Summary: Siaka Sama is a strong voice who represents farmers in southern Sierra Leone. For decades, a foreign company, with the encouragement of the Sierra Leone government, has been appropriating land without the consent of the owners, who are evicted and paid next to nothing for their possessions. When Sama and others protest these actions, they are typically arrested and thrown in jail. They are released only after paying hefty fines. Despite this, Sama continues to speak out, to raise money, and to challenge the government. He is even planning on running for Parliament in 2018, where he can officially bring up the issue before Sierra Leone lawmakers.
Profile: It happened like this: In 2011, a Luxembourg-based company called Societe Financiere des Caoutchoucs—familiarly, Socfin—leased land in southern Sierra Leone for approximately $100 million. Socfin wanted to establish and manage a palm oil project in the province. The Sierra Leone government wanted to encourage foreign investment, so they were all for the deal and in fact negotiated it.
The problem was that the owners of the land never approved it, and they and other activists did not hide their disapproval.
Siaka Sama was one of those activists. He belongs to the Mahlen Land Owners and Users Association—MALOA. They demanded compensation for their land, especially because community farming has been the main source of their income. So they protested.
And they were arrested. Sama and four others were taken in, tried without access to a viable defense, and found guilty of conspiracy to commit a crime—incitement and destruction of 40 palm trees that technically (according to the High Court of Sierra Leone) belonged to Socfin. Each of the activists was sentenced to a minimum of five months’ imprisonment. Sama stayed in jail for several weeks and finally was released, but only after paying a fine of $14,600. Sama wouldn’t have even been able to pay the fine had it not been for donations raised by the Coalition of Civil Society Organizations. Upon his release, Sama spearheaded the campaign to pay the fines for his fellow protestors.
Much to the chagrin of the government as well as of Socfin, Sama was not quieted after getting out of jail. He points out that Socfin has been using dubious governmental procedures to acquire thousands of acres of Sierra Leone land over the past 50 years. This, he says, amounts to nothing less than exploitation: Citizens—rightful owners—have their land taken away so that a foreign company can plant palm trees, and for their loss they are paid a pittance. “In fact,” says Sama, “after the takeover by the company, nobody was allowed to go near that land.”
“This became unbearable,” he continues, “for the land has been the only source of livelihood for my people over decades; with it gone, life has become hell for them.”
Sama is continuing to speak out against Sofcin, regardless of the risks. He’s even planning on running for Parliament, where he can bring up the issue for redress.
“My people deserve better,” he says, “and not to be deprived of their land. . . . It’s just not reasonable and can continue to serve as a source of conflict now and in the future if not addressed.”