BO, Sierra Leone (Reuters) - A Sierra Leone court has convicted six people opposed to a palm oil project in which French conglomerate Bollore owns a major stake of destroying trees and inciting the local population to protest over land rights.
In a ruling on Thursday, the court in the town of Bo found that the defendants, who include a former lawmaker and are members of a local landowners association, destroyed 40 palm oil trees belonging to Socfin in the Pujehun District.
An official with Luxemburg-based Socfin said thousands of trees had been damaged during the 2013 incident, but he did not provide a precise figure.
A growing number of African land lease deals for mining and agribusiness have provoked tensions for allegedly depriving often poor countries of the means to feed their own populations.
The six defendants, who received sentences ranging from five to six months in prison in addition to fines, were involved in organising protests against what they claimed were unduly low fees paid by Socfin for the land it used.
They had risked prison terms of up to five years.
Riots have in the past broken out in parts of Sierra Leone against both mining and agribusiness companies by locals accusing them of “land grabs”.
“I am a little bit disappointed with the judgement even though the sentence is lenient,” said Joseph Rahall, head of Green Scenery which paid the defendants’ legal costs and campaigns against large land acquisitions by global firms.
Socfin, which has always maintained that it has respected the terms of its agreement with the government of Sierra Leone, welcomed the conclusion of the case.
“In Sierra Leone you have a perfectly well-working legal system, and this thing has been going on long enough,” said Gerben Haringsma, Socfin’s country director.
“The judge has reached a decision and we will respect any decision they take,” he said.
Socfin manages around 180,000 hectares of palm oil and rubber plantations in Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Nigeria, Cameroon and Democratic Republic of Congo and in Asia in Indonesia and Cambodia.
Bollore, an industrial conglomerate with a heavy focus on Africa, owns a 38.7 percent stake in Socfin.
Writing by Emma Farge; Editing by Joe Bavier/Jeremy Gaunt