Leading Environmental Legislation in Sierra Leone

Kirsty Scott

26 October 2023

This is an article from the CSC Development Theme: Strengthening global peace, security and governance

Sierra Leone has suffered a lot when it comes to the issue of climate change and disaster management. The proliferation of illegal miners in the country, coupled with indiscriminate logging, has made the country most vulnerable to climate change and prone to disaster. We have recently strengthened our environmental laws to deal with the plethora of environmental issues plaguing this country for years. We now have stringent penalties for environmental infractions, and the Judiciary has established a special environmental division of the High Court to speedily deal with environmental cases brought before it. We are on the right trajectory in protecting and managing our environment. 

Tamba Sangbah

Sierra Leone is rich in natural resources making it attractive to international investors and mining companies. It is also in the top 10% of countries most vulnerable to climate change, including drought, flooding, and mudslides, which can affect its mining and agricultural activities, threatening the economy and livelihoods. Therefore, protecting the environment is critical to managing the country’s climate vulnerability and economic activities.

As Assistant Director of Legal Affairs, Compliance and Enforcement at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Sierra Leone, Commonwealth Alumnus Tamba Sangbah is tasked with drafting, monitoring, and enforcing legislation to protect Sierra Leone’s natural resources and reduce environmental degradation.

Works of Tamba Sangbah as Environmental Lawyer in Sierra Leone

Tamba works with the Environment Protection Agency under the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change, where provides legal guidance to ensure compliance of environmental law in Sierra Leone. He also helps in drafting environmental regulations, represents the government in discussions and debates on international environmental agreements, and advises on their adaptation and adoption in the Sierra Leonean context.

As one of the few environmental lawyers in Sierra Leone, Tamba’s knowledge and expertise is central to strengthening the country’s laws and regulations to protect the environment and reduce its climate vulnerability. His Master’s in Environmental Law and Policy from the University of Kent through a Commonwealth Scholarship has played an important role.

“The essence of the knowledge I acquired at the university has helped us tremendously in transforming the environmental landscape.”

On taking up his position at the EPA, Tamba found immediate application for his new skills and knowledge in reviewing and drafting environmental legislation. He mad significant contributions to drafting the Environmental Protection Agency Act 2022 and other related regulations. These new legislations have introduced robust legal frameworks that help to protect the environment from exploitation and prosecute against illegal activities. Tamba researched international environmental best practices in developing the Act to ensure Sierra Leone is operating at this level.

For Tamba, this benchmarking is important in ensuring Sierra Leone meets its international obligations regarding environmental protection and tackling climate change. Tamba has worked as part of a larger team to ensure Sierra Leone meets its obligations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and that the government regularly submits its nationally determined contribution (NDC).

An emerging area of law

Tamba stresses that having laws and legal frameworks is not enough; the laws need to be enforced to ensure compliance to achieve the ultimate goal of effective and efficient management of the environment. He shares that under his direction, legal action has been taken against multilateral companies and illegal operators whose actions have exploited natural resources and workers, in particular women and children.

In prosecuting environmental law, there is a strong reliance on the judges and magistrates charged with statutory mandates to interpret the law and prescribe punishment for lawbreakers. Because this is an emerging area of law, most judges and magistrates are not well abreast with the intricacies of environmental law.

“We have so many environmental crimes in this country because it is an emerging are of the law; most of the judges and magistrates the judges are not knowledgeable enough to deal with those cases.” 

Tamba uses the term ’emerging area of law’ due to the relatively new status of environmental law. Many judges, therefore, have not been trained in environmental law or have had little exposure to cases to understand the law and its effective interpretation.

To address this, Tamba established a connection with the judiciary and conducted a series of training programs on environmental law. This included taking them to field sites to witness environmental degradation due to illegal and exploitive activities and holding the first National Environmental Law Conference, which included international environmental experts from organizations such as UNEP.

Through these trainings and conferences, Tamba is proud to share that the Chief Justice established an environmental division of the High Court in Sierra Leone that now helps to speedily conclude all environmental or environmental-related cases. Tamba was also involved in developing a training manual on environmental law for judges and magistrates that serves as a blueprint for continuous judicial trial training on environmental law.

Environmental governance at the community level

With laws in place and judges trained and empowered to prosecute cases, Tamba notes that compliance and enforcement remain challenging at the local level.

Taking environmental governance to grassroots communities is now on Tamba’s agenda to raise awareness at the local level on why these laws have been introduced and how to abide by them. Tamba shares that most of the illicit activities taking place in rural areas, such as illegal mining and indiscriminate logging, are conspired between locals and violators. As such, environmental education in rural areas is key.

“We are establishing an environmental committee at the local level to ensure people at the local level will be part of the environmental governance because that’s where the crimes are committed. We want to get them involved. We want them to be part of the process so they know this environment belongs to all of us. Protecting the environment is a national duty.”

Tamba is now in the process of creating these environmental committees and networks. He hopes they will support people at the local level to understand environmental law in their local context and provide a platform to share their challenges and positive outcomes of understanding the law.

Addressing the conflict between nature and corporate profit

Additional mechanisms employed to monitor compliance have included the development of sector-specific environmental legislation. The EPA licenses different sectors to conduct their activities following an environmental impact assessment (EIA). Without this license, they cannot operate in Sierra Leone. Tamba notes that each sector has its own needs and operations, such as the mining sector, agricultural sector and tourist sector, and, as such, one-size-fits-all all regulations and laws are not effective or appropriate.

Sector-specific laws have been particularly effective in the mining sector. Mining of natural resources attracts significant investment, employment and revenue in Sierra Leone. However, mining can be harmful to the environment. Tamba is tasked with balancing the demand to maintain this sector while ensuring its activities do not cause environmental degradation.

Introducing specific legislation and regulations has enabled the EPA to better monitor mining activities. Companies must submit quarterly reports and allow site visits to ensure activities comply with national and international best practices.

Scholarship impact

With mining such an important part of Sierra Leone’s economy, and the environment an ever-increasing area of concern, Tamba hopes to further develop his skills and knowledge in mining practices to strengthen national laws and regulations. With rich mineral resources and precious stones, including diamonds, there has been an increase in companies requesting mining lease agreements. These agreements would exclude companies from certain aspects of national environmental law to increase investment and profit.

Tamba sees significant risk in accepting these agreements, both on a national and environmental level. Without legal expertise in the country to understand and negotiate these agreements, Tamba and others cannot advise the government in this area.

Despite this new challenge, Tamba is proud of the achievements and impact he has made following his Commonwealth Scholarship.

“Before I left the shores of Sierra Leone to the UK, I had a focus in mind. And that was to come and transform my country’s legal framework. I wanted to work at the Environment Protection Agency because I think that was the appropriate institution for me to be able to bring the necessary changes. And today, I lead the compliance department. I’m the head of the Directorate for environmental compliance. My Directorate deals with environmental compliance and enforcement issues to ensure our environment is safe for us and future generations.”

Tamba Sangbah is a 2015 Commonwealth Scholar from Sierra Leone. He completed an LLM in Environmental Law and Policy at the University of Kent