Silas Siakor

Confronting land grabbers

Liberian grassroots activist Silas Siakor literally works day and night protecting the land rights of indigenous villagers all over Liberia. ‘I didn’t know he was going to be this intense,’ says his wife Marlay Reed Siakor. ‘Sometimes I tell him: Silas, just be normal. Then he says: this ís me being normal.’

More than a quarter of Liberia’s population sees its way of living threatened by land grabbing multinationals, plundering the Liberian forests for the production of palm oil. ‘Liberia is endowed with multiple natural resources. This makes it attractive to foreign companies,’ Siakor explains in Silas, the documentary about his work which is shown at the Movies that Matter Festival 2018. ‘But these lands are not vacant. More than a million people live in areas that have been handed over to companies.’

About 25 per cent of Liberia’s land mass has been given away to multinationals, much of that in illegal permits. More than a million people who depend on these forests for their food, medicine and income, are completely ignored.

A hopeful future
Silas Siakor’s activism was partly fuelled by his poor upbringing. ‘I grew up in a household that never knew enough,’ he says. Another trigger was the fact that the civil war that ravaged Liberia for most of the 1990’s, was paid for by money from diamonds and wood. ‘You really begin to hate the system that allows that to happen.’

The end of the civil war in 2003 and the election of Africa’s first female president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf gave hope to many Liberians. Also to Siakor. ‘We believed in her,’ he says. ‘In those days I used to say: Liberia has turned the corner.’ But Johnson Sirleaf’s presidency did not live up to its promises: corruption remained rife, and government deals with forest corporations continued to rob people of their livelihoods.

Engaging the population
Siakor, who is a special guest at the Movies that Matter Festival, continued his work against government and corporate violations with even more vigour than before. His Sustainable Development Institute (SDI), which Siakor founded in 2005, actively engages the local population to document illegal activities by the forest companies. ‘We gather information to help support the communities to fight their fight,’ he says. He teaches the villagers about their rights, and slowly but surely they manage to hold authorities and companies to account, and to give a voice to the most vulnerable players in the game.

Silas Siakor is present at our festival, meet him during the Q&A’s after the screenings.