Disputes over Mining and Land Rights Continue to Cause Conflict across Liberia and Sierra Leone

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The Liberian government granted Solway Mining Incorporated exploration license for Mt. Blei in northeastern Nimba, Liberia, seen at the background. (James Harding Giahyue)

A New Narratives cross-border investigation by Joaquin M. Sendolo and Alieu Sahid Tonkara

NIMBA, Liberia & LUNSAR, SIERRA LEONE – In December 2019, conflict broke out between an international mining company and the leadership of three forest-dwelling communities of Nimba County in north eastern Liberia. The communities accused the company of illegal entry into the 2,169-acre mountainous forestland. The company, Solway Mining Incorporated, expressed surprise. Liberia’s Ministry of Mines and Energy had issuedit, a license to explore for iron ore in the two forests, which border the East Nimba Nature Reserve and area leased to ArcelorMittal, the global steel giant and Liberia’s largest mining concession. 

The dispute illustrates the ongoing battles communities, extractives companies and governments are having over the right to profit from forests and mineral resources across the Mano River region. Countries rebuilding from civil war have found themselves with weak institutions and conflicting laws that are causing conflict and complicating efforts to share the nation’s wealth.

After months of legal battle, Solway paid the communities a US$3,000 fine and the parties signed a memorandum of understanding. Solway agreed to payBlei and Sehyi Ko-doo communities a combined sum of US$30,000 in each of its three years of exploration. Additionally, it agreed to spend two per cent of its budget on health and education projects in the communities.

A similar situation is on-going in iron-ore-rich Lunsar in Marampa chiefdom, northern Sierra Leone. A bloody conflict has broken out between Lunsar community and the Sierra Leonean government over the cancellation of a mining licence held by SL Mining Company.

The company was supposed to mine at the Iron Ore hills located at Chindatta village in Marampa Chiefdom in the northern district of PortLoko. Villagers here had hoped the “Marampa Blue,”—the common name for the mineral—would bring benefits to a poverty-stricken community but, after 70 years of mining here, that has not happened.

The Chiefdom Speaker, the second highest authority in the chiefdom, Alhaji Yusif Bangura says Lunsar town, for now, is abjectly poor with no electricity, weak health and agricultural services. People here struggle for survival through subsistence agriculture.

Mining authorities in Sierra Leone and Liberia are being criticized for undermining local communities’ ownership of their land and preventing them from fully participating in concessions there. Forestry agreements are giving communities the ability to live sustainably with the forest and to benefit from conservation efforts there.

Competing from the other side is the governments’ desire to attract international mining companies for large deals that can earn the government larger amounts of money through concession agreements and royalties for minerals that are extracted.

The conflict in Liberia is highlighting the challenges of reforming laws in nations rebuilding from long civil strife. The Community Rights Law, implemented seven years ago, gives control of forest land to adjacent communities and is designed to encourage them to live sustainably with the forest. 

However, Liberia’s mining law, enacted in 2000 and the most outdated in the Mano River region, says, “Minerals on surface of the ground or in the soil, rivers, streams and territorial waters are the property of the Republic.” The law does not recognise community forest, according to Assistant Minister of Mines and Energy for Exploration, Rexford Sartuh.

“They have their right to their land, but when it comes to the issuance of mining licence in Liberia, we don’t consider them,” Sartuh tells Night Watch in an interview. “Most times, they believe that we should ask them before we issue license. We should not.”    

Land rights campaigners disagree with the ministry.

“The communities cannot operate their community forest under the CRL by allowing mining under the forest,” points out Jonathan Yiah of the Sustainable Development Institute (SDI). “If this trend continues community forest management in Liberia will be greatly undermined.”

Liberia’s Forestry Development Authority (FDA) has also criticized the ministry for violating the Community Rights Law, a crucial part of the country’s forestry reform rocked by years of deadly civil war that destabilised the Mano River basin.

“We are disappointed in the way the Ministry of Mines and Energy handled things,” says C. Mike Doryen, FDA’s managing director. “We think it has the propensity of discouraging donors from making any more investments in the conservation area of our country.”  

The Ministry and FDA have come to an impasse over the situation in Nimba. “Although Ministry of Mines and Energy and FDA are two separate institutions with separate mandates, we are trying to create a synergy between FDA and line ministries with competing use for land,” says Atty. Gertrude Nyalay, the technical manager of FDA’s community forestry department.

Sierra Leone Communities feel ‘Powerless’

Local communities in Sierra Leone, too, have a right to their land, but it differs significantly from Liberia. A revered customary and traditional practice in Sierra Leone holds that forests, mountains, rivers, streams and grasslands belong to the paramount chief in any chiefdom.

The Iron Ore Hills, the base of Marampa Blue In Lunsar Town, Sierra Leone, which is the source of conflict between the government of Sierra Leone and SL Mining. (Phot: Allieu Tunkara)

But here too regulations conflict. Sierra Leone’s Mines and Minerals Act of 2009 mandates extractives companies must pay chieftaincies land rental fees—15 percent of surface rent paid to landholding families.

However, according to the 1991 Constitution of Sierra Leone, the country’s supreme law, the government owns the air space, sea and land.

Sierra Leone’s historical records say that before the colonial era, the legal system throughout the territory was based on the customs and traditions of local communities.  Disputes were subjected to informal arbitration.

The only statutes relating to land enacted throughout the colonial era were the concessions ordinance, now Concessions Act Cap 121 and protectorate Lands Ordinance now Provinces Land Act, 122 enacted in 1927 respectively.

After independence, very few property statutes have been enacted by the local legislature. Most of the statutes governing land tenure in Sierra Leone were enacted during the colonial era such as the Public Land Act Cap 116, the Town and Country Planning Act Cap 81 and the Unoccupied Lands (Ascertainment of Title) Cap 117.

Owing to the inactions of the legislature to either enact new or reform old land laws, Sierra Leone is still governed by a bulk of pre-1925 repealed English statutes originally enacted to suit the peculiar socio-political and economic conditions of pre-20thCentury English society.

That is where the clash of interest comes from, according to Joseph Rahall, head of Green Scenery, a local civil society organisation specialised in land matters.

“Government does not own the land throughout the country. It only owns and manages land in the capital city, Freetown which was called the colony during colonial rule,” he maintains.

Rahall however explains that government can take ownership of the high seas and other coastal lands for national development.

But there is a problem within local communities as well. Townspeople say they are marginalized by their chiefs and elders.

“We the land owners are informed only to let us know, and not to seek our consent because we are powerless,” says Abdul Bangura, a local land owner in Lunsar.

The government land Policy of 2015 seeks to strip paramount chiefs of their land powers. Under the policy, committees of land owners in the provinces will be set up to handle land ownership and tenure.

Hilson says while no strategy exists that will completely satisfy conflicting parties, a compromise can be reached if community consultation is significantly improved.

“Government should assume leadership role in coordinating the effort of international agencies, appropriate compensation packages are provided to impacted communities, partnerships forged between large-scale and small-scale miners,” Hilson says.

This cross-border story was a collaboration with New Narrativesas part of the Excellence in Extractives Reporting Project. German Development Cooperation provided funding. The funder had no say in the story’s content.

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