Just about any landscape in Sierra Leone is lush, bountiful, and beautiful; anyone who has been here agrees.
For centuries, people have worked in thick forested hills and swamps, carving out enough to survive in the bad times and thrive in the good. These land stewardship practices have evolved into complex hierarchies and cultural norms.
Sierra Leonean people work hard on this land and yet receive relatively little for their efforts, especially when you consider the demand for what they produce. Most of us know our favorite chocolate bar might contain cocoa from here, but there is a lot in your everyday life that begins elementally in Sierra Leone: the glasses (rutile) and cans (bauxite) in your kitchen, and just about all your processed food (palm oil). The world needs Sierra Leone’s land, but what that really means is that the world needs the hard work of Sierra Leoneans…and yet underpays them.
It is between this historical legacy and modern global forces that Sierra Leonean farmers are caught, while dealing with all the other challenges a developing country faces. This squeezed position doesn’t just provoke conflict internally, it’s also inefficient. Untapped potential is the other thing people who visit Sierra Leone will mention to you.
Unleashing this potential was one of the reasons OneVillage Partners was eager to partner with Welt Hunger Hilfe to pilot a brand new methodology of Participatory Land-Use Mapping and Planning to assist rural communities in Eastern Sierra Leone. OneVillage Partners staff conducted a series of participatory workshops that helped community members assess their land use, map their claims, and work together to establish a plan of more productive activity.
These villages were far from our operations, but our approach was true to our values. Through an inclusive, action-oriented discussion these communities were able to uncover new truths in their community and took action: they developed new zones for different agricultural activity; where collaborative farming among different land owning families could happen more smoothly; they developed standards and by-laws to protect the farm laborers who had no land of their own, and, critically, they set aside land to conserve permanently.
This sort of pro-active planning to manage the economic resources of their land is unfortunately rare in Sierra Leone. Many communities are unprepared to handle the market forces pushing upon them, as a result there are countless stories of exploited villagers in Sierra Leone. This mapping and planning gives communities a chance to better understand the potential value of their land, but also how to better utilize this richness to solve immediate challenges. One community realized that by conserving a section of forest instead of farming on riverside land, upstream from the village, they would keep the water cleaner and they would be able to use the water better. Community members volunteered their own land upriver to do this. This is an action that improves their quality of life now, on their own terms, not later on down the road at the whims of global market.
After three days of intensive workshops and surveys, the community had stacks of maps, data points, and five year plans, but they also came away with a renewed appreciation of the value of their human capital: they knew the value of the work they did together. For example, the community members who had donated their land were offered land from other land owning families. To unlock the true richness of their land, they had to do so together.
OneVillage Partners staff came back excited (but also, exhausted) by all we learned in a new context. We immediately began making plans on how to incorporate these land mapping and planning tools into our own work here with our partner villages. After all this work together for the development of their village, what might our partner communities learn about their own human capital?
In many ways, this exploration and testing of the boundaries of work was the major theme of the year for us. OneVillage Partners staff have travelled further this year than ever: from delivering trainings in the urban jungle of Bo to the time they had to hike into the actual jungle to reach an isolated village with Welt Hunger Hilfe staff. Our network of partner villages reaches further in all directions, but whenever we come back together from the furthest reaches of our work, we regroup and share what we’ve learned and how we can apply this to do better.
As we’ve grown this year, in number of projects and people served, in innovations and partnerships, we’ve been able to grow deeply too. We’ve piloted a brand new phase of Nurturing Opportunities for Women training, focused on developing business skills. We’ve been able to solicit unique technical expertise from around the country to help the Ngolahun community complete their project of building a footbridge to access their farms, the most ambitious project any partner community has attempted.
Now that we’ve gained all this expertise, we’re trying to share it as quickly as we can with all our partner villages to plan for what’s just beyond the lush and bountiful horizon. Brand new boundaries to our work are going to be mapped in 2019 and we can’t wait to see what new truths we uncover.
Author: Chad McCordic, Program Director