When Joseph Rahall speaks about oil plantations, you can hear the emotion in his voice and sense the fear he has for Sierra Leone.
He says of a once-pristine landscape: “You stand there, and all you can see is palm-trees for miles.”
In a country desperate for investment and jobs, the lure of the palm-oil money from large multi-nationals can be hard to resist. But Rahall fears the price to be paid is sovereignty.
Founder of Green Scenery (in 1989), an NGO partially funded by Irish Aid, he is driven by a desire to see fair treatment for landowners by the multinational palm oil companies. The group’s aim is to help local people look after their own interests, with minimal interference – they offer training and advice only.
He visited Dublin last year through the Sierra Leone Ireland Partnership and spoke of plantation-leases already occupying one-fifth of Sierra Leone’s land-mass – this in a coastal country smaller than Ireland.
And Rahall says there is an urgent need to question this, with many more companies eyeing up the lush greenlands of Sierra Leone. Its people endured a brutal civil war which raged for a decade until a peace accord in January 2002. Since then peace has brought rewards and but also financial challenges.
He says: “My fear is about the country’s security. Some of this land is being concentrated in the hands of few companies. Imagine if up to half to the country is gone in 50 to 100 years. As a government, what can you do then?
“If we want to build a road or an airport, what if the company won’t let us take back some of the land for free? Sovereignty - we need to think about this.”
Sitting in an old building in a quiet part of Freetown, he can see the hills from his window. Green and fertile, his worry is how long they will stay this way.
At one point, he leans back against the wall and says quietly: “I have been fighting for so long. I am over 50, it is still stirring me but I am getting old.” He laughs, and then turns again to the figures in his head.
The Chiefs are the key to everything in Sierra Leone, he says. Rahall explains both British law and the traditional laws run in parallel across the country. Between them, in theory the land is protected and can only be given away with the full consent of the community.
However, local media have reported incidents of bribery or other pressures being put on some chiefs. The result is 99-year or longer land-leases signed without the community even seeing the papers in some cases.
Challenging this, Rahall says education campaigns by Green Scenery and other local NGOs, are focusing on the long-term ramifications of deals like that.
For example, the companies promise employment but Rahall is scathing about the reality.
“They hire manual workers, maybe seasonally or on contract – they harvest the sugar-cane for three months, and they’re out. It’s the same for the oil-plantations.
“Most of the managers are expatriate staff. If you look at the wages, for 1,000 local labourers, you equal three or four expats,” he said.
The NGOs groups plan to create maps showing the plantations clearly, using GPS and GRS studies to gather data and show people the changes that are taking place in Sierra Leone. Rahall hopes that visuals will bring home the danger to land ownership.
Another challenge the community face - in a situation familiar to Irish people frustrated by the low taxes paid by multinationals – is the Sierra Leone government grants large tax concessions to the companies.
Rahall says: ‘They are given concessions not to pay tax, they don’t pay costs on dues. The policy of the Minister for Agriculture is that all agricultural equipment does not attract custom duties.’
One striking success - a government ban on cutting wood – is now being partially lifted to the dismay of activists.
“Small changes are taking place, but the rate at which the government wants to move could overtake this. It is a situation close to conflict – imagine your land is all you have, all you live on. I’m not sure people will just give it up,” says Rahall.
More from Niamh Griffin's trip to Sierra Leone:
‘Now people will be more careful when they are brutalizing our girls and our women’
Sierra Leone a good fit for Ireland
Diamond in the Rough project showcase (Mail on Sunday)
Diamond in the Rough documentary and interview with Minister Joe Costello and with Geraldine Horgan from the Sierra Leone Ireland Partership (podcast; Near FM, Monday, April 28, 2014).
Niamh Griffin travelled to Sierra Leone with support from the Simon Cumbers Media Fund. The fund was set up in memory of Irish journalist Simon Cumbers. In June 2004, at the age of 36, Cumbers was shot dead in Saudi Arabia while working with the BBC.