Land and conflict in Sierra Leone: A rapid desk-based study

The review explores land ownership and rights in both the Western Area and the other provinces


This report presents the results of a rapid desk-based review of academic and grey literature on land issues in Sierra Leone, with a particular focus on literature from 2002 onwards. The review explored land ownership and rights in both the Western Area and the other provinces and the concept of land as an actual and potential driver of conflict (both violent and non-violent).

While inequitable land access is believed to have been a driver of the civil war, there is a lack of recent academic literature that connects land issues to existing conflict. However, grey literature raises fears that land issues continue to be a simmering source of conflict. Academic research from 2012 also suggests that investment projects have the potential to reinforce existing inequalities and could stir resentment.

There is broad agreement in the literature that the present land tenure system and administration need to be reformed in order to address both land access issues and labour mobility. Despite the Government of Sierra Leone’s stated policies and legislation, women still have limited opportunities to own land and land reform has made slow progress. Although there is no firm data on the incidence of land disputes through courts, they are believed to be on the rise. Women and outsiders are effectively excluded from access to justice through the customary court system.

Academic literature suggests that power dynamics have changed in rural areas since the war, but Paramount Chiefs and elders of landowning family lineages still hold more power over local land allocation than locally elected councils. Chiefs have traditionally controlled access to land by individuals of lower social status such as outsiders, women and young men. There is some indication that inter-generational relations and relations between weaker groups and chiefs have improved in recent years.

Among anecdotal sources, there is a significant perception of ‘land grabbing’ by foreign companies involved in large bio-fuel and other projects, which cannot be easily verified due to lack of accurate land use records or research. Anecdotally, NGOs, civil society and human rights groups have documented outbreaks of violence in response to such projects.

Further evidence is required to draw firm conclusions on both foreign and domestic investment in terms of their impact on access to land and their role in sparking land disputes or violent conflict. NGOs are calling for greater transparency in land deals and informed consent, which could help to mitigate the risk of conflict.

This report has been produced for Evidence on Demand with the assistance of the UK Department for International Development (DFID) contracted through the Climate, Environment, Infrastructure and Livelihoods Professional Evidence and Applied Knowledge Services (CEIL PEAKS) programme, jointly managed by HTSPE Limited and IMC Worldwide Limited.


Sturgess, P.; Flower, C. Land and conflict in Sierra Leone: A rapid desk-based study. Evidence on Demand, UK (2013) 31 pp. [DOI: 10.12774/eod_hd.dec2013.sturgess_flower]

Land and conflict in Sierra Leone: A rapid desk-based study

Published 1 January 2013