyond the gates, oil palm plantations dominate the landscape with their low, uniform shape for as far as the eye can see.

"All of this land was taken by the company," said Crespo, "all of it."

A new "super-oil"

The company Creaspo is referring to is Socfin, which is registered in Switzerland but has its headquarters in Belgium. Over the past four years, the company has planted 12,432 hectacre (30,720 acres) of oil palms in Sierra Leone. The company came to Sahn Malen in 2012 and leased swaths of land. It planted oil palms and built an ultra-modern processing plant.

Sierra Leone Reportage Palmölplantagen
Socfin workers with some of the bottles of palm oil they produced in Sahn MalenImage: Maja Hitij

Palm oil is the planet's new "super oil." According to the World Wildlife Federation (WWF), palm oil is present in about half of all products in supermarkets in Germany. It's in cakes, margarine, make-up and ice cream. It is also used as a bio diesel in the European Union (EU). The global consumption of palm oil is growing and is forecasted to continue to grow.  The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) predicts that consumption will double by 2050. The oil is versatile and is cheaper to produce than other plant oils such as canola or sunflower. So it is not surprising that investment in palm oil is climbing.

However the oil is controversial. Some say that is could be a potent tool against global poverty especially in countries where it is already a staple food and where increases in yield could benefit many of these emerging markets.

Others say that the spread of palm oil plantations is a threat to rainforests and the indigenous people who live there. Greenpeace has been warning for years against the clear cutting of rainforests in Malaysia and Indonesia to make way for palm oil. More recently they have expanded their warnings to Africa.

Socfin's most recent project is in Sierra Leone. The country possesses massive amounts of land where oil palm production could thrive and a government that is willing to hand over this land to investors for not that much money.

Opposition steamrolled

"Welcome to my garden," said Fascias, a woman whose firm voice and resolute stare makes up for her small stature. Her land is located in Kasseh, a village in Sahn Malen. It is like an island of green surrounded by a sea of oil palms.

Before Socfin arrived, farmers used to grow palm oil but also cocoa, cassava, potatoes, pineapples, beans and rice. Most were able to provide for their daily needs with their own harvests. But these times have passed since the local chief sided with the newcomers.

Sierra Leone Reportage Palmölplantagen
Fascia is one of a few residents who refused to give up their ancestral land for palm oil productionImage: Maja Hitij

"The chief pressured us to sell our lands," said Fascia. "We did not have a choice. Even if we said no, he still handed it over."

When the bulldozers came, Fascia stood in front of her house and was able to save this small plot of fertile land that helped feed her family and send her children to school. She is the only one in the whole village who did so.

The manager of the palm oil plant, Philip Tonks, said that there are no more problems with the local community. He went on to describe rice and reforestation projects that the company has started. Areas where seedlings were once bred before being replanted are now being stocked with trees in accordance with international best practices.

"We have built roads. There is a new health center and we are building a college," said Tonks.the company employs 4,000 workers including 1,800 full time. He claims that life is now better than the "very primitive" living conditions in the area before the company arrived.

Illusion of calm

For Mattia Limbe, there is another reason why the people are quiet. "My people are scared," he said.

Limbe and Fascia have been fighting against the expansion of the plantations for years and for adequate compensation for land owners. Both are founders of the Malen Land Owners Association (MALOA) which formed after protest against Socfin in 2012.

Sierra Leone Reportage Palmölplantagen
A worker called a "climber" harvests the oil of a palm treeImage: Maja Hitij

"The chief would not tolerate any opposition," said Mattia. Many people are scared of being arrested so they meet in secret. Mattia has already been arrested numerous times. Earlier this year Mattia and 12 other protesters were convicted of disturbing the peace and had to spend many days behind bars.

Luc Boedt, the head of the Socfin Group, refuses to listen to criticism. Instead he promises to feed all of Africa by 2020. In fact in many West African countries there is a shortage of palm oil. Companies like Socfin sell most of their products to the local markets and very little oil is exported.

The palm oil boom is just beginning in the region. According to the company, the infrastructure in place in Sahn Malen could handle double the present output.