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Agricultural Potential and Land Tenure System in Sierra Leone

Agricultural Potential and Land Tenure System in Sierra Leone thumbnail

Developing agriculture in Sierra Leone, as well as Africa, has continued to gain increased vigour and currency. The reason for this is simple-that it has a vast stretch of land, large and running rivers that can be used for large scale irrigation and other related purposes, and of course the use of other potential resources relevant to the development of the sector.

It is also significant because the majority of its population who are farmers are using the sector as their key source of livelihood. Importantly also, it does not only help to provide food for the existence of the people of Sierra Leone but helps to meaningful boost the national economy.

Perhaps even more important is the hard reality that our population is not only increasing at an alarmingly exponential rate but the youths who used to provide the needed labour for Agricultural Production are daily moving away from farm settlements to urban centers for seemingly a better life. In addition, social catastrophes such as the long standing civil war warranted and ignited an influx of the farming population to our cities for refuge.

Because of the soaring population, the need to support and feed it makes agricultural production profitable and rewarding for farmers themselves as well as uses the vast agricultural potential as an engine for the socio-economic development agenda of Sierra Leone and the rest of Africa. But land, a key factor of production has apparently continued to become a thorny issue between rural land owners and large scale commercial framers including foreign investors. But what is the typology of the land tenure system in Sierra Leone and how was it partially influenced by our former colonial masters? Can these have any serious implications for moving away from unmonitored and subsistent agriculture to large scale commercial farming?

British colonial administration of Sierra Leone led to the division of country into Colony and Protectorate and the somewhat special interest in the former strongly influenced the typology of the freehold land tenure system in the Western Area of the country. This land tenure ship encapsulated in the Protectorate Land Ordinance Act of 1927 (cap122) allows individuals, groups and organizations to buy and own land. The law of Sierra Leone also makes provision for communal ownership and in particular belongs to families. It is strongly perceived as divine heritage and is believed that the spirits of the succeeding generations. And so Paramount Chiefs or traditional rulers of the various chiefdoms are not really land owners per se but merely custodians of such family property and of course administer it in line with existing customary usage and practice. But what are the implications of the two types of land tenure ship particularly is in abundance for large scale commercial farming in Sierra Leone?

Some people have strongly argued that for agriculture to truly develop in Sierra Leone it has to disengage from the strictly traditional family ownership and follow the freehold land ownership (such as the one practiced in the Western Area of Sierra Leone), a pattern of countries that have gainfully developed the sector in a way that it is not only making significant and positive impact on farmers but the economy also. The incentive of making land become a bonafide property of individuals and others has had to serve over the years as some driving force to unhesitatingly make some huge level of investments in developing agricultural lands in such countries.  Financial institutions have also often granted needed credit facilities to such land owners or farmers because the land can effectively serve as collateral and can also be easily sold to repay the credit offered in case of any default.

Thus, and despite several appeals from the government, we can see that in Sierra Leone and many other African countries the business community and other members of the private sector who have the resources to invest into and develop the sector are scaring away from doing so. Other commercial and similar banking institutions are also frightened from doing so because it is perceived as a very risky business. For and as explained earlier the land ownership is communal or belongs to families and cannot be sold. “Where and how do you get customers money in case there is a default more so when such financial schemes to Cooperative Societies have in the past woefully failed?” many have asked and reasoned this way. And it seems to many other individuals and groups, the concession of land lease for 55 years and more cannot be enough for such agricultural investments.

In fact, land tenureship arrangement in the provinces in Sierra Leone has also been in the limelight of severe criticism because in many places women have been denied the right to inherit and own land. But women have been seen taking the bulk of the load of household food security. And so merely putting them aside especially on land issues as one key factor of agricultural production does not only mean personal hardship for them and their households but is also a way of negating national food security and commercialization as well as bringing backward the economy. While the stance of proponents to dismantle communal land tenure system in Sierra Leone for a greater investment and commercialized agriculture cannot entirely be without merits, my next article will look at some developments in land ownership in respects of the cultivation of permanent tree crops by non land owners in the provinces. It will also examine some outcomes and impact of land lease to some commercial farmers in Sierra Leone Agricultural Research Institute (SLARI) and other partners in helping the government to formulate suitable policies to address the problem of land for commercial agricultural investment in the country.

Richard Bockarie, Snr. Sierra Leone

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