Rights abuses curtail Sierra Leone’s mining boom, say human rights activists

Children play in one of the new villages created for relocated families to make room for the African Minerals Limited iron ore mine near the town of Bumbuna, Sierra Leone.
Children play in one of the new villages created for relocated families to make room for the African Minerals Limited iron ore mine near the town of Bumbuna, Sierra Leone.
Rona Peligal/HRW

The mining boom in Sierra Leone that is supposed to help the poor West African nation is harming its citizens.

African Minerals Limited has been working in the iron ore-rich central Sierra Leone for nearly eighteen years. The company’s resulting work has led to the forced displacement of hundreds of families and excessively violent crackdowns against protests, says Human Rights Watch (HRW).

Workers at the African Minerals Limited mine located in Bumbuna went on strike, on April 16, 2012. Unhappy with the working conditions and the inability to unionize, the workers gathered together to prevent vehicles from entering the mining site. The following day, 200 police officers showed up to control the protests.

One of the contractors, a woman named Musu Conteh, was shot and killed while she was singing in protest with her fellow workers, said HRW. Eight more people were injured in the incident. The police defended their actions by saying that the protesters were attempting to burn down a fuel depot.

“[She] was right in front of me,” said a witness to HRW.

“The police led an ambush close to the police station using teargas on us. We all fell, and the woman in front of me bent down to gather leaves to cover her eyes and nose. As she was bending to pick up the leaves, she was shot.

“As she got up, she was shot again in her heart and back.”

Investigations following the incident by Amnesty International and the Human Rights Commission of Sierra Leone determined that was not the case. Further, the people were not carrying weapons, beyond sticks and stones, as the police also alleged.

A new report by HRW, Whose Development? Human Rights Abuses in Sierra Leone’s Mining Boom, says the economic drive of the nation’s government is hampered by current policies. It investigates the events that happened during the protest and the conditions that led to it taking place. The report recommends total transparency of operations to increase the accountability of mining companies and ensure that communities are well informed.

“With investors flocking to Sierra Leone, the government has an opportunity to promote development for its desperately poor population,” said the report’s author Rona Peligal, deputy Africa director at HRW. “But the African Minerals Limited case shows that, unless the government puts a stop to mining operation abuses, the people who most need to benefit from development will be excluded from it.”

The mineral-rich Sierra Leone may be best known as the country where its decade-long civil war was fueled, in part, by the sale of diamonds. It contributed to the establishment of the Kimberly Process, an international effort to certify diamonds conflict-free. Neighboring Liberian president Charles Taylor aided in destabilizing the country by supporting rebel groups. The conflict got the Hollywood treatment with the Leonardo DiCaprio film Blood Diamond, in 2006.

The government of Sierra Leone has worked with mining companies since the civil war ended in 2002 to get the country back on track. As much of 19% of crop-bearing land is leased by mining companies, says HRW.  The resulting economic growth has not reached the nation’s poorest people. Sierra Leone ranked 177 out of 186 countries in the 2013 edition of the Human Development Index, an annual report by the UN Development Programme that measures country-level development across a series of economic and social indicators.

After winning a contract in Tonkolili district, African Minerals Limited, a London-based mining company, consulted with one of the paramount chiefs about relocating people living in an area intended to be mined. The move uprooted families, taking them from the lush hillside to an arid area near the quarry. Residents say that they were not a part of the discussions and were forced to leave their homes.

“The company went to the paramount chief, and the paramount chief told us what to do. We asked so many questions. What they told us they would do, they have not done.… It was a trap,” said one resident to HRW.

Promises of moving to a better place were not met, said some of the people interviewed. The worse land has led to poor crop yields and difficult access to water. Complaints that life has become harder since the move has not led to significant changes.

The report asserts that human rights are closely linked to Sierra Leone’s development goals. Its recommendations include greater governmental oversight into labor conditions, transparency in the mining and land sectors, and an investigation into the events that took place in April 2012. Ultimately, it recommends that African Minerals Limited do more to ensure that similar problems do not occur in the future; something the organization said it will do in a letter responding to the HRW report.

“As the company plans to expand, it should address the full range of existing and anticipated rights issues.261 These are worthy initiatives, but their impact will be measured not on paper, but on the ground,” concludes the report.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.