Salone News

Sierra Leone: Mining inspires hope, poses challenges

26 August 2006 at 02:01 | 1882 views

Bent over and knee deep in murky brown water, Abrahim Conteh scoops up another pile of gravel with his sieve and shakes it in a circular motion, scrutinising the coarse stones for diamonds.

As far as the eye can see, piles of scorched earth rise up like a lunar landscape. Among the mounds, scores of ant-like figures relentlessly dig, sieve and rake. Here in Sierra Leone’s diamondiferous eastern province of Koidu, each person works for less than one dollar a day and many will never find a diamond.

In a country with over 80 percent unemployment, mining attracts young men in search of work from across the country and beyond.

Soaked with sweat, Abrahim explains how the prospects of fortune lured him to the diamond pits in a country rated as the second poorest in the world on the United Nations Human Development Index.

“Diamond is the will of God,” says Abrahim in his native Krio language as he tips away yet another sieve of gravel. “If God directs you to where the diamond is, you will get it, but if he does not direct you, you don’t have it, so it’s a game of chance, you see. Mining is not a profession.”

Minerals offer hope of economic recovery

Infamous for fuelling Sierra Leone’s 10-year civil war, diamonds are crucial to the country’s economic and social recovery

Reforming the small-scale alluvial sector, which accounts for 90 percent of Sierra Leone’s diamond production, is regarded as the first crucial hurdle.

A report published in 2005 by Freetown-based Management Systems International - an organisation working to protect the rights of artisanal miners - states that little of the value of diamonds produced in Sierra Leone actually benefits the people. The long-term implications could be hugely detrimental to Sierra Leone’s recovery, the report said.

“The industry as a whole retains substantial barriers to entry, is extremely short-sighted, is remarkably exploitive of laborers, and leaves very little economic benefit in Sierra Leone - a potentially explosive socio-economic mixture in an extremely volatile region,” the report said.

The report continues that a disproportionate share of the value from diamonds goes to a minority of foreigners and that few Sierra Leoneans have any real hope of access to the lucrative roles within the industry.

The government is struggling to manage the huge influx of miners into small-scale mining. Licensing and monitoring these diggers is difficult - the mining terrain is vast and the porous borders into neighbouring Liberia and Guinea encourage smuggling.

Patrick Tongo, of Network Movement for Justice and Development’s Campaign for Just Mining, an NGO in Kono district, says the government should formalise the alluvial sector rather than solely monitor the industrial private sector.

“The problems are still at the grassroots level,” Tongo said from his office in Koidu. “Miners have to go through a rigorous, expensive and lengthy process to get a license so they just go out and mine anyway, far away, so that the mines monitors will not catch them.”

Foreign companies investing in mineral sector

Pointing to a map of Sierra Leone with large areas of red marked off, Alimany R. Wurie, director of mines, explains that three-quarters of the country is now under mineral exploration.

All the licenses have gone to international mining companies because only foreign companies can afford to invest in the country and explore the potential of Sierra Leone’s mineral reserves, he said.

“International companies are far easier to monitor,” he said. “When they find a mineral and go into production they all know their obligations - taxes, duty - and they fulfil them. There’s also an international understanding between all mining investors and they know that they have to fulfil their corporate social responsibilities as well,” he said.

With the onus on international mining companies to protect the interests of local communities, critics of the policy argue the government is shirking its own responsibilities to provide basic services to these mining communities.

“It’s not the companies’ presence people object to,” said Tongo. “It’s the fact that in this part of the country peoples’ lives are tied to the land. When they see the government giving this productive land to international companies with neither direct consultation nor compensation they feel angry.”

One international mining company insists they provide public service and employment to the local communities, claiming the culture of corruption, high unemployment and widespread poverty masks any positive contribution the company makes.

“We don’t have a bad reputation with the community,” said Sadik Sillah of Koidu Holdings South Africa, the largest international mining company in Sierra Leone.

Koidu Holdings provides health facilities for each employee and two dependents, and one meal a day for its workforce. The company says it also intends to create a training scheme to develop a skilled workforce from within local communities. But many local residents feel the company is exploiting their resources, giving too little in return.

“The problem is that Koidu Holdings is the only show in town and the community is so big that you can’t satisfy everybody. What people really want in Sierra Leone is individual money in little brown envelopes and unless you give them that they don’t take any notice of anything you might do in the community,” Sillah said.

With foreign investors set to dominate the market, and with fewer diamonds being unearthed in the shallow pits and riverbeds, some artisanal miners are returning to farming to generate income as job prospects look increasingly bleak.

Environment and rehabilitation of mined out land

Walking out of her small mud hut, Margaret Momoh points to the lush green paddy field where 30 women are at work. The field, she says, once resembled the pitted landscape common in this diamond mining area.

“For us in Sierra Leone we used to live from the land before these diamonds were found” said Momoh, founder of the Sinava women’s group. “After the war, with my family dead, I needed to live and feed myself but everywhere I went there were these huge pits full of water where people had been searching for diamonds. There was no land left to farm”.

Sinava reclaimed a mined-out pit and rehabilitated the land to use for farming. Margaret believes mined-out areas must be rehabilitated and the estimated 120,000 alluvial miners encouraged to farm.

The government, however, has no plan for alternative means of employment for its increasingly restless and desperate youth

“Yes, we want to develop a project to rehabilitate these mined-out areas and yes we could diversify into agricultural projects but it’s very expensive,” said Wurie, the director of mines.

Mineral sector observers insist the government has no real control over the minerals business and is disinterested in finding alternative solutions to underemployment in the mining regions. Whilst policies and regulations are ignored and the government concentrates on private investment, illegal miners will continue to take advantage of a weak system, the observers say.

“Our environment is being destroyed,” said Tongo. “If things remain as they are and the government refuses to address these issues it’s a recipe for some violence in the future.

Source: IRIN

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