Mining resources in Sierra Leone: When good intentions are not enough

May 20, 2014
by 
Raphael Yimga Tatchi, Africa Programs Officer

More than a decade after a horrifying civil war ravaged Sierra Leone from 1991 to 2002, leading to the death of 120,000 people and the mutilation of thousands of civilians, this small country in Western Africa of 6.3 million people, is courageously rebuilding itself. Since peace accords were signed in 2002, there have been two presidential elections, in 2007 and in 2012, and successive governments have put in place a variety of policies, programs, initiatives and reforms in several sectors in an attempt to meet the challenges facing the country. Yet, 70 percent of the population still lives below the poverty line with no access to basic social services, and the national production of rice, the country’s staple food (the cost of which increased by more than 50 percent between January and July 2008), only covers 70 percent of the population’s needs, while remaining rice supplies must be imported.

The country remains among the poorest in the world, in spite of sustained economic growth which reached 13.3 percent in 2013! This growth can be explained by two major iron ore sites that started production in the last two years. Furthermore, numerous other sites in this mineral-rich country are in the exploration or development phases, looking to exploit large quantities of iron, rutile, diamonds, bauxite and even offshore oil. To say that Sierra Leone, a country still identified as a fragile state, is a gigantic open pit mining site is no exaggeration.

Coming into this context from Quebec and Canada, or more specifically from Development and Peace, which has been present in the country since well before the civil war and working in a number of areas, including governance of the extractive industries, an on-site visit can lead to intense moments of questioning and reflection. This is particularly true since, over several decades, people around the world have begun to develop a collective consciousness around the idea that another future is possible. This, in turn, has led to the emergence of various citizen initiatives targeting the extractive industries, including the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative and Publish What You Pay. Last fall, Development and Peace launched its A Voice for Justice campaign, demanding that an ombudsman be put in place to help ensure responsible mining practices by Canadian mining companies in countries of the Global South.

In other words, in Sierra Leone as in Canada, we need to question the practices of the extractive industries because, in spite of objectives set out by the government and a number of national and international civil-society organizations, the sector is still not showing real signs of contributing to the development of the country. Notwithstanding the expectations created and the promises made, both by the government and the mining companies, violations of the rights of workers and of the communities living in the vicinity of mining sites, including environmental destruction and its proven impacts on health and food safety, remain serious concerns. Here in Canada, the government has still not put in place an ombudsman, despite calls by Canadian citizens to do so.

In any event, one of the questions that would need to be explored in greater depth in Sierra Leone is how to move from good intentions to the construction and implementation of a framework that will ensure the democratic and professional governance of the sector. The following pressing issues, to name but a few, need to be addressed: the institutional capacities and decision-making processes at the national level with regards to negotiating mining contracts, the national tax system as applied to the mining sector, and the transparency of the participation process involving affected communities in the analysis and evaluation of the environmental and social impacts of mining projects. The crucial matter of transforming vocational and technical training systems also needs to be included, so as to avoid the absurd situation where there is insufficient human resources to fill menial jobs. Failing to implement such structurally transformative measures only leaves us with moralistic posturing, which in reality is a very naïve stance to take.

Incessant cries of outrage over the inherent contradiction between the exploitation of mineral resources and lack of development in Africa do little to change the situation for a large number of youths with no future prospects. Furthermore, these cries will not change certain incongruities, such as those arising in one recent situation where a rural community in negotiations and defending its interests in the context of a major mining project discovered that the mining company itself was paying the fees of the community’s legal advisers. What a wonderful – and suspect – example of social responsibility!

And yet promising alternatives do exist. The adoption of the Africa Mining Vision by the African Union in 2008 is one such alternative. It provides a balanced framework for discussion and action in the sector. Its creative appropriation by various actors in Sierra Leone, including Development and Peace’ partners in the country, is such that it needs to be understood and supported. However, even for inveterate optimists, there is still a long row to hoe. So let’s get down to work and keep a watchful eye!