Sierra Leone has sold 100 hectares of beach and protected rainforest to China to construct an industrial fishing harbor. The deal, said to be worth $55 million, was struck by the two countries amidst protest from conservationists, The Guardian has reported.
According to the UK newspaper, rights groups, landowners, and conservationists have described the planned construction of the harbor at the Black Johnson beach as “a catastrophic human and ecological disaster”. Two legal groups have written to the government demanding to see the environmental impact assessment studies.
The Institute for Legal Research and Advocacy for Justice (ILRAJ) and Namati Sierra Leone want the government to show that the beach was the most suitable for construction “in terms of bathymetry, social safeguards (minimum resettlement costs) and environmental issues.”
Coming under the Sierra Leone 2013 Right to Access Information Act, the groups are demanding to see a copy of the grant agreement between China and Sierra Leone.
The demands of the groups come on the heels of claims by the Sierra Leonean government that the beach was the most suitable place for construction of the harbor. A statement from the fisheries ministry of the Sierra Leonean government said a waste-management component to recycle marine and other wastes into useful products will be built as part of the project. The government in a press release also noted that a compensation package of 13.76bn leone ($1.3m) has been set aside for affected landowners.
“The press release was very vague. It left us wondering how did we arrive here and how come we are only hearing about this now. We have a right to know more,” Basita Michael, a lawyer for the ILRAJ, told The Guardian.
James Tonner, a Sierra Leonean who owns land at Black Johnson with his mom, has called on the country’s president to halt the project as it could be disastrous for the country’s environment and the planet at large. The rainforest is home to endangered species such as the duiker antelope and pangolins and the waters are rich in sardine barracuda and grouper.
Tonner has launched a crowdfunding page to fund a judicial review into the deal, according to The Guardian. “Under the constitution, the government can sequester land if it is in the public interest,” Tonner said. “Even if this just a deep-water harbor, it is not in the public interest because it’s not a suitable site. There are fish breeding sites in the lagoon. It will wipe out the local fish people live on.”
Meanwhile, Sierra Leone’s Minister of Fisheries, Emma Kowa Jalloh, said people are making a fuss about the project, insisting that nothing untoward was being done. “I would just appeal to people: ‘be patient, we want to be developed, we want to grow, we want to be classified as an upcoming country. There must be development and somebody has to sacrifice.’”
She also explained that the project was being built with a Chinese government grant and equity from Sierra Leone in the form of land.