What follows is a brief description of the oil palm issue in Sierra Leone. After reading it, we invite you to send us comments.
Oil palm in Sierra Leone
Oil palm has been an important cash and export crop in this country. After the civil war (1991-2000), production has rebounded to around 195,000 tons despite the fact that Government plantations are badly neglected, comprising mainly of aged, low yielding trees. The small-scale traditional system relies mainly on wild plants for production.
Cocoa and coffee are the two major cash crops historically, with some palm oil also being exported to neighbouring countries. Available data from the Ministry of Trade and Industry suggests that about 18,000 hectares are devoted to estate oil palm. In addition, there is a substantial amount of land in smallholder oil-palm production — perhaps 32,000 hectares. Almost all production currently takes place on smallholder plantations averaging 1 to 2,5 hectares in size. 
The current government is actively promoting two export-oriented cash crops for the production of agrofuels: oil palm and sugarcane.  For that purpose, the government created the Sierra Leone Investment and Export Promotion Agency, as the country’s official agency “to assist and inform investors and exporters.” SLIEPA’s international and local consulting team is funded by the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation and the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID). 
According to SLIEPA, Sierra Leone has a “Pro-business government”, stating that “As a former businessman, President Koroma is focused on encouraging investment and private enterprise and continued streamlining of the ‘costs of doing business’”. The same document explains that “The President and Cabinet have identified oil palm as a priority growth sector and are prepared to provide support at the highest levels to accelerate investment”. As evidence of that, “The Sierra Leone Investment and Export Promotion Agency (SLIEPA) … is in the process of earmarking and preparing a number of suitable sites for 10,000+ hectare palm plantations”. Additionally, SLIEPA “has a team dedicated to helping agribusiness investors handle land, infrastructure and other issues.” 
At present there are at least three European companies each seeking to lease 40,000 hectares in the country for palm oil for agrofuel for export.  Sierra Leone Agriculture (a UK-based group) has signed lease for 41,000 hectares and plans to develop 30,000 ha of oil palm in the north west of the country, starting with 10,000 ha estate plus 5,000 ha smallholders. Portugal-based group Quifel, with operations in Portugal, Spain, Brazil, Angola, and Mozambique has signed agreements with local communities in Lokomasama and Masimera to prospect for land for rice, oil palm, and sugar cane. The UK group Gold Tree -who recently closed a $19 million deal with FinnFund for the production of palm oil in the country- plans to install an oil mill to process own and smallholder crop and plans to replant and expand old plantation at Daru, Kailahun District and source from smallholders in region.  
The incentives provided by the government are extremely generous. According to SLIEPA, they include:
– Foreign companies are able to lease land for up to 71 years, and lease terms are being further improved
– Leases on good land range from $5 to $20 per hectare per year
– Basic labour costs of $2-3 per day
– Flexible labour regulation, permitting productivity-linked payment structures
– Attractive tax rates, with 0% taxes and duties for qualified investors
Two additional factors –also according to SLIEPA- make investments even more attractive:
– President and Cabinet have identified agribusiness as key to development of the country and are ready to work with investors to assist with land leases and other requirements
– International agencies are eager to support rural development and may be able to assist with project financing, small-holder training and outreach, supporting infrastructure and more
Although a government official admits that “there is ‘a lot of controversy’ on whether it is wise to invite, even bend over backwards to woo investors to lease huge tracts of Sierra Leone’s farmland to produce agrofuels for export in a country still trying to regain its own food security after a long civil war”, the government is moving forward very quickly along this road. As a result, corporations are starting to flow into the country in a land-grabbing process disguised under the terms “development” and “employment”.