SIERRA LEONE BIOENERGY PROJECT POSES NEW CHALLENGES TO COMMUNITIES

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960 540 Miguel Ángel Martínez

The Addax Bioenergy project continues to pose challenges to communities in Sierra Leone nine years after its start. In a new turn of events, the whole community of Tonka community has been informed it will be relocated.

When the Addax Bioenergy project was established in Sierra Leone in 2010, it represented the largest agriculture investment ever undertaken in the country. The aim was to produce ethanol from sugarcane for the European market, provide electricity to the national power grid and create over 3,000 jobs in a remote area where 95 percent of the households depended on subsistence farming.

The project was supposed to become a golden standard for sustainable investments in agriculture. It was initially owned by oil and gas company Addax & Oryx Group and partly funded by several European Development Finance Institutions (DFIs) including Swedish Swedfund and Dutch FMO. Already in 2015, the DFIs exited the project citing financial challenges and as a consequence, the project was drastically downscaled. A majority of the employees lost their jobs and decreased access to natural resources due to the project meant there was little to fall back on. The ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone in 2014 and 2015 further exacerbated the dire situation that the project stall inflicted on local communities. The impacts of the stall – and the need for responsible exit strategies in land-based investments – were highlighted in the 2017 Swedwatch report “No Business, No Rights.”

The Addax project was resumed in 2016 and is today owned by British-Chinese company Sunbird Bioenergy, financial advisory firm Faber Capital and a consortium of investors, according to information on Sunbird Bioenergy’s website. Sunbird Bioenergy is registered in Mauritius and develops bioenergy projects also in Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Relocation likely in 2020

The bioenergy project was designed to avoid any relocation of communities. Still, according to Sierra Leone Network on the Right to Food (Silnorf), a civil society organisation defending the rights of communities affected by the project, there are now plans to move all 300 people living in the nearby community of Tonka. According to the Sierra Leone’s Environmental Protection Agency, the main reasons for the relocation plans are environmental concerns. Due to its closeness to the factory, Tonka has suffered many adverse impacts. Water sources have been contaminated and ethanol residue pollutes the air. The closeness to the factory also poses an evident danger in the case of a fire.

According to Silnorf, Sunbird Bioenergy shared the relocation plans at a multi-stakeholder meeting in March 2019 where the community was informed that the relocation would likely start in 2020 and that it would be conducted in accordance with local laws and international standards. Swedwatch has asked Sunbird for more details but had not received any reply at the time of writing.

Despite high ambitions in terms of sustainability, the Addax Bioenergy project has come with several adverse impacts to local communities. Speaking on behalf of Tonka community, Silnorf stresses that the community members feel they are today left with two equally bad options; they cannot stay due to the pollution and the closeness to the factory, while a relocation entails a number of risks such as losing access to vital land. Furthermore, the area that the community will be relocated from holds important religious sites.

In recent years, several communities in Sierra Leone have reported adverse human rights impacts in relocation processes.

Human rights due diligence required

The Addax Bioenergy project has faced many challenges, including the project stall in 2015. In order to protect Tonka and other communities affected by the project, should it fail or stall again, Swedwatch calls for the project owners to develop responsible exit strategies and to provide communities with access to effective remedy, in line with the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Furthermore, continuous human rights due diligence should be conducted, during and after the relocation.

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