Sierra Leone Sights & Sounds – Rice Farming, Bunce Island, Street Dance

Rice has become a commodity of strategic significance across much of Africa.
Driven by changing food preferences in the urban and rural areas and compounded by high population growth rates and rapid urbanization, rice consumption in sub-Saharan Africa has increased by nearly 6% per annum between 1961 and 1992, more than double the rate of population growth, with consumption and production spreading well beyond their traditional centres in West Africa and Madagascar. West Africa has become a significant player in world rice markets precisely because of its increasingly significant share of world rice imports,
The slow growth in domestic rice production has been attributed to the very low yield being achieved by West African rice farmers. The major rice production systems are upland, hydromorphic and rainfed lowland which together occupy more than 74% of area cultivated.
Whilst I was in the Freetown Port recently, I watched a vessel from Chittagong Bangladesh, where I worked and lived for 2 years, unloading huge quantities of rice from Bangladesh and India. To me this is an unfortunate set of circumstances, as Sierra Leone has huge potential for efficient rice farming and imports such as this would seem to use much needed foreign exchange.
rice farming video
rice farming

Bunce Island
Bunce Island was the largest British slave castle on the Rice Coast of West Africa. Founded around 1670, it exported tens of thousands of African captives to North America and the West Indies until the British Parliament finally closed it down in 1808. During its long and tragic history, Bunce Island was operated by four London-based companies: the Gambia Adventurers; the Royal African Company of England (which had official recognition from the British Crown); and the private firms of Grant, Oswald & Company and John & Alexander Anderson.

During the 1750s Richard Oswald, Bunce Island’s principal owner, forged a strong business and personal relationship with Henry Laurens, one of the richest rice planters and slave dealers in the Colony of South Carolina. Rice planters in coastal South Carolina and Georgia were willing to pay high prices for people brought from the Rice Coast of West Africa where farmers had been growing rice for hundreds of years and were experts at its cultivation.

African rice-growing know-how was essential to the prosperity of the American rice industry. Henry Laurens acted as Bunce Island’s business agent in Charleston, receiving the castle’s human cargoes from Sierra Leone and advertising and selling the African captives at auction. Laurens took a 10% commission on each sale, returning the profits to Oswald in London, often in the form of rice paid by South Carolina planters.

Bunce Island’s history illustrates the complex economic relationship between the West African Rice Coast and Great Britain’s Southern Colonies. Its records show that Henry Laurens sent his own ships directly to Bunce Island to obtain slaves for his newly opened rice plantations in coastal Georgia, paying for them with ship-building supplies made from Carolina pine. The Bunce Island’s records also show that Henry Laurens helped his British business partner, Richard Oswald, open up new plantations near St. Augustine, and that Oswald dispatched a number of his skilled African workers directly from Bunce Island to build his plantations in Florida.

Bunce Island also illustrates the slave trade’s political impact in North America. During the American Revolutionary War the French, jealous of Bunce Island’s commercial success, took the opportunity of their alliance with the American colonists to attack and destroy the castle in 1779. Thus, a battle of the American Revolution was actually fought on Bunce Island. But even more important, Henry Laurens, who had grown rich from the trade in African slave labor, became President of the Continental Congress and later US envoy to Holland. Captured by the British and imprisoned in the Tower of London, he was bailed out of jail by his friend Richard Oswald. Later, Laurens and Oswald sat across the table from one another at the Paris negotiations that led to American independence. Thus, US independence was negotiated, in part, between Bunce Island’s British owner and his long-time agent for the sale of Rice Coast Africans in South Carolina.

Bunce Island also illustrates the enduring family ties between the Gullah people — African Americans living today in coastal South Carolina and Georgia — and their Rice Coast cousins. In recent years Gullah people have made two well-publicized pilgrimages to Bunce Island. In 1989, Emory Campbell, Director of Penn Center on St. Helena Island, South Carolina, led a group of Gullahs to Bunce Island in a tearful journey memorably recorded in the PBS documentary “Family Across the Sea.” In 1997, Mary Moran and her family from Harris Neck, Georgia visited Bunce Island on their trip to Sierra Leone to meet the Mende people who share an ancient African song they have retained in their family for generations here in America. Mrs. Moran’s visit is recorded in the documentary, “The Language You Cry In.”

bunce island sl

Street Dancing
street dancing

Like many other developing countries, Sierra Leone struggles with the conflict surrounding natural resource exploitation and issues like greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity conservation and eco-tourism potential. Huge areas of the original rich rain forest habitat have been removed or severely damaged by slash and burn, however there are some examples of habitat conservation, such as the Gola Forest.

A rainforest in Sierra Leone has won protection from the country’s government for an indefinite period in a move heralded as one of the first examples of a state using forest conservation to cut its carbon emissions.

The news came as the UN climate change conference in Bali enters its critical final week. Thousands of delegates from almost 200 countries are attending the summit, to discuss how to cut greenhouse gas emissions after current Kyoto protocol targets expire in 2012. So far, progress has been slow, with the US remaining the only developed country to have refused to ratify the treaty.

President Ernest Bai Koroma of Sierra Leone is expected today to back the plans to make the 185,000-acre Gola Forest, about half the size of London, the nation’s second national park. This will protect at least 50 species of mammal, 2,000 different plants and 274 species of bird, 14 of which are close to extinction.

It is hoped that Gola, close to the Liberian border in the south-east of the west African country, will become the flagship site in a network of national parks planned by the President. Six more are due to be established in the future, to develop the country’s tourist industry as it recovers from the civil war that tore it apart in the 1990s.

The Gola project is being jointly funded by the European Commission, the French government, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the United States-based Conservation International.

Alistair Gammell, the international director of the RSPB, said: “We are helping the government turn a logging forest into a protected forest. Huge amounts of carbon will be saved and the site is an excellent example to those now involved in climate talks in Bali. It is showing how richer countries can help poorer countries protect wildlife, support local communities and tackle climate change.”

More than 100,000 people from local communities will be paid annually to replace earlier royalties linked to logging and diamond mining in the forest, and scientists will be encouraged to study Gola’s wildlife in the hope of creating a hub for the increasingly popular practice of eco-tourism.

The European Commission and the French government are contributing more than 3m towards the project, training hundreds of staff to patrol the forest’s boundaries, monitor wildlife and run education programmes. A 6m trust fund is also being established to cover the park’s running costs and the annual payments to local communities.

Gola is part of the Upper Guinea Forest, which once spread itself across five countries. Less than 30 per cent of it remains, following hundreds of years of aggressive deforestation for the sake of timber, agriculture and charcoal. The Conservation Society of Sierra Leone launched a project to save the forest 15 years ago, but during the civil war, from 1991 to 2002, work was suspended and the government became powerless to protect it. The forest is home to leopards, chimpanzees and forest elephants, as well as hundreds of rare species of bird.

Meanwhile, the President of Guyana, in South America, recently proposed placing his country’s entire 50 million-acre forest, almost the combined size of England and Scotland, under a British-led international body in return for securing aid for sustainable development and technical assistance in switching to green industries.