Tag Archives: mining

In the field, literally

Just like in most countries, Easter is followed by a four-day week here in Sierra Leone. That normally equates to less being achieved, especially after a lazy holiday weekend. Normally.

On Tuesday morning at 6 a.m., I headed for Bombali District with two journalists from Radio Democracy in Freetown – Mabel Kabba and Fatima Sesay. We were joined by one of JHR’s two Freetown-based trainers Martha Kargbo, and our driver Junior. Our mission: to gather material for three human rights stories in three days. Considering the infrastructure in Sierra Leone, this was ambitious.

The fan belt snapped on our SUV, delaying us two hours

The fan belt snapped on our SUV, delaying us two hours.

The three stories were about allegations that an iron ore mine company has caused flooding on farmland; allegations that a biofuel company mislead landowners about its intentions; and the issue of gender inequality in rural Sierra Leone.

Trucks carry soil at the London Mining Iron Ore site in Marampa

Trucks carry soil at the London Mining iron ore site in Marampa.

Day one did not start very well. The fan belt snapped just before our first interview. We had to wait two hours for a mechanic to fix our SUV. The heat was intense. When we did get to the village of Manonkoh, the Chief told us he has decided not to talk to the media, because he was suspended by his Paramount Chief the last time he did so. We tried to find the Paramount Chief back in Lunsar, but he was out of town.

The flooded fields near the village of Manonkoh

The flooded fields near the village of Manonkoh.

So, onto the biofuel story. We visited the village of Warreh Yeama. Like in Manokoh, many villagers knew Fatima Sesay by name. This is her beat. These people did talk, and explained at length why* they feel mislead by Addax Bioenergy. Addax is leasing tens-of-thousands of hectares in Sierra Leone to grow sugar cane for biofuel.

Village elders sit down to talk to the JHR team

Village elders sit down to talk to the JHR team.

We headed for our base of Makeni and set-up interviews for the following day with a food rights activist and the biofuel company Addax.

The Imam and two village elders in Worreh Yeama show the pegs they removed from fertile swampland nearby

The Imam and two village elders in Worreh Yeama show the pegs they say that they removed from land near the village.

On Wednesday morning we spoke to the Programme Coordinator of the Sierra Leone Network on the Right to Food. It helped frame the questions* for our next stop at Addax in remote Mabilafu.

Construction is well underway at the Addax biofuel processing plant in Mabilafu

Construction is well under way at the Addax biofuel processing plant in Mabilafu.

We spent another hour with the company’s Health, Safety, Social & Environment Manager, who gave his side of the story. He made his case for the company’s practices, but it did not tally fully* with what villagers had told us. There was a mismatch somewhere. A mismatch that makes for a story. Things were looking up.

Centre-Pivot irrigation on one of the fields leased by Addax to grow sugar cane

Centre Pivot Irrigation on one of the sites leased by Addax to grow sugar cane.

On Thursday we started work on the gender inequality story. Logistics meant we couldn’t head to rural Koinadugu District to the northeast. But what seemed like a curse, turned out to be a blessing. First we found a school in Makeni, where the Vice Principal told us of the high drop-out rates among girls. We then went to a nearby village and met a 16-year-old girl who dropped out when she got pregnant. She told us about her family’s strong reaction*.

Minster for Gender Affairs Moijue Kai Kai, Radio Democracy reporter Mabel Kabba, JHR local trainer Martha Kargbo

Minster for Gender Affairs Moijue Kai Kai, Radio Democracy reporter Mabel Kabba and JHR local trainer Martha Kargbo at Makeni City Hall.

As luck would have it there was a gender empowerment conference in Makeni that day. We got to interview the Minister for Gender Affairs and prominent female politicians about what can be done to improve equality for women and girls. All those hard-to-reach politicians, rounded-up in one place.

We returned to Warreh Yeama on our route back to Freetown. Villagers stood by their side of the story. Either someone was lying, or communication between the company and villagers was not what it could be. And that wasn’t all*.

Children in the village of Worreh Yeama

Children in the village of Worreh Yeama.

Finally we managed to track-down the Paramount Chief in charge of the area containing Manokoh and the London Mining Iron Ore mine. In the space of 20 minutes he said a number of things that raised more questions* for our visit to London Mining’s office back in Freetown.

Paramount Chief Bai Koblo Queen II of Marampa Chiefdom

Paramount Chief Bai Koblo Queen II of Marampa Chiefdom.

We headed back to Freetown on Thursday evening with three stories in our back pockets and a lot of transcribing ahead of us.

*Listeners to Radio Democracy 98.1fm in Freetown can find out more when these stories air over next week.

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.

Follow Travis Lupick on Twitter: @tlupick