When Joseph Rahall speaks about oil plantations, you can hear the emotion in his voice and sense the fear he has for Sierra Leone.
He says of a once-pristine landscape: “You stand there, and all you can see is palm-trees for miles.”
In a country desperate for investment and jobs, the lure of the palm-oil money from large multi-nationals can be hard to resist. But Rahall fears the price to be paid is sovereignty.
Founder of Green Scenery (in 1989), an NGO partially funded by Irish Aid, he is driven by a desire to see fair treatment for landowners by the multinational palm oil companies. The group’s aim is to help local people look after their own interests, with minimal interference – they offer training and advice only.
He visited Dublin last year through the Sierra Leone Ireland Partnership and spoke of plantation-leases already occupying one-fifth of Sierra Leone’s land-mass – this in a coastal country smaller than Ireland.
And Rahall says there is an urgent need to question this, with many more companies eyeing up the lush greenlands of Sierra Leone. Its people endured a brutal civil war which raged for a decade until a peace accord in January 2002. Since then peace has brought rewards and but also financial challenges.
He says: “My fear is about the country’s security. Some of this land is being concentrated in the hands of few companies. Imagine if up to half to the country is gone in 50 to 100 years. As a government, what can you do then?