Feb 20, 2014

Listen to SDI Radio. This edition of Development Talk features a 30 minute interview with the founder of the Sustainable Development Institute discussing accountability, natural resources in Liberia and the ten years of Reforms in the Liberian Natural Resource Sector. The second part of the program features three managers at SDI reflecting on the tenth Anniversary, linking the discussion of SDI's ongoing work to the hostile comments made by the President of Liberia labelling NGOs as "Super-National Bodies" that are challenging state sovereignty. Listen here:

Feb 20, 2014

Listen to the latest installment of our Radio Program Development Talk. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf stated that some NGOs have acted as "Super-national Bodies" that are undermining the sovereignty of the State. Several NGOs, particularly those that work in Land Rights and natural resources, feel that these statements are a politically opportune attacks that may make the relationship between government and civil society more tenuous and even hostile. This show gives the perspective of civil society and directly engages with the Presidents comments while looking to build positively toward a collaborative future that benefits all Liberians. To listen:

Oct 29, 2013

A number of weeks ago, there was a mass demonstration at the China Union concession by members of the Bong Mines community, as well as students from the area attending university in Monrovia. The demonstration became quite heated, with insults and physical abuse directed towards the Minister of Internal Affairs, Rep. Korpu Barclay, and the district commissioner. The demonstrators blocked the entrance to the China Union mine, stating that they refused to allow iron ore shipments to leave the area until the company fulfilled its social obligations. Ultimately, the ERU was called to the area, who fired in the air, dispersing the demonstrators and then arresting the leaders of three youth factions who led the protest. Prior to this protest, SDI staff heard allegations of severe physical abuse to workers, unfulfilled social obligations from China Union’s MDA, and a poor relationship between the company and the community. SDI staff members made a field trip to the area on the week of October 14, discovering a number of concerning developments and trends. The show will discuss SDI’s findings and give space to a range of actors around the concession to discuss their experiences in recent years, as regards their relationship with China Union.

Guests include spokespeople from the Fuamah Progressive Platform, Former Bong Mines Workers and Jesse Cole from the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission.

Tune in today on Tuesday October 29th from 11:00 a.m. to 12:00 noon on Radio Veritas (97.8 FM).

Oct 22, 2013

Development Talk is the Sustainable Development Institute’s new radio program that aims to provide a platform for debate on development issues confronting Liberia and Liberians. Focusing on how decisions are made about natural resources and how those decisions impact on Liberians’ development aspirations, the program aims to sensitize the population and stimulate informed public debates on development challenges across the country. The program will provide up-to-date information on issues related to land, forests, the mining sector, oil and the activities of companies in the natural resource sector. The debates will feature civil society actors, private sector operators, government officials, and community activists.

Development Talk is a production of the Media and Visibility Program (MVP) of the SDI; however the content will also cover other programs including the Community Land Protection Program (CLPP), the Forest Governance Program (FGP), the Community Rights and Corporate Governance Program (CR & CGP). The radio program, launched on Tuesday, 22nd October 2013, will be aired on the second and last Tuesdays of each month, from 11:00 a.m. to 12:00 noon on Radio Veritas (97.8 FM). Community versions of the Development Talk will be developed by SDI partners in Gbarpolu County and aired on Radio Bomi and Radio Gbarpolu. Recordings of the programs will be available on our website for the Liberian diaspora and international audience.

Sep 13, 2013

A call for urgent action in support of Liberian farmers producing food for Liberia

From September 11-14th 2013, high level delegates from across Africa gather in Monrovia to discuss the agricultural sector in West Africa at present and how its development can be supported. This conference commemorates the ten year anniversary of the Maputo Declaration on Agriculture and Food Security, where African States, (including Liberia), committed to allocating at least 10% of national budgets to agriculture and rural development, implementing policies targeted at small scale and traditional farmers and creating enabling conditions for private sector participation. These measures set out to address the root causes of food insecurity and malnutrition on the continent. Today SDI presented at the conference and called for urgent action in support of Liberian farmers producing food for Liberia.


The Liberian context

Liberia is a highly food insecure country, with a “serious” state of hunger rating according to the 2012 Global Hunger Index. According to Liberia’s agriculture policy “81% of the population is either highly vulnerable or moderately vulnerable to food insecurity ” [1]. To address this situation, two of the three broad objectives of the policy are (1) to make safe and nutritious foods available in sufficient quantity and quality at all times to satisfy the nutrition needs of all Liberian ” [2] and (2) to ensure “inclusive and pro-poor growth in agricultural production, productivity, competitiveness, value addition and diversification, and linkages to market ” [3].

According to the UN, Liberia imports 60% [4] of its food  of these food imports rice constitutes 65% [5]. 

Given these figures it would appear misguided that agricultural production for export is being developed rather than developing agricultural production for food for domestic consumption. It is time that Liberian farmers especially those that grow food, are supported to grow more food and have better access to market – to feed our growing population. 70% of the world is fed by smallholder farmers [6].  Investment in small-scale food production is key to addressing food insecurity and providing sustainable livelihoods.

Agriculture is not only about seeds and tools it is also about politics and economics. Farmers should bear this in mind when discussing the Maputo Declaration. Access to land and security of tenure are two of the key pillars of development in any agrarian societies, such as Liberia. Farmers need to engage and secure their seat at the table where decisions about our collective future are being made. When you have secured your seats at the table, you can then speak to power and challenge policies that are detrimental to your needs. This conference provides such a space. I urge you to take advantage of the momentum that is being generated to hold duty bearers to account. Maputo+20 should not echo the same messages we have been hearing this week.

The African context

Land deals have become the new scramble for Africa. The World Bank has estimated that of the 56 million hectares of farmland sought globally in 2009 alone, more than 70% of the demand was for land in Africa [7].   Liberia, for example, has a land area of approximately 10 million hectares [8]  but private corporations now control over 5 million hectares, for mining, logging and agribusinesses [9].  These leases known as concession agreements facilitate large-scale land acquisitions by companies, especially those engaged in the production of rubber, palm oil, timber and mineral resources mainly for export markets.

This is important to bear in mind because Africa’s over reliance on export of raw materials for American, European and Asian industries since independence, has contributed to underdevelopment on the continent. Our abundant natural resource wealth has not translated into tangible development benefits for all because: (1) we undervalue our resources and sell at give away prices; (2) most African governments manage the meagre revenue they generate so poorly that citizens are constantly asking “where is the money?” from our natural resources; and (3)
"Africa’s resource wealth has been plundered and squandered. It has served the interests of the few, not the many. Revenues that could have been used to improve lives have instead been used to build personal fortunes, finance civil wars, and support corrupt and unaccountable political elites. Africa loses twice as much in illicit financial outflows as it receives in international aid". Africa Progress Panel, 2013

Our governments have let us down, and the multinational corporations on the continent have not been good corporate citizens. It is time for that to change.

Some suggestions for the government and stakeholders

A five year roadmap for agricultural development should be developed by the MoA with relevant stakeholders including FUN, donors and civil society. This roadmap should include yearly monitoring and evaluation by all stakeholders. This road map should take the suggestions below into account:
1.   Investments in low-cost farming technologies and make that available to farmers across the country. This will increase food production and reduce our reliance on imported rice.
2.   Low cost and appropriate seeds must be made available to Liberian farmers.
3.   Prioritising rural roads that support farmers’ access to market.
4.   Addressing barriers farmers face in accessing credit.
5.   Policies that sufficiently protect the domestic market and create favourable market conditions for domestic agricultural producers.
6.   Initiatives which will specifically address the needs of women farmers.
7.   Remove the retroactivity clause from the new Land Rights policy to ensure all Liberians have equal rights to their customary land including those who’s land is currently covered by a concession.

At the regional level, ECOWAS and governments across West Africa should:
1.   Prioritise policies which support economic development through regional trade rather than the current over-reliance on Foreign Direct Investment.
2.   Address land tenure issues challenging agriculture development by the implementation of policies adhering to the FAO’s Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure.

Civil society actors working on human rights, economic justice, rule of law, democracy, anti-corruption, health and nutrition across West Africa should support our farmers in their struggle to feed our growing population in the region.

FUN members have a better way of saying what I have said here today: “No farmers, No food”; remember – hungry people don’t make good neighbours.

Thank you.



1. Government of Liberia, Food and Agriculture Policy and Strategy: from subsistence to sufficiency, undated, p.1
2. ibid.
3. ibid.
4. Liberia Full Country Visit Report. Coordination Team of the UN System High-Level Task Force for the Global Food Security Crisis; 2009 May. Available from:
5. Balachandran et al (2012), p.4
6. ETC Group (2009) Who Will Feed Us? Questions for the Food and Climate Crisis.
7. The World Bank (2011) Rising Global Interest in Farmland: Can it Yield Equitable and Sustainable Benefits?
8. National Investment Brief, High-Level Conference on Water for Agriculture and Energy in Africa: the Challenges of Climate Change Sirte, Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, 15-17 December 2008. [Accessed 08.10.2012 at]
9. Rights and Resources Group (2013), Investments into the Agribusiness, Extractive and Infrastructure Sectors of Liberia: An Overview, Washington DC: RRG, p.18.

Sep 13, 2013

On September 12th 2013 Silas Kpanan’Ayoung Siakor presented to the Liberian House of Representatives on the ‘National Oil Company (NOCAL) Act, 2013’ and the ‘Petroleum (Exploration and Production) Act, 2013’ two crucial pieces of legislation which could be passed without any public consultation.


Liberia has a history of poorly managing its natural resource wealth. The current government, civil society and the population acknowledge this and agree that weak governance especially corruption remains a major challenge. Reforms of the natural resource sector have aimed to institutionalize transparency, accountability, and public participation in governance, but in spite of changes in laws and policies, the old practices of exclusion and marginalization persist.

The submission of the proposed ‘National Oil Company (NOCAL) Act, 2013’ and the ‘Petroleum (Exploration and Production) Act, 2013’ to the Legislature without any public consultation is another example.

On August 29, Israel Akinsanya, the NOCAL’s Director of Public Affairs said in a public forum: “there will be a nationwide consultation on the law. I promise you that. It will be taken to the people with their reps [sic] as part of the process before it is passed.” Honourable members of the House, this is the best way forward.

Why Public Consultation
Oil has a poor track record in Africa. Conflict and corruption linked to oil in Equatorial Guinea, Angola and Nigeria have been well documented. Nigeria is particularly notorious for the poor management of its oil wealth. Let’s not follow their examples.

“One of the problems we’ve had in our part of the world is oil discoveries and large deposits of natural resources have been more of a curse than a blessing” [1]
-    Chris Neyor, former head of NOCAL

Liberia’s history and present realities bear testimony to Neyor’s assertion. The roots of the conflict can be traced back to decades of exclusion and marginalization of the majority of the population from mainstream political and economic activities in the country. Institutions of political governance were heavily centralized and concentrated in the hands of the elites and many people had limited access to economic assets. [2]  Governance in Liberia has improved somewhat, but significant problems still remain. To exclude the public from the debate about a critical national asset such as oil is to ignore the hard lessons of our civil war; let’s not make the same mistakes as those before us.  

The House of Representatives should not concur with the Liberian Senate on these proposed legislations until nationwide consultation has been conducted, and public concerns addressed in the final versions.

Commercial exploitation of oil will not automatically translate into prosperity for Liberia and its people. Weak governance and corruption could undermine the potential for wealth creation and the equitable distribution of the benefits of oil. Without good governance in the sector, the expected economic benefits are unlikely to be realized. To avoid this, let’s start with these laws. A robust legal framework that is formulated through an informed and inclusive public debate will ensure that the public understands and participates in the decision regarding the direction the country takes. 

Under Article 7 of the Liberian constitution, the government has the responsibility to “manage the natural resources of Liberia in such manner as shall ensure the maximum feasible participation of Liberian citizens under conditions of equality so as to advance the general welfare of the Liberian people and economic development of Liberia.” [3]

Providing space and conditions for an informed public debate on these proposed legislations is in line with this obligation. This is your opportunity to leave a legacy; take advantage of it.


1. Valdmanis, Richard, Oil Hopes Run Deep in Troubled Liberia, Reuters, October 10, 2011 [Online at

2. Poverty Reduction Strategy, Government of Liberia, 2008.

3. Government of Liberia, 1986 Constitution of Liberia, Article 7.

Sep 11, 2013

Liberia’s government has opened vast forest areas up to corporate interests. Poor people are bearing the brunt. Weak governance is part of the problem – and so is rich nations’ huge demand for forest resources.

Liberia is a small country, but it hosts more than half of the remaining forest in West Africa. More than 2 million hectares of forest land is now under concession for logging and plantation development. The government signed contracts with logging companies, granting them access to more than 1 million hectares. Other deals allow oil-palm plantations to use a further 1 million hectares. The two main contracts last up to 63 and 65 years.

The government prioritises foreign-direct investment in cash-crop production for export purposes, even though there are concerns about food security. Senior officials insist that the land and forest areas concerned are not being utilised. This attitude reveals their limited appreciation for what forests and biodiversity means to the local people.

Forests are disappearing fast from West Africa. The reasons are legal as well as illegal logging, large-scale land clearances and forest conversion for monoculture plantation, mainly for oil palm and rubber. The trend hurts poor people who depend on forest resources including firewood, building materials, food and traditional medicines. Researchers from Columbia University (Balachandran et al 2012) found that communities affected by oil-palm plantations in Liberia experience worse food insecurity than communities in areas where this industry has not expanded. They reported that 63 % of the households near plantations were in debt, and the need to buy food is an important reason for taking loans. In non-affected areas, the share of indebted households is only 37 %, and people are much more likely to use the money for their children’s higher education.

There is evidence of similar trends in neighbouring countries. According to a study that was recently published by Christian Aid (Baxter 2013), people affected by plantation expansion in Sierra Leone are “now struggling to purchase food or even going without the food they once produced for themselves”. Reports of this kind prove that the destruction of forests disrupts peoples’ lives. It is an urgent social and human rights issue and not just an environmental one.

Illegal logging is still a huge problem in Liberia, though it should not be anymore. In 2006, the government cancelled all existing logging contracts. It enacted a new forestry law, adopted a new policy and put in place new regulations. The legal framework looked promising. But it soon became evident that reform implementation and rule enforcement would be hampered by a lack of political will. The sad truth is that forest officials and private-sector companies tend to ignore the law.

For instance, in 2008 and 2009 government officers insisted on allowing companies to bid for contracts even though these companies did not meet the legal requirements for doing so. Even companies that had been barred from tenders by presidential order were allowed to take part. Logging contracts, moreover, were allocated in violation of the procurement law, which requires cabinet oversight.

In December 2008, a UN Panel of Experts warned in a report to the UN Security Council that “concerted efforts will be required to ensure that the forestry reform process continues so that the sector can contribute on a long-term basis to the development of Liberia”. The report pointed out breaches of the law, but the government ignored such information.

Concerns about failing reforms intensified in 2010 when the government allocated additional logging contracts. As I argued in detail at the time (Siakor 2010), these deals violated various laws. An audit that was commissioned by the government confirmed this fact in 2013. Nonetheless, not one of the government officials or logging companies involved has been held accountable in any way.

In 2011, several companies began to abuse private-use permits (PUPs) systematically. This is a special permit category which is supposed to allow small-scale land holders to sell timber on their land to logging countries. By 2012, however, PUPs covered more than 2 million hectares of forest.

President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf ordered an independent investigation and instructed the Ministry of Justice to prosecute those involved in the abuse of PUPs. However, no one was arraigned before a court by the time this essay was written in early September 2013. Instead, the legislature was considering amendments to the forestry law which would reward the same companies with more than $ 35 million in waived taxes and arrears.

The global dimension

The Liberian scenario is typical of Africa. Consumerism in Europe, the United States and emerging markets is driving the unsustainable exploitation of renewable and non-renewable resources. Corporate greed results in resource pillage while tax evasion and avoidance further exacerbate under-development in Liberia.

Governance tends to be weak in Africa. But that is only part of the problem. Political systems and structures in Europe, the United States and Asia facilitate the pillage of Liberian forests. The irony is that, while international companies exploit the country’s resources, western governments announce millions in aid to Liberia. They are feeding a vicious cycle of exploitation and hand outs.

“Africa’s resource wealth has been plundered and squandered. It has served the interests of the few, not the many”, is the recent assessment of the Africa Progress Panel (2013). The Panel, which is chaired by Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary-general, goes on to argue that “revenues that could have been used to improve lives have instead been used to build personal fortunes, finance civil wars, and support corrupt and unaccountable political elites”. According to the Panel, Africa loses “twice as much in illicit financial outflows as it receives in international aid”.

According to the UNDP, 84 % of Liberian people live in multidimensional poverty. They face deprivations in health, education and their overall standard of living. Liberia ranked 174th out of a total of186 countries listed on the Human Development Index in 2012. In this context, it provides very little comfort that the government felt compelled to state in 2011: “Liberians are healthier, better fed, have more income, consume more, are more literate and enjoy the greatest amount of freedom ever.”


By Silas Kpanan’Ayoung Siakor


This article first appeared in D+C Development and Cooperation magazine


  1. Africa Progress Panel: Africa Progress Report 2013.
  2. Balachandran, L., Herb, E., Timirzi, S., and O’Reilly, E., 2012: Everyone must eat? Liberia, food security and palm oil. Columbia University.
  3. Baxter, J., 2013: Who is benefitting? Chistian aid.
  4. Siakor, S. K.A, 2010: The promise betrayed. Sustainable Development Institute.
  5. UN Panel of Experts, 2008: Report to Security Council.


Aug 7, 2013

In recent weeks Sustainable Development Institute (SDI) has been the subject of a campaign of misinformation in the press and through public statements made by Mr. Walter Wisner, Vice Chairman of the Land Commission of Liberia. On August 5, SDI issued a statement directly responding to this campaign of misinformation and to clarify some key points related to its advocacy and purpose as an organisation.

Speaking before a gathering of community members in Grand Cape Mount County, Mr. Wisner had made a number of serious accusations, calling a recent fact sheet published by SDI and Friends of the Earth “lies,” and attempting to tarnish SDI's credibility and reputation. SDI strongly refuted his comments in the statement, and expressed its concern at the implications of a senior civil servant attempting to cause harm to the reputation of a Liberian civil society organization without providing any evidence of wrongdoing. SDI has since received a letter from the Land Commission expressing “regret” at Mr. Wisner’s comments and an assurance that they do not represent the position of the Commission itself.

SDI has reiterated its commitment to maintaining a good professional relationship with the Land Commission on the important work of reforming Liberia’s land law. SDI is presently engaged with the Land Commission with the intention of bringing this matter to a satisfactory close.

SDI staff appeared on Fabric Radio to discuss the statement.

Jul 10, 2013

Recently, the G8 convened to discuss the most pressing issues facing the global economy. On the agenda yet again was Africa’s state of underdevelopment and poverty, with a particular focus on the critical role of agriculture in feeding the continent's people and boosting economic growth. The initiative under discussion, spearheaded by President Barack Obama's administration, is called the “New Alliance,” and it threatens to accelerate the transfer of resource ownership from rural Africans to multinational corporations while failing to meaningfully improve their lives.

Far from representing a ‘new’ approach to agriculture and development, the key policy objectives of the Alliance are reminiscent of an ugly past where engagement with Africa served to enrich foreign interests and domestic elites rather than the rural and urban poor. Only this time around, a broad spectrum of African organizations are up in arms against the initiative and for good reasons.

At the heart of the New Alliance is the idea that investment in African agriculture is needed to boost yields, feed the hungry, and turn underutilized land to productive and profitable use. No observer of the continent's agricultural sector would disagree with this premise – the question is, who is doing the investing and who will be the primary beneficiaries of this new initiative? A quick glance of the Alliance's corporate supporters reveals a cadre of the world’s foremost agribusiness interests, seed producers, and food distributors whose track records in the sector leave a lot to be desired.

On the face of it, this seems reasonable enough. The international private sector has a surplus of capital, demand for agricultural commodities is on the rise, and smallholders across the continent are in desperate need of investment and market access. Yet, as is often the case with development initiatives, what sounds convincing and reasonable in an air-conditioned American or European conference hall may hide a very different state of affairs from that on the ground.

The Alliance emphasizes the need to formalize land ownership systems and offers countries millions of dollars in incentives in exchange for opening their agricultural sectors to foreign capital. Where that capital promotes the growth of local business, establishes markets and builds infrastructure that can assist African farmers in selling more food, it holds the potential to kickstart a new era of equitable economic growth. However, reading between the lines of the policies underlying the initiative reveals a contrasting story.

In the current governance climate in many of the target countries, a far likelier outcome is that countries participating in the New Alliance will see another wave of land acquisitions by foreign entities, who seek fertile African land to grow lucrative commodities that can be sold on international markets – typically not even in Africa. That this land is often used – if not outright owned – by poor rural farming communities seems not to factor into the analysis underpinning the Alliance’s plan. Numerous human-rights organizations have commented on the improper and occasionally brutal methods employed by governments seeking to accommodate foreign investors who pay large sums of money for such land leases. At stake is the development model that will dictate the trajectory of life in rural Africa in the coming decades, and whether investment will strengthen accountability in African governance or weaken it.

When foreign investment serves to stimulate smallholder participation in markets and increases the profitability of their farms, it boosts the ability of the poor to re-invest in their own communities and gives them the financial security they need to challenge bad government policies. When investment dispossess them of their only valuable asset and relegates them to a condition of wage labour, it can cause dangerous resentments and worsen living conditions for community members who lose access to land but are not hired by investors.

As most menial jobs tend to go to men in these instances, the concentration of household incomes in the hands of men can also adversely affect the situation of women. Given the lack of real evidence that these land deals reduce poverty and bring meaningful benefits to the host-country economy, the question must be asked: whose interests are being served by the New Alliance, the poor or those with an eye on their land?

As activists in Liberia, we have seen the damage that can be caused by these deals. Communities are cajoled into giving away land and then get angry when vague promises of development are not fulfilled. At a recent conference on agriculture held by organizations in Monrovia, farmers and local agribusinesses complained of disorganization in donor programming, lack of government responsiveness to their requests, and a dearth of capital investment. None expressed a desire to see foreign companies come and take de facto ownership of the land they hope will lift them out of poverty.

Why would they want this, given how little such deals stand to benefit those who are most intimately involved in farming in Africa? If the public officials and development agencies who are promoting the New Alliance are truly serious about taking the important step of investing in African agriculture, they would be wise to listen to such voices, rather than those of the powerful and wealthy interests who stand to gain so much from this ‘new’ vision for Africa's poor and malnourished.

By Silas Kpanan’Ayoung Siakor and Ashoka Mukpo

This article was published by the Toronto Globe and Mail

Jun 22, 2013

Liberia is a test bed for many of the issues faced by governments across Africa. Although a small country, its choices matter. Recovering from more than a decade of civil war, Liberia has begun a process of major land tenure reform. At the same time, the government aims to revive its economy by expanding commercial resource extraction and large scale agricultural concessions, including to Malaysian palm oil company Sime Darby. If not managed carefully, there is a high risk that these two trajectories will result in conflict.

Speakers will include:
Dr Geoffrey Griffiths and Dr Ruth Evans, Reading University
Presenting findings from a detailed social and environmental assessment of a Sime Darby palm oil concession in Liberia, in an area that provides livelihoods to people through both agriculture and forest resources.
Silas Siakor, Goldman Environmental Prize Winner and campaigner, SDI-Liberia
A key figure in Liberia’s civil society, he will discuss the future of Liberia’s agricultural sector and what can be learned from experiences in the timber sector.
Hugh Speechly, Senior Advisor - Forest Governance and Markets, DFID
DFID is supporting governance reforms in Liberia through a £7 million contribution to implement a Voluntary Partnership Agreement under the EU’s Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Action Plan.
24 June 15:00 - 17:00 followed by refreshments
One Great George Street, Westminster, SW1P 3AA
To register for this event please send an email to saskia[at]


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