A New Narratives cross-border investigation by Joaquin M. Sendolo and Alieu Sahid Tunkara
BONG MINES, Liberia and LUNSAR, Sierra Leone – In 2012, Frienkeen Tyler, of Bong Town in the Fuamah District of Bong County was feeling good about his future. Employed as a security guard by China Union, the Chinese mining company, he received a steady salary. His three children attended the company’s tuition-free school and received medical benefits.
But in 2015, Tyler, 35, and his family were plunged back into poverty and uncertainty when China Union shut down operations as the price for global iron ore plunged from US$155 a ton in 2013 to US$53 a ton by 2014.
Now, without a job, Tyler finds it difficult to feedhis family, let alone send his children to school.
“Things are not good with us here and we are suffering. We are without jobs surviving on burning coal and making farms,” said Tyler.
Tyler’s story mirrors that of thousands of people impacted economically by the shutdown of mining operations across the Mano River Basin. Hassan Kamara is a shop keeper in Lunsar in the Port Loko District of Sierra Leone’s North West Province, where SL Mining operated. As the 43-year-old’s shop boomed, Kamara borrowed the US$500 from the Bangladeshi microfinance institution BRAC in 2018 to grow his business. Then the unforeseen happened. SL Mining’s operations were suspended by the Sierra Leonean government less than a year after he received the money. In no time, Kamara’s customers vanished and he could not pay off the loan. At one point, he fled from BRAC but his family brought him back and brokered a payment plan between him and the lender.
“No buying now,” Kamara told the Daily Observer in an interview at his empty, makeshift shop. “Things [are] tough here now.”
The closure of China Union in Liberia and SL Mines in Sierra Leone has devastated local communities. Businesses have shut down, jobs lost, and the governments of both countries have lost millions in taxes and royalties.
China Union signed a 25-year agreement with Liberia in 2009 worth US$2.6 billion raising the hopes of Bong citizens that relief from poverty might be at hand. Then-President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf trumpeted that the company would provide 4,000 Liberian jobs. The agreement promised the renovation of the Zaweata School, now Bong Mines Central High, and Bong Mines Hospital, which provided free medical care to residents of the district and nearby areas. The company also agreed to the construction of the 45 km Kakata-Bong Mines road.
The high hopes of the community died fast. Tyler was among the first batch of 3,000 workers China Union laid off between 2015 and 2017. It was a huge turnaround for a company that had shipped 50,000 tons of iron ore in February 2014. Finally, all but a skeleton staff was maintained. The company shut operations with many staff and locals claiming they were owned money.
“A lot of us went out of a job, and even those that remained with the company to look after its plant in the Bong Range facility, where it is supposed to mine, are not paid anything much and it takes a lot of time to get,” Tyler said.
In Sierra Leone, SL Mining’s closure came with the suspension of the company’s license by the Sierra Leonean government after a disagreement over royalty payments in August 2019. SL Mining, owned by the Gerald Group, one of the world’s largest and oldest mining conglomerates, had shipped 55,000 tons of iron ore in June to China from the Marampa Blue mine in Lunsar. In total 1,700 jobs were cut, almost five percent of Lunsar’s population, its economic backbone.
Like Kamara, Abdullai Bangura of Rogbanneh Village has paid a huge price. Bangura worked as a plant electrician; earning 9 million Leones (US$900). Now he farms cassava and groundnuts to support his family.
“We want SL Mining back or any other company that can come to take over because when the company is operating, I will have a job to get money to cater for my family,” Bangura said. “The cassava and groundnuts take time to produce but with the company, I get my pay when the month ends.”
“We’re suffering,” said Mohammed Bangura, a landowner in Lunsar, whose family used to receive 8 million Leones (US$800) a year from SL Miningas surface rent for the right to dig up his land.
That same impact is being felt in Bong Town in Liberia as result of China Union’s closure.
“We burn coal throughout to pay children’s school fees,” Tyler said. “How long you think it will take us to reap cassava before getting money and how much really? The time has become hard due to the suspension of the company’s operation.”
“No business here since China Union closed. This place is going down and people are not buying,” said Mamadou Balde, a local businessman. “I sell the rice for L$2,300, but you will sell the whole day and only one bag someone will buy.”
The closure of China Union and SL Mining has also reduced mining revenuesin the two countries, which are yet to recover from bloody civil wars and still rely heavily on their extractive sectors.
Prior to its closure, China Union provided US$3.5 million a year to Bong County in a social development fund as agreed inits concession agreement. Only a small portion of that money is coming now.
“China Union’s latest contribution to the county’s social development fund after three years is US$100,000,” said Stephen J. Mulbah, Jr., the chairman of Bong’s Project Management Committee (PMC), the group that manages the fund.
The 2020 figures are not out yet but the District Council office of Port Loko, where the Sierra Leonean town of Lunsar is located, has seen a huge fall in royalty payments from SL Mining. In 2019, the same year its license was suspended, SL Mining paid 455,100,000 Leones (US$37,000) in taxes. Projects undertaken by the council have stalled, like a clock tower and a traffic roundabout.
“Tax paid to the District Office has declined from 15 percent to an inconsiderable level and the taxes used to bring development to deprived communities,” said Morlai Karim Bangura, communications officer of the district. “Workers were laid off and this has increased armed robbery activities.”
“Businesses were running here and the town was busy, and houses that were once occupied by people for rent are now empty,” Alhaji Y. Bangura, Speaker of Marampa Chiefdom. “The current condition is not good for us and we want the company back to operate.”
Cloud over Mining Communities The future of China Union in Liberia and SL Mining in Sierra Leone is uncertain. Iron ore has been on a steady rise since 2016, trading US$169.52 per ton as of January 27 but China Union is yet to begin full operations. It maintains 98 workers, who mainly look after its properties. The company reportedly owes millions to the company in social
development fund arrears and to the National Port Authority which operates Bong Mines Harbor, from where the ore was exported. But the government has not yet withdrawn the contract nor given any indication of what the future holds for the concession.
The Ministry of Mines and Energy and China Union did not respond to requests for comment.
In Sierra Leone, things are gloomier for SL Mining. In November last year, it challenged the suspension of its license at the International Commercial Arbitrations Court’s emergency arbitration tribunal and has since won rulings in its favor. However, the government has not allowed this, and even temporarily detained several of its executives.
But Tyler and Kamara, the Lunsar shopkeeper, see the future differently.
“If China Union is not coming, let another company come and take over,” said Tyler. “Things are bad with us.”
Kamara believes that the return of SL Mining will change everything.
“It was good when the company was here and I want it back because it was the company’s going that caused me not to pay my loan and I ran away,” said Kamara. “When it comes back, life will be fine for me.”
This cross-border story was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the Excellence in Extractives Reporting Project. German Development Cooperation provided funding. The funder had no say in the story’s content.