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False promises of Liberian gold

Out of sight in western Liberia's thick forests, gold mines attract disaffected youth but deliver few benefits. Travis Lupick photo.

Gbessey Musa is a long way from home. Three years ago, he left Sierra Leone in search of a job that could provide for his family. Chasing rumours of wealth, the young man eventually found himself at a gold mine deep in the forest of western Liberia. There, he recounted a story of false promises and disappointment.

“I’m looking for money,” he said. “This work is by luck; sometimes you get the gold, sometimes you don’t.”

Unable to find any sort of meaningful employment in Freetown, the plan, Musa continued, was to try mining in Liberia, which he heard could quickly make a person rich. Three years later, Musa conceded that he’s yet to send a penny back to his wife and four children. He explained that he makes enough to pay for food and rent a small room. But that’s it. There’s never been anything extra to send to his family. Even a ticket home has remained beyond his reach.

Travis Lupick photo.

Some two dozen men working the mine with Musa told similar stories. They earn enough to survive and work another day. But seldom anything more. And just like Musa, many travelled great distances – most, from Monrovia, some 160 kilometers southeast – and now find themselves unable to pay for transport home.

“We live at the mercy of the dirt,” Musa concluded. “Digging a pit to get our daily bread.”

In nearby Henry Town, community leaders were equally disenchanted. They said that their hope was for the area’s gold mines to bring paved roads and social services. But development hasn’t come. Instead, commodity prices have soared and petty crime has risen to overwhelm the city’s small police force. Meanwhile, adolescent males are leaving school in favour of easy money in the mines while many young women are similarly offering their bodies to meet to a booming demand for prostitutes fueled by a transient labour force.

Kafa Manjo, a chief for the Quinika people, complained that the money made in the mines around Henry Town seldom finds its way to the community. The majority of miners’ earnings are sent back to the men’s families in Monrovia. And what little that does trickle into the local economy largely goes to vices such as alcohol and prostitution.

“Most of the boys are not putting their money to use,” Manjo said. “All they do is misbehave with it.”

Travis Lupick photo.

He explained that because most of the young men working the mines often only reside in Henry Town for a short time (mining in the area is seasonal, ending with the onset of annual rains) they feel few ties to the community in which they stay.

“The money they get does not go to our roads and our clinics are not fixed,” Manjo continued. “They take the money to Monrovia.”

In the county capital of Bopolu, officials conceded that the mines are mismanaged and a problem.

Superintendent Allen Gbowee argued that youths’ eagerness to work in the mines is a legacy of the past. “The war and then NGOs have made young people accustomed to making quick money,” he said. “So many look at mining as the best option for them.”

Gbowee noted that there are laws designed to keep young people out of the labour force and in school. He also emphasized that the government should be receiving revenue via taxation of mineral resources extracted from the mines. The challenges are enforcement and capacity.

“How can we solve these problems?” she wondered aloud.

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