By Umaru Fofana
After nearly three years, a high court in Bo, southern Sierra Leone will today deliver its verdict in a trial of six leaders of an indigenous activist group of landowners in Sahn chiefdom in Pujehun District.
The six are accused of malicious damage and conspiracy, with Shaka Sama, a former member of parliament, facing a third count of incitement for allegedly mobilizing locals to resist the farming activities of the agribusiness company, Socfin which is parentally owned by the French company, Bollore.
They were arrested and locked up for over one week in October 2013 before they were later brought to court on allegations that they cut down the leaves of 40 oil palm plants in the 6,500-hectare plantation owned by Socfin.
Socfin has invested over $100million in the area but landowners and rights groups have consistently accused the company of engaging in a land grab.
They say the company's agreement to farm on their land lacked transparency, consultation with the landowners, and adequate compensation.
The landowners are paid $2.5 (less than Le 15,000) per year per acre of land and a one-off payment of Le1million to those who had plantation when the land was sold to the company. They say they no longer have farms to grow their crops on or do subsistent farming which is affecting their livelihood.
Socfin has over the years denied any wrongdoing saying it has complied with all government laws and regulations. A company official has told Politico in the past that much as villages in the area can no longer grow their own crops in their immediate surroundings, they have provided farming tools for the farmers to do so in centrally located areas.
The so-called land grabbing has been a contentious issue in areas where multinational corporations operate.
Civil society activists have converged in Bo in solidarity with the MALOA Five, as they have come to be called.
Meanwhile, the case has been likened by some activists to the trial in Nigeria in the mid-1990s of Ken Saro-Wiwa and his colleagues who campaigned for the rights of their Ogoni people but were convicted and executed for their activism.
(C) Politico 04/02/16