In August 2022, Sierra Leone enacted land laws that empowered local communities to protect their lands against industrial development and negotiate their value. They include: the Customary Land Rights Act, which grants land owning and land using communities the right to Free Prior Informed Consent (FPIC) over all industrial projects on their lands; and
The National Land Commission Act, which establishes local land use committees to secure effective and holistic land administration, and mandates that those committees have at least 30 percent female representation.
While Sierra Leone is rich in natural resources, with exports accounting for USD 400 million in 2020, the country remains highly unequal: the income share of the richest one percent increased by more than 40 percent between 2011 to 2018, while the income share of the bottom 50 percent declined by more than 5 percent in the same period.1 By 2018, 57 percent of the population lived on less than USD 1.90 a day.2 At least 20 percent of arable land was leased to foreign businesses for mining, large-scale agriculture, and other development ventures and the surrounding populations saw little of the profits. Local communities reported their exclusion from negotiations on investments on their land, and were not receiving the promised share or payment from the resulting profits.3 In addition, communities denounced the detrimental impacts of these intensive investments on the environment, including deforestation, landslides, and soil erosion.4
The two laws passed unanimously by Sierra Leone’s Parliament in August 2022, the Customary Land Rights and the National Lands Commission Acts, confers rights to local communities, previously left out of negotiations. They are now entitled to have a say in whether investments can be made on their land and are able to negotiate their value. Additionally, in ecologically sensitive areas and old-growth forests, industrial development (including mining, timber, and agri-business) have been banned. The laws also turn commitments or conditions to which investors have agreed into legally binding agreements between communities and companies.
Local land use committees (comprising 30 percent of women) are to be established to make decisions on how community lands are managed. The gender quota aims to redress how women are often excluded from accessing and controlling land. Land access and ownership is crucial for women’s financial independence, the ability to make household decisions, and provide income security, especially during a crisis.5
The Customary Land Rights Act stipulates that citizens should not be refused the right to own or use land based on their gender, tribe, religion, age, marital status, social status, or economic status. This puts an end to a colonial-era law, which barred descendants of freed slaves from owning land outside the capital.6 Women are also now able to exercise the same economic rights as everyone else.
The laws were enacted on August 8th, 2022, following years of advocacy, mobilization and organization at the community level. Namati, a grassroots legal empowerment organization, had been working with local communities in Sierra Leone, to inform them on land laws and on their rights (this is referred to as the legal empowerment approach).7 Men and women, landowners, and land users organized themselves and provided inputs during regional consultations. They also wrote to the President of Sierra Leone to ask that the laws be sent to Parliament. This type of advocacy, accompanied by local communities shaping legislation finally led to the passing and adoption of the laws.8 The women involved ensured fairer and greater representation and fought for land rights for both men and women.
The author was unable to find information about enforcement of the policy.
The author was unable to find information about the cost of the policy.
Due to the recent nature of these laws, impact evaluations have not yet been conducted, however, these laws have been praised by organizations working on land rights and climate justice.9 The country has been commended in local and international media for enacting these laws, and other governments have been encouraged to follow Sierra Leone’s lead.10 The new laws provide protective rights to all landowning and land-using communities, including guaranteed Free Prior and Informed Consent. Sonkita Conteh, director of Namati Sierra Leone, makes it clear that there is not a legal regime anywhere that guarantees such strong rights to communities facing harm. Similar laws around the world have only offered limited rights to Indigenous communities,11 and often allowed governments to circumvent local communities to allow investments.
The drafting and enactment of these two laws are a result of a successful legal empowerment approach, one that mobilized civil society and local communities, including women, to shape the law and ensure the inclusion of those at risk of being marginalized.
Photo Credit: Madame Fatu Kanu, farmer,” by kenny lynch, licensed via CC-BY-SA 2.0
- 1. Institute for Governance, “The Commitment to Reduce Inequality: Sierra Leone at the Crossroads,” 2021. http://igrsl.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/Inequality-Report-Sierra-Leone-27.02.21.pdf.
- 2. Press Release, “Sierra Leone Has Opportunity to Increase Growth but Faces Challenges in Improving Citizens’ Welfare,” World Bank, December 15, 2022, https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2022/12/15/sierra-leone-has-opportunity-to-increase-growth-but-faces-challenges-in-improving-citizens-welfare.
- 3. Nick Roll, “Whose Land Is It, Anyway? Sierra Leone Gives Locals a Voice,” The Christian Science Monitor, November 8, 2022. https://www.csmonitor.com/World/Africa/2022/1108/Whose-land-is-it-anyway-Sierra-Leone-gives-locals-a-voice.
- 4. Ibid.
- 5. UN Women – Asia-Pacific, “Women’s Land & Property Rights,” n.d. https://asiapacific.unwomen.org/en/focus-areas/women-poverty-economics/women-s-land-property-rights.
- 6. “The Customary Land Rights Act,” Namati, September 23, 2022, https://namati.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/11/THE-CUSTOMARY-LAND-RIGHTS-ACT-2022.pdf; “Descendants of Freed Slaves Get Land Justice in Sierra Leone, New Law Guarantees,” Politico SL,” n.d. https://www.politicosl.com/articles/descendants-freed-slaves-get-land-justice-sierra-leone-new-law-guarantees.
- 7. Aimee Seligstein, “Fund 101: What Is Legal Empowerment?” The Fund for Global Human Rights, March 17, 2022, https://globalhumanrights.org/commentary/fund-101-what-is-legal-empowerment/#:~:text=Legal%20empowerment%20is%20a%20key,law%20back%20into%20people's%20hands.
- 8. “The New Customary Land Rights Act in Sierra Leone: Bringing Informed Community Consent to Responsible Investment,” February 8, 2023, https://data.landportal.info/event/2022/10/new-customary-land-rights-act-sierra-leone-bringing-informed-community-consent.
- 9. Press Release, “Sierra Leone Enacts Unprecedented Laws Related to Land, Climate, and Sustainable Development.” Namati, September 8, 2022, https://namati.org/news-stories/sierra-leone-enacts-unprecedented-laws-related-to-land-climate-sustainable-development/.
- 10. Elian Peltier, “New Laws in Sierra Leone Reshape Environmental Battleground,” The New York Times, August 9, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/08/09/world/africa/sierra-leone-land-environment.html; Abdul Rashid Thomas, “Sierra Leone Now Has New Land Rights Law to Promote Gender and Tribal Equality and Social Justice.” Sierra Leone Telegraph, August 8, 2022, https://www.thesierraleonetelegraph.com/sierra-leone-now-has-new-land-rights-law-to-promote-gender-and-tribal-equality-and-social-justice; Umaru Fofana, “Sierra Leone Passes New Laws to Boost Landowners’ Rights,” Reuters, August 8, 2022, < a href="https://www.reuters.com/world/africa/sierra-leone-passes-new-laws-boost-landowners-rights-2022-08-08">https://www.reuters.com/world/africa/sierra-leone-passes-new-laws-boost-landowners-rights-2022-08-08.
- 11. Catrin Einhorn, “Ecuador Court Gives Indigenous Groups a Boost in Mining and Drilling Disputes,” The New York Times, February 5, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/04/climate/ecuador-indigenous-constitutional-court.html.