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ECONOMY-SIERRA LEONE: Another Round of Mining Difficulties?

Lansana Fofana

FREETOWN, Aug 11 2004 (IPS) - Say the word "mining" in the context of Sierra Leone, and thoughts instantly turn to the country’s ruinous trade in conflict diamonds. However, the mining of another mineral – rutile – is also the source of some controversy in this West African state.

Recently, the rutile sector received a boost when the European Union allocated almost 31 million dollars to fund the resumption of mining in southern Sierra Leone by the Sierra Rutile company.

"This is a major donor assistance to our ailing economy," noted Mineral Resources Minister Mohamed Swarray Deen.

In March 2003, the Overseas Private Investment Company, a United States government development agency, provided 25 million dollars in financing to Sierra Rutile: a consortium of American and European interests that was founded in 1979 in the rutile-rich Bonthe district.

During January 1995 at the height of the civil war that was fought over control of diamond resources, the Bonthe mines were attacked by rebel forces and their equipment vandalised. Sierra Rutile ceased production, and is only now preparing to resume operations.

Prior to the conflict, rutile exports were a top earner for the government, netting 75 million dollars in revenue in 1990 alone.

"Sierra Rutile used to provide over 50 percent of government revenue, and employment for more than 1,000 Sierra Leoneans," says Deen. "(It was) the biggest private sector employer."

The company’s director of corporate affairs, John Sesay, says existing machinery at the rutile mines is currently being repaired, and new equipment imported. Production is slated to commence within six months.

"The total capital needed for the company to fully resume operations is in the region of 64 million dollars, and we are working hard to meet that target," he noted.

But, while the government is eager to have the rutile mines back in operation, certain environmental activists don’t share its enthusiasm. They include Leslie Nestor Mboka, who is fighting alongside the Concerned Indigenous People’s Group in Bonthe to prevent the mines from re-opening.

"We are opposed to the resumption of operations by the Sierra Rutile company in Bonthe district. Last time they were there, they destroyed arable agricultural lands and only left us with lakes and ponds," Mboka says, noting that the land spoiled by mining operations was supposed to have been reclaimed, in terms of government regulations.

"They claimed to be helping the community, but left our people worse off than they were before the advent of the company in the community."

Mboka adds, "The Concerned Indigenous People’s Group will not halt our campaign because we don’t believe the company will offer anything good this time around. Our people are traditional farmers and so we cannot sit idly by and watch them being deprived."

Sesay denies that Sierra Rutile has behaved irresponsibly – or that it will ignore its environmental obligations now. "Once we start operations we will adhere strictly to global environmental regulations…We will do our best to reclaim what we use," he told IPS.

Sesay also says that locals from the area will be given priority in terms of employment opportunities, especially in the area of unskilled labour (many people who live in the vicinity of the mine are illiterate). "It is their only hope for economic rejuvenation and sustainable employment in the Bonthe district," he notes.

Rutile is used mainly for paint pigmentation and welding rod coating. Sierra Leone has one of the world’s largest deposits of the mineral – and also one of the best grades of rutile.

Deen says that the new agreement between the company and government provides for mandatory environmental impact assessment and rehabilitation.

"The company is obliged to reclaim mined-out lands and rehabilitate the community. If it fails to do so we will hire private contractors to do it at the expense of the company," he observed.

The Concerned Indigenous People’s Group is keeping up the pressure, however, writing articles for newspapers in which it criticizes Sierra Rutile, and lobbying officials to withdraw the mining permit.

In a desperately poor country where unemployment is a temptation to crime, government is sticking to its guns, however. About 57 percent of Sierra Leoneans live below the poverty threshold of a dollar a day, according to the 2004 Human Development Report compiled by the United Nations Development Programme.

"We are satisfied with the rutile deal, and we encourage other investors to come in and help revamp our perilous economy," says Deen.

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