Creating a Story: Large-Scale Bioenergy Production and Its Critics in Sierra Leone
‘How thousands of farmers lost everything’ states the title of a recent Dutch newspaper article about the consequences of a large-scale bioenergy project in Sierra Leone. The narrative may sound strong and clear, but it is also partial and suggestive.
On 24th March 2018, De Volkskrant, a leading Dutch newspaper, published an article about the bioenergy investments of Addax Bioenergy and its successor Sunbird Bioenergy in Sierra Leone. Addax, which was financed by a wide range of institutions, including the African Development Bank and the Dutch Development Bank (FMO), was established (the land lease was signed in 2010) to produce fuel ethanol and electricity in Sierra Leone. Yet, as Addax continued operating at loss, its operations were scaled down and eventually taken over by Sunbird Bioenergy in 2016.
The newspaper article, which was not the first on this issue to appear, positioned the investment, in particular the now closed operation of Addax, as ‘a classic case of land grabbing’ (in Dutch the word landroof was used, which literally means land theft, but seems to function as the equivalent of the internationally common term land grabbing). It highlighted negative effects such as loss of land and income, lack of clean drinking water and failure of the company to fulfil promises. Although the effects of investments like these are important, and it is laudable that this newspaper pays attention to it, coverage of these issues requires more nuance and critical reflection than currently offered. This implies not only providing a more balanced and correct view on the situation, but also a deeper understanding of the local dynamics at play.
Many sides to one story
Before turning to these local dynamics, let’s first address some crucial factual issues: the article’s use of suggestive terminology, the presentation of incorrect information and the absence of a critical aspect.
First of all, it is claimed that fertile lands have been taken away from farmers. In fact, the operation is branded as a case of landroof (land grabbing or land theft). By using this vocabulary, the legitimacy of the land lease is disputed. However, this should not be conflated with its legality, as the use of the term landroof risks. According to the law in Sierra Leone, the government can mediate, even organise, land leases for foreign companies. In this case, the government makes agreements with local landowners. Such an approach risks that companies do not have direct and individual agreements with landowners, whose voice may, subsequently, be limited. Whether this procedure is socially desirable is therefore open to debate (personally I don’t think so), but the land lease is still legal.
Additionally, NGO’s such as ActionAid, FIAN and SiLNoRF, claim that this land is fertile, a claim which is uncritically taken over in the newspaper article. However, this claim is incorrect. The land in this area is not fertile, it is acidic, lacks important nutrients needed for proper agriculture and contains little organic material. From an agricultural perspective, this land is of low value and high costs need to be made to improve its productive capacity. Therefore, farmers are hardly able to survive of their land. Not surprisingly, most farmers in Sierra Leone are farmers by fate, rather than by choice, stuck in agriculture due to a lack of alternatives.
Finally, these reports habitually overlook alternatives to farming offered by investments: the jobs generated and people trained. This is crucial, given that unemployment is a highly critical and contentious issue in Sierra Leone. In other words, it is important to look critically at large-scale investments in developing countries such as Sierra Leone, but journalistic coverage should offer complete narratives. Without this, reports such as offered by De Volkskrant remain suggestive, partial and incorrect, and may even become a hindrance for the country’s development.
Expectations and promises
In addition to the above, it is crucial to take the local dynamics of expectations into account. NGO’s and other civil society groups (Sierra Leonean and international ones who distribute funding) play themselves an active role in these dynamics. This happens, for example, by the dissemination of information regarding companies’ responsibilities in so-called community sensitisation meetings or trainings. Let me give a recent example.
During a community training in this area conducted by a local civil society group and financed by international donors, communities were prepared for an upcoming social programme of the current company Sunbird Bioenergy (the company that took over Addax’ properties and is thus different from the initial investment). Different scenarios of the company’s plans for the future were sketched, such as the possibility that the company would offer inputs (such as fertilizers) and off-take guarantees for cassava production to farmers, when they decide to engage in this programme.
Whereas these scenarios were intended as examples of potential situations, and serve communities to make better decisions, a side effect of such NGO intervention is that these scenarios become perceived and used as expected or even promised futures. As a result, expectations may be raised by a third party and, if not fulfilled by the company later on, a frustration created.
Statements and dependency relations
Do these dynamics of expectations and the nuances discussed earlier render farmers’ statements about the negative consequences of this investment obsolete? No, they don’t. Yet, it is key to understand that these statements are made in a context of dependency relations.
In Sierra Leone people are positioned in a system of patronage, in which relationships between powerful and dependent others are established (this happens elsewhere as well; the recent disputed appointment of Juncker’s aide Martin Selmayr as the new European Commission Director General may be a point in case). Not surprisingly, it is important to people to maintain these relationships because their survival often depends on the formation of alliances with those in higher power positions with better access to resources (this resonates with David Mosse’s research on development practices in western India).
Consequently, just as companies or politicians are positioned in this system, NGO’s and journalists are as well; they may offer opportunities for development projects, skills training or simply influence. Subsequently, if a critical NGO or a journalist, whose position is clear to local communities, asks particular questions about the situation, the answers will be framed within this context and within this particular dependency relation. As a result, anticipated views and narratives may become too easily confirmed. Is this strange? No. Is it important to take into account? Yes.
Creating a story: Images and imaginations
In sum, it is important to remain sensitive to the ways in which stories are created. This applies to the basic facts, which need to be balanced, to the dynamics of expectations and to the web of social relations in which different actors operate and that influence statements and opinions. This also applies to the usage of certain images. In the newspaper article under scrutiny here, for example, a picture of three people outside a fence is used. This picture, which deliberately contrasts starkly with some of those used in this blog, presents us an image of exclusion and marginalisation.
However, what remains untold is that these people (who are they anyway?) are standing within the lease area, which shows that some parts of the lease are securitized and fenced off, but others are clearly accessible. What is also not mentioned is the large degree of theft that has taken place in the case of Addax. Consequently, is the presence of a fence to protect machinery and other items that are worth millions of euros so inexplicable? Does this not happen everywhere? In other words, we always need to be aware of what pictures do. What do they show, but also, what do they obscure? After all, when used in the way the newspaper article does, the picture becomes highly suggestive, contributing to a story which is partial and superficial.
Towards more complete stories
Concluding, with creating a story about ‘how thousands of farmers lost everything’ due to a large-scale investment, more nuance and critical reflection is required. In the first place, because readers deserve complete stories in order to understand the consequences of large-scale investments. In the second place because partial and suggestive stories may turn out unreasonably harmful. Rather than stimulating more responsible investment, the result may be the drying up of finances and investors giving up.
With this, the hopes of thousands of farmers for a better future may vanish, and marginal small-scale agriculture remains the status quo, rather than a choice. Only an approach that makes a real effort to get the facts in balance, that highlights both negative and positive effects and offers a deeper understanding of local dynamics will eventually benefit both the general public and thousands of hopeful farmers in Sierra Leone.
This blog is based on Robert Pijpers’ PhD research on the effects of large-scale investments in Sierra Leone funded by the ERC Advanced Grant, ‘Overheating’, ERC grant number 295843.