The mothers of Malen

Episode one of our new podcast series Palm Oil Frontiers visits Malen Chiefdom in Sierra Leone

Palm oil frontiers, episode 1:

The oil palm is native to West Africa, where it continues to play a vital role in food security and local economies. Palm oil is especially important for women in the region, many of whom earn a much-needed boost to their incomes by selling oil produced from their own fruit – money they use to raise their children. But in Malen Chiefdom in the southern part of Sierra Leone, the arrival of an industrial oil palm plantation has threatened all this. What impact is the plantation having on women in the area? And what needs to happen to improve the situation?

For more on what’s happening in Malen Chiefdom, read this article.

Named interviewees

Adama Sewa, Abdul Brima’s mother
Mamie Sannoh, landowner, Malen Chiefdom
Alphonso “Bernie” Gbanie, executive secretary, Human Rights Defenders Network
Mariatu Kambo, landowner, Malen Chiefdom
Kema Kpukumu, palm oil merchant, Pujehun
Aminata Finda Massaquoi, national coordinator, Women’s Network Against Rural Plantation Injustice (WONAPI)


Producer and host: Abdul Brima
Commissioning editor: Lizi Hesling
Sound design: Alyssa Moxley
Research: Kenny James Blango
Art work: Nahal Sheikh
Interview dubs: Tallulah Staple, Lizzie Frost, Krista Charles, Lizi Hesling
Thanks to: Jessica Aldred, Josie Phillips

Music credits

“Gullwing Sailor” by Blue Dot Sessions

“Headlights – Mountain Road” by Blue Dot Sessions

“Wisteria” by Blue Dot Sessions

“Heather” by Blue Dot Sessions

Transcript (excerpts)

Abdul Brima: This is my mother, Adama Sewa. She’s cooking up a traditional Sierra Leonean dish, cassava leaves with rice – one of my favourites. She’s telling me that one of the main ingredients in this dish is palm oil. And she’s remembering how we used to produce palm oil on our farm. That’s how she raised me and my younger brother. I just asked her why palm oil is so important. She said: “Without palm oil we cannot live, it’s what we use to do everything.”

Adama Sewa: When we processed the palm oil, we would put some in our own bottles and hide it from our husbands. When we sold it, we used the money to buy food and other items. When you’re breastfeeding, that’s how you get the kerosene you need for lamps at night. And that’s how you buy soap for your children.

Adama: During those days, we didn’t have enough money to buy rice. If we managed to get two cups of rice, that would have to feed five or six people. So we would put a lot of palm oil in our soup, so that when we ate a small amount of rice with water, we’d still feel satisfied.

Abdul: So palm oil is not just a cash crop. It is also important for food security in Sierra Leone, which is one of the poorest countries in the world. And in one of the poorest parts of this country – an area that was badly impacted by the 1991 to 2002 civil war – all this is under threat. Why? Also because of palm oil. This time not grown in the traditional way, but rather on an industrial-scale plantation.

To find out more, I’m heading to the location of this plantation in Malen Chiefdom, which is in the southern district of Pujehun.

As soon as you hit the chiefdom, the landscape changes. The farms and bushland I’m more used to seeing in this part of the country disappear, and in their stead, rows and rows of oil palms on either side. The palms belong to the Socfin Agricultural Company, a subsidiary of Luxembourg-based multinational [the Socfin Group]*.

Socfin arrived in Malen in 2011 after signing a 50-year land lease with the government of Sierra Leone and the local chiefdom authority. The deal handed more than 18,000 hectares of land to the company. That’s nearly 70% of the chiefdom’s total area. It also sparked over a decade of violence and division in Malen, with many community members saying they were not properly consulted or compensated.

What I have come to do is talk to the people who live here – especially the women – about the impact the plantation has had on their lives.

This is Mamie Sannoh from the village of Jumbu Malen, a small community on the main road leading to the town of Sahn. She has five children and five grandchildren to look after. She leased her land to Socfin in 2011, and says she received only a small amount of money in return.

I ask her if she regrets leasing her land to Socfin.

Mamie Sannoh: Yes, I regret it now. I regret it now. If I still had my land, I’d be able to grow a lot of things and survive, but now I can’t do that. How will I survive?

Abdul: Why would the government and the authorities in Malen agree to a land deal like this that makes it impossible for people to survive? In search of answers, when I got back to Freetown I turned to Alphonso “Bernie“ [Gbanie] of Sierra Leone’s Human Rights Defenders Network.

Alphonso Gbanie: Well, if you take a look from the development angle, you will see there is need for companies to come and invest, there is need for a new pattern in palm oil production.

While we appreciate the development initiative, that will also create job opportunities for communities, we are equally concerned that the job and the development initiative should not be at the detriment of the rights of the citizens.

Abdul: Not everyone in Malen agreed to lease their land to Socfin. But even those who didn’t are suffering. I saw this with my own eyes when I visited.

I was in the village of Jumbu Malen, and suddenly there was a big commotion. I saw a pickup [truck] carrying several fully armed security men, and the local people rushed to surround it. They were resisting the arrest of two men accused of stealing palm fruit from Socfin. The scene quickly degenerated into screaming and crying as the van pulled away carrying drums full of palm oil and the two men in handcuffs. I went to talk to the woman whose father was arrested.

She tells me that the fruit was from her father’s own plantation, and he harvested it and finished processing it yesterday. He needed to do it because the fruit was ripe, and otherwise it would have rotted on the palm.

She’s saying that someone called the police, accusing her father of using fruit from the Socfin plantation. And now the police have seized everything and taken him away, along with the young man who was helping him.

You can hear she is calling for justice. “They have taken away our land,“ she says. “They are treating us as if we aren’t human.”

Abdul: I was so shocked to find out this was happening in Malen. Why were people being arrested for processing their own palm oil?

Back in Freetown, Alphonso explained that one of the reasons is simply because Socfin has taken so much land in the chiefdom, locals are harvesting what they think is theirs, but it’s actually from company land.

Abdul: For Alphonso, the government is failing to protect its citizens. And, he says, Socfin is taking advantage of Sierra Leone’s weaknesses.

Alphonso: The government is behaving like someone that is almost drowning, because the economic situation is so desperate, and it’s degenerating. They don’t consider to look at the environmental impacts of that company, they’re not looking at the human rights impacts or the activities of this company. What they are focusing on is: “We have this company that is coming in, [and] this company is going to give 1,000 [jobs] to our youths.“ That is their focus.

What is going on in Malen is what we refer to as a “corporate capture”. The multinational corporation is now controlling the state, instead of the state controlling the company.

Aminata Finda Massaquoi: All these women knew was agriculture. That was the only thing that they had, or [that] they’ve been using to take care of their families. But since the company came, all of them have been thrown out of a job.

Abdul: This is Aminata Finda Massaquoi, the national coordinator for WONAPI, an organisation that works for women’s rights in rural Sierra Leone. She tells me that many of the problems women are facing in Malen Chiefdom stem back to the inequality that still exists in Sierra Leone’s land ownership system, despite the current efforts to change the law.

Aminata: You know our customary land rights that have been in operation for quite some time now have not been favourable for women. Even if your family has hectares of land, because of your gender or your sex, you are not entitled to these lands. Because of the traditional beliefs, the norms of the society and all of that. And when it also comes to land acquisition, when these companies come to the community, they engage men and exclude women in these discussions. But these women, they are also land users. So if you give away all this land to big companies, leaving them with nothing, and there are no alternatives being given to them, then you are being unjust to them.

Abdul: I asked Alphonso Gbanie [what he thinks needs to change to improve the situation]. He said it’s important that the land deal with Socfin is renegotiated – not just for the women, but for everyone in Malen.

Alphonso: The people still believe [that the land is theirs], because their land is their life. If the situation on the land is not addressed, no matter [how many] millions of dollars** they pour into that community, it will never be sustainable because the livelihood of those people has never been addressed.

Abdul: I’m back in the kitchen with my mum. She’s just served up the palm oil dish she’s been making. I’m asking her if we can start eating now. I know it’s going to taste very delicious – my mum is the best cook!

Adama: Today, I’ve cooked this dish in the old village way, and that’s what we will eat. When you were a boy, you’d eat the cassava leaves and get full, and then you and your friends would go and play. As long as you were full, you’d just be playing. I say thanks to God for palm oil. Without it we would not have come this far.

*The Socfin Group was approached for comment, but did not respond in time for publication.

**Alphonso is referring to a UN Development Programme and World Food Programme peacebuilding project worth US$3,000,000. The two-year project aimed to mitigate resource-based conflict in Malen and two other chiefdoms in Sierra Leone.

This podcast is part of our ongoing editorial series on palm oil. Explore all the articles here.

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