ArcelorMittal, the international steel giant, has mined iron ore in Mount Tokadeh, Nimba County for five years and is negotiating with the Liberian government to begin mining Mount Gangra nearby.
Standing here in Zolowee Town along the Yekepa Highway, an observer sees the telltale signs of heavy equipment that has clawed away on Mount Tokadeh to the west, leaving him or her with no doubt that this is where iron ore has been mined in Nimba.
In its reworked Mineral Development Agreement (MDA) with the government back in 2006, ArcelorMittal agreed to give something back to affected communities under a Social Development Fund. The company agreed to give US$75 million over 25 years to Nimba, Bong and Grand Bassa counties. Nimba has received more than US$15 million over the years.
As the company and government currently undertake the 5-year mandatory renegotiation of the agreement, the Daily Observer asks, “What then can communities, especially Zolowee and Gbahpa, directly facing Mount Tokadeh, show after ArcelorMittal’s five years of operation?”
A few things, says Hilton Suah, Youth Chairperson of Zolowee.
“ArcelorMittal built an annex of our school, about three classrooms, along the road. It also built a town hall,” said Suah. “We are happy about that.”
ArcelorMittal pays US$1.5 million each year to the Ministry of Finance and Development Planning for Nimba (smaller amounts go to Bong and Grand Bassa) which is then transferred directly to the county fund. The county decides what to do with the money and these structures came from that. The school annex and classrooms and the town hall were built with those funds at the county’s direction.
But ArcelorMittal was also required to do additional work for the community outside of that fund. Its website says in addition to the Social Development Fund, “the Company is also required to establish and maintain medical and education facilities in all areas of operation, to serve employees, their families and the broader community.”
That aspect has not gone so well according to Parkinson Zuweh, a prominent son of the town. Markets built in the area have brought many complaints. The market structures are not built where local people want to shop.
According to him, decisions to build the structures began with lawmakers and the county authorities in Monrovia without direct consultations with the locals. People here were informed of benefits they were to get from the company.
“As you can see, the market is empty,” Zuweh said. “And all the people have gone to their farms. What is the use of such a big building here? It is only on Sunday you see many people here.”
Indeed, there were fewer than 15 marketers in the market hall selling identical products including okra, pepper, palm nuts, bitter-balls, and palm oil the day the Daily Observer visited the place. The sellers are here. Finding the customers to buy these products is the problem now.
“We sell here all day,” said old lady Nohn. “But no buyer, and these things will either spoil or we eat them ourselves.”
ArcelorMittal built a similar market hut in nearby towns of Gbahpa and Sehyeekinpa. People in Gbahpa are also unhappy with the location of their market. “The market was built at the eastern end of the town, but the people here say they are not selling there because it is behind them,” said Nyan Suah Zaa, Town Chief of Gbahpa.
The company built and equipped a clinic in Yekepa. But it has so far failed to provide a promised US$40 million upgrade to the Ganta to Yekepa road, which was to be the largest and most visible of the company’s promised improvements.
A big part of the problem was a massive slump in the global price for iron ore from 2014. When operations began, profitability looked guaranteed with iron ore prices as high as US$190 per ton.
By the end of January 2015, the industry watched in shock as iron ore prices dropped as low as US$39. ArcelorMittal’s Liberia operations were no longer profitable and the government, in the midst of the Ebola crisis and economic turmoil, offered ArcelorMittal a chance to defer its social development fund payments to keep operating.
The clinic and road were deferred as well. In 2016 Arcelor Mittal paid US$750,000 to the Finance Ministry for Nimba, half of its yearly requirement. The remaining US$750,000 will be repaid when prices recover sufficiently to cover ArcelorMittal’s operational costs. Neither the company nor government has said what price that is. The price has since recovered to US$88 a ton.
The company and the government are reportedly reviewing the agreement as required by the MDA, and ArcelorMittal is expected to begin another phase of operation in Mount Gangra following the depletion of Mount Tokadeh.
The county authorities and legislative caucus of Nimba are expected to put forward the county’s demands in the next phase of operation.
When contacted, Senator Thomas Grupee said the Executive is yet to inform the Nimba Legislative Caucus about the review process and therefore he cannot comment.
“Before putting forward what comes to Nimba, the President and Legislative committee on Concession will complete discussions and reach it to us,” said Superintendent Dorr Cooper.
There has been anger over payments to farmers whose crops were destroyed in the area when ArcelorMittal took over their land. Protesters destroyed property at ArcelorMittal’s operational plant in Nimba in 2014 claiming they were not paid what they were owed.
“We have resettled people whose crops were damaged as a result of the company’s operation – about 500 farmers,” said Parkinson Zuweh, head of the Volunteers to Support International Effort in Developing Africa (VOSIEDA), a non-governmental organization responsible for resettling people whose crops were affected.
“The company paid US$97 for a young tree of rubber, and other cash crops including avocado, coffee and cocoa had their own prices.”
According to Zuweh, those who destroyed the company’s properties in 2014 were people not connected to the resettlement process.
The company paid resettlement packages to legitimate owners of crops, according to ArcelorMittal’s Corporate Communication Manager, Hesta Pearson, but it refused to pay those who were running into the bush planting rubber and claiming payment for it.
But others claim the amount has been reduced.
“I am one of those who received US$97.00 the first time for each tree crop destroyed, but after some time the amount was reduced to $42.00 per rubber tree for reasons we are yet to know,” said Saye Tarlee.
Other members of the community welcome ArcelorMittal in the county and say any problems here are the fault of the government for poor communications.
“We don’t feel bad seeing the company operating in the area,” said Old Man Wonnowon in Zolowee. “We have no means of getting iron ore out of the mountain, but when such thing is going on, let the government inform us about what they have discussed with the company.”
This story was produced in collaboration with New Narratives and the Thomson Reuters Foundation with funding from German Development Cooperation. The funder had no say in its content.