Interview with Christiana Ellie, M&E officer in Land for Life Initiative
1) Can you tell us a bit more about the Land for Life Consortium- Sierra Leone?
Land for Life initiative Sierra Leone, is an endeavour of five legally established civil society organizations that are working together as a consortium to roll out the initiative in five districts of the country. These organizations have their own specific objectives around land governance. The lead consortium partner is the Network Movement for Justice and Development and they are implementing in Kenema district. The other partners are SiLNoRF(Sierra Leone Network on the Right to Food) they are implementing in Tonkolili District, UPHR (United for the Protection of Human Right) they are implementing in Port Loko District, PICOT (Partners Initiative for Conflict Transformation) they implement in Pujehun District and CEPA (Community Empowerment for Poverty Alleviation) they are implementing in Kailahun District.
Each of these organizations is responsible for activities in their respective districts. And in each of these districts, we work in ten communities each per district, making it a total of 50 communities in 15 chiefdoms of the country.
In four of our districts, we have agricultural based investment companies, whilst the remaining one district is a mining based investment company. The LfL initiative uses the dialogic change model, as we do advocacy, we educate people on rights especially that of their lands and how to make great use of these rights. Many at times when it comes to land issues there have been and there are always confrontations or issues between communities, companies, families and local authorities. We make sure we engage all these categories of people in our work as we want to bring them to the table to have an agreed way of working through the Multi-Stakeholder Platform (MSP)
2) What are some of the most pressing land related issues in Sierra Leone at the moment?
It is evident that women are been more marginalized in any crisis and taking away land from the rural woman is something I consider a crisis. Women make use of the lands more than the men do, they fetch firewood from the lands, fetch water from the lands, plant crops on the land and when they harvest they sell those crops which tell us that’s where their livelihood comes from before now, when we just started with the initiative in most of the communities we see mostly that women are not part of discussions regarding land matters. With sensitization, we make them know that women have the same rights as men do. For example, if you are married to a man, as a woman you don’t have any rights to the land/s of your husband’s family nor do you have any in your father's place. Investment companies when they came in, women were excluded from the land deals discussion.
The most interesting one, some parts of the family members are not included in these agreements. Sometimes it is the chief who is the custodian of the law, and one or two members, which is bringing conflict in terms of land deals. The companies also make promises that they do not fulfil or comply with, like building schools, roads, employment etc. The communities are excited when they hear these promises and they give out their lands and when their expectations are not met it tends to create conflict. They will employ very few of the indigenes and stakeholders and they leave out the majority of the people.
In Port-Loko District, an investment company took huge amounts of land from the people. They left the land in a shape that the communities would have difficulty making use of the land. There is a huge loss of livelihood and support. They don’t have the means and ways to take care of their families. Now that the investment companies are here and have taken our lands we can’t even make use of our land because they don’t allow it and there is no way for us to make a living.
There are laws and policies but they tend to be very weak. A lot of work has been happening around policy reforms which CSO organisations have been playing a part to. Quite recently the government of Sierra Leone has been seriously engaged in the process of legislating two draft bills (1) The Customary Land Rights Bills and (2) The National Lands Commission Bill in this process the Land for Life initiative played an integral role by doing consultations on the two draft bills in our five operational districts to ensure community voices are heard and are also part of the process. This we did as an initiative and came out with a Policy brief. The government on the other hand did consultations at regional level across the country and were planning to have a National land Conference which Land for life was a part of but that event has been stalled because of the Covid-19. One of the key legislative reforms is that of taking the custodianship title from the chiefs which over the past years have brought so much conflicts with regards land deals as they use the custodianship as been the sole decision makers of lands and properties in their communities. This policy would transfer the power over from the chiefs to the land owners and users themselves. The people are supporting this reform.
The work that CSOs are doing in regional awareness has changed perceptions about this. “We make them know about their rights and that they have a responsibility towards their rights.” There has been a lot of awareness compared to yester years when women do not have a right to sit nor talk where men are discussing issues relating to lands. We now see women standing up and making movements for their lands, sisters asking their brothers for their own portion of lands when before it was only the male children that have rights and access to their fathers properties. We have testimonies of a woman who openly challenged the chief on her fathers land when she was asked to keep quiet and not to talk when it comes to land matters, i cannot be left behind nor asked to keep quiet my father is an old man and i have every right to talk when it comes to our land issues it is my right to be part of whatever decision that is going to take place in this regard. This was seen as an insult by the elders and chief so she was taken to the local court but at the end of the day, this specific woman was exonerated. This is changing in our communities, men do call their wives to discuss land issues. They are now involved in meetings, they are taking the lead on land issues and it is gradually changing.
3) If you can tell us a bit more about the Conference you were organizing?
There was a time when the government decided to pass some draft bills into law. They wanted to turn them into law and make some new reforms, because of all of these land issues. The consultation was to get the views of the people, from LFL point of view they weren’t consulting enough people. It was only at regional level, and it is only about one quarter of the population’s views. We decided that we have community and district views on land governance and they need to be heard. We complemented the government efforts by going into the 5 districts we work in, and we had a consultation with them on this from which we produced a policy brief. The rationale was to use the policy brief as our constructive way of communicating the communities views and concerns to the government.
It is out of this consultation we did, we wanted to have a land conference on our own, but because the government was about to have a second conference on land nation-wide, they wanted us to put our efforts together. Unfortunately, Covid-19 stalled everything because of the restrictions. There is a whole national shift to the fight against covid-19.
4) How is Covid-19 impacting land rights in Sierra Leone?
Individually it has been affecting the lives of people and with its impact on land rights it has been enormous
On our work, Multi Actor Partnership engagement on Land right issues have been suspended.
Most land based investors have halted their operations and even redundant some of their staff.
There has been suspension of surface rent
Evidence of delay of sub-national payment of benefits to communities
Increase of food crisis
We know that at a time like this, we should keep ourselves, families, colleagues and the people we work with safe. We supported our operational districts with hand washing materials sensitization jingles and IEC materials on the signs, symptoms and preventive measures on Covid. This was done in our five operational districts, with 50 communities in 15 chiefdoms of the country.
5) Can you elaborate on the need for a virtual space where exposure can be provided to land related issues in Sierra Leone?
Virtual spaces present important dimensions that can be used to identify information and organisations. This space is very relevant for us as we have the opportunity to showcase our work and it also provides networking with other relevant stakeholders and organisations. It increases our visibility and gives the possibilities of expansion through other donor interests. It also gives us the opportunity to exchange and source information.
6) Can you tell us a bit more about your future work with the Land Portal?
Land Portal allows us to publicize our work, to raise awareness of the key land issues in Sierra Leone to people on this global platform. It’s also important for networking and collaboration. With the space provided by Land Portal, we can showcase what we do and we hope this will also help us establish more relationships with donors. A lot of people ask us to extend our work to their communities, but at the moment we don’t have the resources or the capacity to do so. For this, we need more funding and build these networks with donors and other partners.