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Sierra Leone:How to avoid conflict in the mining industry

By  | 16 December 2010 at 00:01 | 694 views


Post-conflict development has become an axiom in Sierra Leone. With the small nation blesed with rich natural wealth, the government yearns for investors whilst the people expect improvement in their living standards.

Day in day out, information about billion dollar investment contracts is published in the media nationally and internationally. Many Sierra Leoneans in the Diaspora envisage Sierra Leone moving in the right direction.

Nevertheless, how responsible are both the government and their investors in the resource-rich communities? On the government side, laws and policies should be in place for good contracts, protect the people and their environment, and implement the ethical codes of investment. On the investors’ side, they need to respect ethical conduct and respect communities without a ‘third-world’ perception about people in the developing world.

Many mining areas in Sierra Leone are under abuse. Resource abuse is a consequence of resource curse. The path that resource abuse takes to reach the resource-cursed stage depends on how the elites (political, social, and economic) are prepared to break the cycle of injustice. Decades back, diamonds were the ‘atom’ of environmental stalemate. Because of the elitist forms of abuse perpetrated by overt and covert power during post colonial political ‘metamorphosis’ and rogue investors, diamonds in Sierra Leone became a curse.

The political and economic elites often stratify the society by marginalising the resource-rich communities due to greed and lack of political consciousness. These elites use state institutions, economic might, and the power of language to enforce their will on the vulnerable ‘weak-poor’. Oppression, coercion, intimidation, bullying, fear-mongering, violent reprisals and many more are the tools employed by the elites to dominate and oppress the liberal outcry of the resource-abuse communities. Because of this socio-political stratification, social conflicts, political conflicts, and ‘resource-control’ conflicts are bound to occur. Apparently, this was what recently occurred in the birth of a resource-rich Tonkolili.

Today, with a post-conflict development paradigm in Sierra Leone, the autocratic control of natural resources and intimidation of people in resource-based communities through clientelism, patrimonialism, and irresponsible corporations continues. From Kono in the east, down to Tonkolili in the epicentre of Sierra Leone, the state and their economic actors consider resources but not people. Government’s agenda for development looks like the emergence of ‘resource-racing’ (scramble for resources) instead of sustainable development. This can lead to stakeholder-conflict with unprecedented environmental crisis with deplorable resource-rich communities.

After years of political abuse and marginalisation by both APC and SLPP, Tonkolili is bound to suffer from resource-abuse. Who will salvage Tonkolili district? The answer rests on the true sons and daughters of the district, who without fear, will surely intervene.

Sad decades ago, patriotic sons of the district were murdered in cold blood. Now, the same district is apparently coming under a resource scramble and abuse by the so-called African Minerals Ltd. The recent conflict in Kemedugu village, Tonkolili district is a concern to many, especially the patriots of the district. Community members became dissatisfied and unhappy over mining implementation processes and reacted by destroying equipment. No peaceful citizen enjoys the destruction of property. However, in a situation of ‘business as usual’, where patience runs dry, violence wets the mind. Without any doubt, resource conflict is the outcome of resource abuse.

The government counter reacted by using state agents to manhandle the Kemedugu community that was ignored and abused. This is a wikileak-type punishment or a ‘blaming the victim’ option. The question is how the situation could have reached this boiling point if government and their investors had done the right thing? A similar situation of discontent had happened in Kono years ago. On one hand, a responsible platform should have been in place to avoid future occurrence. On the other hand, did the government and their investors take the people as ‘business as usual’? - ‘we can abuse you and pay your hell price’. There is no place for that in a sustainable development paradigm.

The problem of oppressive and inequitable socio-economic and political structures lies squarely on the state institutions (‘blaming the system’). The state cannot hunger for development that ignores the effective consultation and benefits of the resource-rich communities. The billions of dollar investment do not fascinate the communities unless it transforms their living standards, mitigate their environmental concerns, and acknowledges them as significant partners in the development process.

Resource extraction in Sierra Leone shows that the “resource-based communities” are just the hosts of the natural resources; they have no power to determine and influence exploration and extraction of resources in their land. Unfortunately, the communities carry the burden of malfunctioning mining activities, but are neither fully represented nor fully informed. The people cannot manage and control their environment. This is socially and environmentally unfriendly and unhealthy.

The resource-rich communities need to be empowered to determine what affects them and how it affects them. Empowerment is central to social justice and participation in political action, environmental concerns, and socio-economic gains. Empowerment and participation bring sustainable practices.

The absence of comprehensive stakeholder networking between the resource-rich communities and their ‘invaders’ breeds conflict. Non-governmental organisations, civil society and politicians have failed the communities. They use the plight of resource-rich communities for their own goals and benefit. Both at political and economic levels, there is an absence or neglect of ethical investment (resource ethics). As long as this continues, the people are bound to fight back.

Therefore, the state and their investors MUST act wisely and judiciously to avoid another Kemedugu crisis. The government must avoid a ‘Kono-diamond’ resource-abuse, environmental crisis, and resource-conflict if it wants to achieve its development agenda.