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Dispute over mine has Sierra Leone in crisis

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
December 24th, 2011
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

The people of Sierra Leone are engaged in a bitter debate over how best to manage that country's precious natural resources. At the heart of that debate is contention over the Gola Rainforest, an area believed to be rich in iron ore. Recently, a tribal chief leased the land to a British mining company and now the case has gone to the courts.

FREETOWN, SIERRA LEONE (Catholic Online) - Next week, the case will appear before a judge in a Sierra Leone court. The accusation is that the chief of the Tonika Chiefdom has illegally leased part of the tribe's lands to the UK-owned Sable Mining Company.

Several mining companies have cast jealous eyes upon the rain forest preserve for its estimated $150 billion worth of iron ore. However, the deposits also happens to be on land that has been designated as  a protected national park.

Alfred Williams, a member of the Tonkia Descendents Association angrily said "the chief is the guardian of the land -- he can't sell it."

The International Monetary Fund has predicted that Sierra Leone's economy will experience one of the fastest growth rates in the world, expanding at a rate of 51.4 percent in 2012 as iron ore exports rise.

The people of Sierra Leone have endured poverty since the arrival of Europeans centuries ago. For many, mining the land is the first, and possibly the only, opportunity for wealth for many people. The people of Sierra Leone want what any other people want, good jobs, decent pay, schools, medicine, and a respectable standard of living. Mining the land is one quick and easy avenue towards those things.

But others warn, that mining the land is merely robbing Peter to pay Paul. Many are furious at the prospect of a foreign mining company destroying the rain forest. They believe that the rain forest and the tribal lands upon which it is situated should be left in their natural state to preserve the land itself, the ecosystem, and the way of life followed by many people for generations.

The country remains divided. Some see the opportunity to enjoy wealth that has eluded them and their ancestors for generations. Others however, see it as short-term gain, and exploitation. People are concerned for themselves, and for their descendents who will have to live with the impact that mining operations have.

Of course, the mining industry denies that harvesting these resources will have a substantial impact on the environment. They have even offered to arrange tours of other mining facilities to demonstrate that mining can be done with minimal impact.

Still, many native peoples are not having any of it.

Sierra Leone's President Ernest Bai Koroma recently declared the 75,000 hectare  rainforest a national park. The region is also considered to be one of the world's top 25 global biodiversity hotspots. On top of these declarations, the government also says the land sale is illegal.

The government insists that even if the land sale were legal, it would not convey mineral rights to the mining company. Any minerals in Sierra Leone belong to the government.

Sable Mining has confirmed through a spokesperson (who was not named) that they do not hold a current mining license for the land. However, business experts say that they would not have leased the land if they did not expect to obtain a mining license at some point in the future.

And so the debate in Sierra Leone rages. Talk shows, news programs, and the papers are filled with arguments on both sides of the issue. Some accuse the chief of attempting to get rich by selling land that does not belong to him, and others defend the action as an opportunity to obtain rapid wealth. And still others say that the land should be preserved and they point out that fortunes can be made on eco tourism and other related activity.

In any case, the debate raging in Sierra Leone is about much more than whether or not a chief made a legal arrangement with the foreign mining company. Rather, it is a debate about the very identity of Sierra Leone itself. Will the people sacrifice their land to gain riches, or will they preserve their land even if it means that for some poverty and hardship may continue to endure? And can the people somehow find a middle path whereby they can preserve Sierra Leone's precious natural resources, and in so doing make the country a better place for all?

 

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