Companies impact women´s rights and social conflict in Liberia and Sierra Leone
22 June 2022
Liberia and Sierra Leone have identified economic growth, sustainable management of natural resources and inclusion of women as central to peace and prosperity. Still, research findings from Swedwatch show that business activities in land concession areas come with adverse impacts on human rights and the environment, contributing to conflict in already fragile settings.
“In Liberia and Sierra Leone, business activities in land concession areas have generated adverse social and environmental impacts like pollution and loss of livelihoods, particularly affecting women. According to joint research, they have also contributed to increase social tensions and land conflicts”, says Jessica Johansson, researcher at Swedwatch and author of the report Prerequisite for Peace – The critical role of responsible business conduct in conflict prevention in Liberia and Sierra Leone.
Swedwatch has for many years investigated the role of business in efforts to sustain peace in Liberia and Sierra Leone, and highlighted the need for thorough due diligence by companies operating in conflict-affected and high-risk settings. In both countries, land concessions and large-scale land acquisitions (LSLAs) – transfers of rights by states to business actors to use, own or control land – are identified as key to create growth, peace and prosperity, even though research shows that LSLAs often result in negative social and environmental impacts.
To further review the impacts of LSLAs on the environment, women’s rights and conflict, Swedwatch in collaboration with local partner organizations Sierra Leone Network on the Right to Food (Silnorf) and Green Advocates International in Liberia conducted a 15-month project including research through community interviews with mainly women in land concession areas in both countries, resulting in the report. In Liberia, 111 out of 161 respondents were women and in Sierra Leone all 250 respondents were women.
From the interviews, it was clear that women were often excluded from consultation processes around land and natural resource management. As one woman in a land concession area in Sierra Leone, interviewed in April 2022, put it:
“When the company expressed their intentions to lease our land, we the women were not consulted and not involved in the discussions leading to the lease of our land. Only the chiefs negotiated for the land – without our consent.”
The interviews also showed that conflicts and social tensions had increased in connection to land concessions and company activities. Furthermore, community members expressed concerns over water, air and soil pollution and of drinking water being contaminated. Many had experienced adverse impacts on their health and wellbeing.
Women also spoke of gendered impacts that made them feel unsafe, including regular visitations by security guards in their communities, and having to travel longer distances to collect water.
Radiatu H.S. Kahnplaye, Head of Administration and Finance at Green Advocates International and Policy Advisor for the Natural Resources Women Platform in Liberia, confirms that women are often disproportionally impacted by land concessions and LSLAs.
“A central part of the government’s strategy for economic development has been to attract foreign investments, and the past 5-13 years we have witnessed an influx of international corporations into Libera, as well as to other countries in our region. The promise has been that the investments will take people’s life to another level, deliver jobs and a better day. But what we have seen so far is rather that it has added to existing problems and worsened the situation for local communities, especially women who depend on land and natural resources for their livelihood.”
One of the women interviewed by Silnorf in Sierra Leone. The interviews were carried out in 40 communities in Liberia and Sierra Leone in the form of semi-structured interviews – using a survey as the basis including open-ended questions.
The report summarises three key takeaways on the business impact on the environment, women, and peace in land concession areas.
First, natural resource management, peace and human rights are interconnected and must be addressed in conjunction to achieve development goals and sustain peace in an increasingly fragile world.
Secondly, companies and investors can contribute to peacebuilding by engaging in responsible business conduct.
Thirdly, when companies operate in high-risk or conflict-affected settings without considering environmental, human rights and conflict impacts, women and other marginalised groups tend to bear a disproportionate cost. In the case of Liberia and Sierra Leone, this occurred in terms of loss of land, livelihoods, exclusion from community consultations with companies, and others.
“Failure to include responsible business conduct, and a development strategy that extracts the same natural resources that local communities depend on for livelihood and sustenance runs the risk of undermining government goals of gender equality and sustainable resource use – and ultimately, of jeopardising efforts to achieve sustained peace and prosperity”, says Jessica Johansson.
Interrelations between business impact on environment, human rights, social conflict and women’s rights
Underlying grievances, like poverty and corruption, combined fragility due to external events such as Covid-19 and climate change, places additional pressure on conflict-affected areas and can increase the risk of conflict outbreak. Additionally, business-related adverse human rights- and environmental impacts tend to affect women disproportionally.
To achieve inclusive and sustained peace in an
increasingly fragile world, it is therefore important to ensure responsible business conduct.
Research and training in Sierra Leone and Liberia
The report summarises the key takeaways from a 15-month project carried out by Swedwatch together with local partner organisations GAI in Liberia and Silnorf in Sierra Leone. The research included more than 400 interviews with people, mainly women, in communities impacted by LSLAs.
To disseminate the findings with women in affected communities, cartoon-based training materials, including information about rights to land, natural resources and women’ rights, were developed in the local language Pidgin English (Liberia) and Krio (Sierra Leone).