Speaking with Berns Komba Lebbie, a community activist defending the rights of marginalized landowners in Sierra Leone
Berns, National Coordinator of the Multi-Actor Partnership (MAP) Land for Life Sierra Leone, talks about his life experience and how he came to participate in Land Collaborative’s first learning cycle on private sector engagement for Responsible Agriculture Investment.
“In my younger days, we picked and sold diamonds. We had a lot in those days, but one day a big company came and took our land, relocated us and are now mining the diamonds”, remembers Berns.
Berns grew up in Sierra Leone’s diamond mining district of Kono, which has in its soil some of the most valuable diamonds on the planet. Kono is also known for its richness in Kimber pipes and dykes, as well as fertile soil for cash crops like cacao, coffee, cola nut, plantain, and oil palm.
In the beginning, the richness of natural resources in his district brought prosperity to Berns’ family, but between 1992 and 2002 Sierra Leone lived a most brutal civil war, which resulted in some 70,000 casualties and 2.6 million displaced people, according to UNDP estimates.
After the war, with a stabilized economy, the country attracted a number of private sector investors; as a result, large-scale mining and agricultural industries were set up throughout the country. With that, came a surge of land conflicts related to environmental issues, family relocation, and a lack of transparency.
“We were all relocated by a company that is now mining the Kimber diamonds. My dad was left with nothing until his death”, Berns recalls.
Living in the midst of this context, Berns became an agitator, a young activist who participated in several strikes and demonstrations. That is until 2016, when he became part of the Network Movement for Justice and Development -NMJD- a national human rights and advocacy organization.
“Instead of throwing stones, blockading roads, or attacking miners, I started to use radio stations, newspapers, policy briefs, and community empowerment: They [NMJD] trained me to advocate for change”, he says.
As a project manager with NMJD, Berns provides support to marginalized landowners and other vulnerable people affected by land investment activities. He also provides professional mediation when there is a conflict between communities and investors.
“When it comes to situations that are sensitive, especially dealing with multinational companies, it requires significant backstopping intervention of the Secretariat, which I provide”, says Berns.
Over the years, advancements have been made with the implementation of the Responsible Agricultural Investment (RAI) principles; a set of criteria that include the recognition of communities’ rights to land and natural resources, call for transparency in land acquisition processes, and environmentally sustainable investments. In 2015, FAO supported the creation of a Technical Working Group on RAI, and the formulation of Sierra Leone’s first ‘comprehensive’ National Land Policy. The transformation of this policy into a Customary Lands Act of 2021 is already underway.
In addition, the country also committed to implementing the United Nations Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of tenure of land, fisheries, and forests (VGGT).
With these commitments underway, ILC member Welthungerhilfe (WHH), set up a multi-stakeholder platform and started supporting an alliance of civil society organisations through the Land for Life Initiative. They do so in partnership with NMJD, and with five other civil society organisations in Sierra Leone: United for the Protection of Human Rights (UPHR), Community Empowerment for Poverty Alleviation (CEPA), Partners Initiative for Conflict Transformation (PICOT), and Sierra Leone Network on the Right to Food (SiLNoRF).
Since 2018, the Land for Life initiative has supported the formation and strengthening of multi-actor platforms to collaborate on local land governance and investments. Inclusive community-land committees have been formed in 40 communities, 12 Chiefdoms and 4 districts across the country. For Berns, this Multi-Actor Partnership has been fundamental.
“We don’t have a typical land governance advocacy structure in Sierra Leone and that is why we want Land for Life to take that space; to be an exclusive land-focused organization that talks about land governance, administration, reforms, policies and implementation, and also community involvement”, says Berns.
Because of the mediation work he does, Berns jumped at the chance to be part of LandCollaborative's first learning cycle on Land Governance, Multi-Stakeholders Platforms and their Engagement with the Private Sector on Responsible Agricultural Investments.
LandCollaborative, a global Community of Practice, is strengthening the impact of multi-stakeholder platforms on land governance.
“We need to work with all actors, under an inclusive structure, to inculcate a culture of common understanding, tolerance, and collective leadership. By engaging and talking frequently, we are promoting dialogue for change”.
By the end of the learning cycle, which is facilitated by The Natural Resources Institute (NRI) of Greenwich University, MSPs/ MAPs in 12 countries (6 in Africa and 6 in Asia) will be equipped to effectively engage with the private sector to promote Responsible Agricultural Investment (RAI).
“This cycle has enabled me now to actually come closer this negotiation context with private sector investments than ever before; also, what is notable is learning that the private sector is motivated by some factors and indicators that other actors, especially those in CSO, need to learn about”, Berns concludes.