By Jimmy Suah Shilue
Natural resource can be a blessing, when used wisely and efficiently to address the needs of people and countries in which they are found. However, poor and mismanagement of natural resources is becoming a leitmotiv thus giving currency to the term ‘Resource Curse’. It is a term that describes how, on average, countries with large endowments of natural resources tend to perform worse than countries that may be less well endowed. Liberia is endowed with natural resources, including iron ore, gold, timber, diamonds, natural rubber, and vast agriculture land for ensuring food security, yet the country resources are not positively transforming the lives of Liberians but only enriching few while vast majority of Liberians live in abject poverty.
The recent appalling situation in Gbanepea, Nimba County Artisanal Mining Community (AMC), where over 40 miners are said to have died in a mudslide, reveals the lack of robust and proactive policy by state and non-state actors to properly manage the mining sector and the lack of protection for vulnerable communities against environmental degradation. Natural and extractive resources are gifts that require proper management in order to accumulate sustainable development and bring about social change to the interest of the entire population. However, in the absence of strong laws and efficient policies to govern the sector, we will continue to experience such nerve breaking situation as we have seen in the Gbanepea’s Gold camp. In order to mitigate young people dying in such a cruel manner, efforts should be made to put in place strategies and sound policies to regulate the ways business are done in the artisanal mining sector. Indeed, the mining sector does provide quick jobs and safety net for marginalized population but the lack of standards and safeguards coupled with weak government oversight and poor implementation of existing laws, continue to leave most rural communities unprotected and even more vulnerable.
The Government of Liberia, through the Ministry of Mines, is responsible for, among others, promulgating new regulations to guide and govern the mineral and energy sectors and this includes granting small scale mining licenses, specifically to rural dwellers to create employment opportunity that could enable rural poor residents to generate income and at the same time prevent rural –urban migration. The artisanal mining sector for gold and diamonds in Liberia is estimated to involve as many as 100,000 artisanal miners. Historically, artisanal mining activities have been taking place in Liberia and predominantly carried out by Liberians, largely using placer mining techniques. However, the sector has recently seen massive infiltration by foreigners, mostly Ghanaians, who are said to be illegally using more sophisticated dredging equipment with their attendant environmental and ecological impacts. While the artisanal sector has served as source of income and livelihood for many Liberians because of its quick returns compared to the agricultural sector, research has shown that the artisanal sector has also been the bastion of hope for many Liberians who were once displaced, ex combatants and even Liberians who returned from following protracted period in exile.
Two years ago, I was fortunate to lead a team of researchers to Southeastern Liberia. We were contracted by the International Centre for Migration Policy Development (ICMPD) in close collaboration with the International Migration Institute (IMI) of Oxford University, to look into the the experiences of Liberian refugee returnees from Ivory Coast in the height of the intermittent but devastating political crisis resulting from the ethnic tension and post-election violence Côte d’Ivoire. During the Liberian crisis, many Liberian refugees fled to neighboring countries, including the Ivory Coast for refuge. Because of the common social and ethnic ties shared by folks living along the frontiers, Liberians refugees were peacefully accommodated by their Ivorian hosts. However, as the political climate in the host country changed, Liberians were confronted with myriad of problems. It is no secret that some Liberian mercenaries and fighters were forcefully and voluntarily recruited during the Ivorian crises as a result Liberian migrants in Côte d’Ivoire were often scapegoated for the generalized violence and targeted in retaliatory attacks—whether they actively participated in the conflicts or not. Their experiences during their escape from Liberia were painstaking but their return experiences were even more agonizing and fraught with horrible tales of “torture, abuses, molestation, rape and death”.
Consequently, when semblance of peace returned to their motherland, many former refugees spontaneously return to Liberia. What was shocking during our study is despite the excruciating accounts by the returnees, the Liberian Government or its agencies never had any robust policy framework to help the returnees get integrated. Coming back home without relevant skills and education left most of them vulnerable and jobless. Usually, people who are displaced by conflict or natural disaster often turn to anything that can help them generate sources of income, especially where there is no support from national and international stakeholders. Indeed, this is where the artisanal mining sector serves as bridging intervention by providing employment for people escaping absolute poverty or those who are trying to improve their lives because the sector offers high incomes for unskilled or illiterate individual.
Apart from the security threat the sector poses, it is also a coping socio-economic mechanism for marginalized people. When the returnees came back to Liberia and received no support from government and humanitarian organizations, they used ‘social networks’ and identified ways to survive. Like in many gold camps, our target population identified a Gold camp situated between Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire border called ‘Bartejam’. According to a local resident, the name is derived from two things- Bartel meaning the utensil used to filter and dig the dirt when searching for gold, while jam is when somebody is desperately in need of something. The little gold mining camp is occupied by mixture of Ivorian refugees, Liberian returnees from the Côte d’Ivoire and few third country nationals. Bartejam borders Côte d’Ivoire and has a population of approximately 7,000 and situated in Gbarzon District, the largest district in Grand Gedeh County.
With or without prior mining experiences, most of the returnees engage into mining, for their livelihood. The ‘Gold boys’, as they are commonly called, are often ‘high’ sometimes displaying attitude reminiscent of the war. The use of illicit drugs is rampant in mining settings. The ‘Gold boys’ use drugs to increase their strength and stamina. Taking these substances can also cause them to lose their consciences, which can lead to doing things that are hazardous and suicidal, for instance eliminating even the last strategic supportive wall or pillar that protects them from mud slide in the pit.
In Bartejam camp, there was no legitimate state presence except those emissaries who are often sent once a week by local authorities seated in Zwedru to collect ‘fees’. Corruption and rent-seeking by public and private officials are key sources for ‘resource curse’. Already living at the margin of society, residents of the Gold camp pay regular fees to government functionaries but receive nothing in return. The only elementary school was closed during our study and a new breed of illiterate generation was on the horizon. Group of girls and women approached our team to advocate for ‘adult literacy lesson’ for them. They expressed their interest in wanting to learn how to read and write but have no support from the county authority or national government. There was no health center or social services. The road that leads to the gold camp was literally inaccessible. Few elderly men, who are also returnees, served as leaders in the little town. These leaders are owners of gold creeks and other businesses, hence try to ensure some form of order to protect their personal interest. The landscape of Bartejam is gradually being undermined by the miners and probably when the next mudslide occurs, the government will quickly deploy the military to show concern.
Considering the pivotal role natural resources play in the destabilization of Liberia and the MRU region, it was outrageous to discover that the government did not care to know how much gold are mined and sold or the ecological impact the process has on the environment. There was no presence of any humanitarian or UN organization, even at the time UNMIL was still present and deployed in the various counties. The camp was consumed with growing anti-social and security problem evident by pervasive drugs abuse, alcoholism and prostitution. As sun set, ‘gold boys’ gathered at a small entertainment center known as ‘Hopojo inn’, to drink and trade in sex for money.
Like other Gold camps, inhabitants of the little camp perceive the government as only being interested in their money but not their welfare. Wealth seeking has always been the underlying interest of local government officials but not the wellbeing of the people who risk their lives in those dangerous muds to dig gold. Nobody cares about the consequences of artisanal mining. As we have seen during the short lived honeymoon Hydrocarbon exploration activities in Liberia, Liberian public officials, aided and abetted by unscrupulous investors and businessmen, engaged in rent-seeking behavior to deny the nation and its citizens the most needed basic social services and infrastructure. For example, the National Oil Company that is responsible to regulate the sector and ensure that resources generated are efficiently used for the good of the country, engaged in corrupt acts. Between 2006 and 2008, NOCAL paid US$120,400 in what it referred to as “lobbying fees” in other words ‘bribe’, to the Legislature so that Oil contracts would be passed. On the other hand, Petroleum Law and Model Contract usually contains little or no protections for communities that were affected by concessions.
While good governance is indispensable and imperative to transform Liberia’s natural resources, the methods used for mining also have environmental consequences. In all Gold mining settings, Mercury is the dominant chemical used to fetch gold. This chemical is not only dangerous but highly toxic metal, which poses a real danger to mining communities when used to extract gold. The only drinking water for inhabitants of the Bartejam camp is a little creek, which was contaminated by chemical substances used for gold mining. Artisanal gold mining is one of the most significant sources of mercury release into the environment and experts say the use of mercury in small-scale mining techniques has health and environmental consequences. Unfortunately, state authorities are only concerned about how much they can earn from illicit mining than the impact the use of toxic chemical has on miners and local communities. Artisanal mining practices thus need to be regulated in a manner that mitigates potential impacts on the environment, human health and social well-being, as such negative impacts can further exacerbate poverty and other social ills.
Dozens of our brethren have lost their lives in Gbanepea’s Gold camp recently in pursuit of income to take care of themselves and their families. We should not wait for the next catastrophe to deploy the military to prevent illicit mining. Those who are responsible to regulate the sector should review and alter the underlying motive for issuing small scale mining licenses, which has good intent but now being abused and misused by others. Are we achieving the desired policy effect by mitigating rural-urban migration or experiencing the boomerang effect? From all indications, Monrovia is overpopulated and there is no sign that the migration from rural Liberia to Monrovia will stop soon, as long as development remains centralized. A critical review of the original intent of small scale mining licensee will help minimize and/or eradicate malpractices in the sector. However, this requires strong political will, commitment and robust leadership at the highest political level. There are unscrupulous middlemen involved in gold business and they have ties to those with the political means to curtail abuses and the kind of calamity that we have seen in Nimba.
It is no secret that the government is struggling to exert its presence and control beyond the capital, with limited resources. At a recent policy dialogue forum, participants were astonished to hear that the Ministry of Mines only have one vehicle for all the field missions. Considering that most of these gold fields are located in very remote and inaccessible locations, it makes monitoring and law enforcement challenging. However, as in any resource scarce situation, it is imperative that the government prioritizes its priorities, seeing the recent disaster and the potential of the sector in terms of growth and development.
The absence of government presence allows some unscrupulous groups to govern only with the motive of capital accumulation. Also, non-state actors that are benefiting from the sector should equally undertake measures to safeguard ‘gold boys’, for instance, by inspecting pits and raising red flags when they are becoming dangerous. Accidents and pits collapsing are symptomatic of the artisanal gold mines because the majority of the miners have no experience or skills in gold extraction, hence engage into risky endeavors without thinking of the consequences.
Efforts to regulate the artisanal sector should therefore be holistic by considering the social, economic, environmental and political ramification. To save Liberia from resource curse, there is a need to seek ye first the interest of these desperate and vulnerable youth in addition to having strong political support from politicians and bureaucrats as well as having the right experts being involved in the artisanal sector.