Nelly Bassily | May 10, 2010
The villages of Bombali District, Sierra Leone, look like many communities across Africa. But there is one thing that seems out of place: suggestion boxes. The boxes have been placed by a Swiss company called Addax Bioenergy. The company is establishing a massive sugar plantation in Bombali. The suggestion boxes are meant to provide locals with a way to communicate their concerns.
But do locals know what to do with the suggestion boxes? Would a villager drop in a suggestion if she was concerned about the company’s fertilizer use? Or about when he would be paid his lease fee? One local woman scoffed at the boxes. She said they make no sense since the majority of locals cannot read or write.
On a global level, a debate is raging over large-scale land investments. Companies and governments are securing large tracts of land in Africa and other parts of the developing world. These deals are widely condemned as land grabs. But some high-level institutions, including the World Bank, insist that land deals can be “win-win.” That they can benefit both investors and local people.
Addax Bioenergy complied with World Bank standards when it set up shop in Sierra Leone. The company held consultations with locals for two years. They set aside lands deemed important for food security. They came up with a plan to pay locals for the lease of their land. And the biggest selling point: they promised thousands of jobs for local people.
Could this be a win-win deal? The government of Sierra Leone actively courted the investment. The president called it a “flagship” deal. He is trying to negotiate more land deals.
Local leaders added their support. They actively “sold” the idea to communities. Some of these leaders look forward to working for Addax Bioenergy.
A local chief talked about his job driving a tractor for the company. He’s happy earning 200,000 Leones per month (about 50 American dollars or 40 Euros). When asked if he was concerned about potential disruption to communities, he saw only positives. For example, locals will be able to charge their cell phones for free at the work site.
In another village called Kolisoko Ralako II, a reporter arranged a meeting with locals to discuss the land deal. “We are tired of meetings,” Ibrahim Bangura said. “Now we want money!” The company has agreed to pay 12 American dollars per year per hectare to lease land (about nine Euros). Locals also want their share of promised jobs.
On another level, farmer advocates question whether the local benefits of large-scale investment could ever be worth the cost. They raise concerns about Addax’s use of 100,000 hectares of land – much of which was traditionally used to grow food. They predict that intensive use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation will pollute the local environment. And all to produce ethanol for export to Europe.
“Almost nothing has been heard about the high price that Sierra Leone … will have to pay for welcoming such a huge so-called ‘agricultural investment,’” laments a writer for Sierra Express Media.
The real benefits and costs may not be known for years. In the meantime, Sierra Leone’s government hopes to sign land deals with three other large companies. While the land grab debate continues, so do the deals.