Conflicts over land acquisition for mining in Liberia and Sierra Leone

By Allieu Sahid Tunkara

In December 2019, conflict broke out between an iron ore miner, Solway Mining Company and Gbazor villages when the company entered the Blei Forest after acquiring a mining licence from the Liberian government. The conflict was caused by a disagreement between government that badly needs revenue from the mining company and the Gbazor community who wants to conserve their forest to preserve a fragile eco-system.

Mining laws of Liberia and Sierra Leone require mining companies to obtain licence from government to explore and mine minerals on any land.

Since July 8, 2019, during an exploration phase, Solway Mining Company cut down trees to  construct a road of 2km in length and 5-metres in width. The company’s exploration work was stopped after it lost $3,000 USD in fines imposed by the Community Forest Management Body.

The Head of Gbazor Community Forest Management Body, Saye Thompson, said Solway Mining Company paid the fine following a lawsuit for entering the Blei and Delton forest without consent from the community people. Despite the fine, the Company is still poised to carry on the exploration in a community that seems not ready to accept them nor in the future. Thompson said, “The Company still has an interest to do the exploration and we are not interested.”

Thompson and his community strongly believe that their ownership right over the Blei forest supersedes that of the exploration concession. If the community loses the Blei forest, Thompson says, they will lose species and contacts from international non-governmental organisations including Conservation International and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

The disagreement between government and the community people over Solway Mining Company’s exploration on the forest continues.

A similar situation to the one in Gbazor community in Liberia showcased itself in the iron ore-rich town of Lunsar in Marampa Chiefdom, Northern Sierra Leone.

A bloody conflict ensued between the Lunsar community people and the Sierra Leone Government over cancellation of a mining licence of SL Mining Company. The Company was supposed to mine at the iron ore hills located at Chindatta Village in Lunsar.

Lunsar community needs SL Mining Company to exploit Marampa Blue, the popular name of the ore, and bring benefit to an age-old poverty-stricken community while the Government says the Company should not mine.

The conflict between security forces, police and community people left one person dead; several others injured and property damage of around $5 million USD equivalent to Le5 billion.

Paramount Chief Koblo Queen II, was the key target of the rioting young people because they believe he connived with the Government to stop SL Mining Company. He is now seeking refuge elsewhere. His Deputy, the Chiefdom speaker mans the affairs of Marampa Chiefdom in a caretaker capacity.

Running conflicts between governments and land holding communities in Liberia and Sierra Leone has raised questions of actual land ownership. “Who owns the land?” This is the most frequently asked question among people of the two countries, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Liberian Assistant Minister of Mines and Energy, Rexford Sartuh, recognises the community ownership right over Blei forest, but said the Government of Liberia owns the right to handle issuance of mining licences to companies for the purposes of mining and logging.

The Assistant Mines Minister took responsibility for the issuance of the licence to the iron ore miner. “The Ministry of Mines and Energy issued an exploration licence to Solway Mining Company for the exploration of iron ore in the Blei Forest,” Rexford Sartuh said.

The exploration licence, he said, would last for three years, but there is a possibility of extension for two years.

However, the Minister does not rule out the two per cent share out of the $1,000 USD the community people stand to benefit from Solway Mining Company annually.

Minister Sartuh’s claim of government ownership of minerals has direct bearing on the Liberian Minerals and Mining Law of 2000. Section 2.1 of the law states, “Minerals on surface of the ground or in the soil, rivers, streams and territorial waters are the property of the Republic.”

Section 11.3 of the same law puts the Liberian government in a class of its own regarding ownership of minerals as the government’s rights as owner of minerals in the Republic are absolute.

Provisions in the minerals law seem to disagree with the Community Rights Law (CRL) of 2009. In Section 2, of the CRL seeks to empower communities in Liberia to fully engage in the sustainable management of the forests of Liberia that support community rights based on the principle that, “All forest resources on community forest lands are owned by local communities.”

No doubt, the ensuing conflicts between governments and community people over land ownership are a reflection of the disparity between the two laws.

Ahy Gertrude Nyalay is the Head of Forestry Development Authority (FDA), an agency that oversees management of community forests in Liberia. FDA derives its regulatory powers over the country’s community forests through CRL.

Nyalay too recognises ownership right of Gbazor community over the Blei forest. She was taken aback when she learned that an exploration licence had been granted to Solway Mining Company by the Ministry of Mines and Energy to explore the forest. The FDA official attributed such situation to the lack of communication and synergy between FDA and the Ministry for which, she said, a remedy would be worked out.

“Although the Ministry of Mines and Energy and FDA are two separate institutions with separate mandates, we are trying to create a synergy between FDA and line ministries with competing use for land,” she assured.

In Sierra Leone, paramount chiefs are more powerful than those in Liberia, and thus enjoy the status, “custodian of land”. As custodian of lands, nobody can acquire or enjoy the blessings of land outside Freetown, the country’s capital, without expressed permission of a Paramount Chief. It is a revered custom among local tribes that land resources in any community belongs to the paramount Chief.

PC Abass Koroma of Maforki Chiefdom in Northern Sierra Leone explains the concept of “custodian of land.” “Forests, mountains, rivers, streams, grass fields belong to the paramount chief in any chiefdom,” he said.

Abdul Bangura is one of the local landowners in Lunsar. He says any company that wants to conduct either exploration or mining activity goes first to government, and later the paramount chief who in turn informs landowners.

“We, the landowners, are informed only to let us know, and not to seek our consent because we are powerless,” Bangura said.

The headman of Compound village and also, a landowner, in Lunsar, John Santigie Sesay, is in support of Bangura’s statement who says paramount chiefs and government are very powerful as far as land rights are concerned.

Section 72 of the Constitution of Sierra Leone 1991, the country’s supreme law, recognises the institution of Chieftaincy and its non-abolition by customary law and usage.

In line with the esteem to which a paramount chief is held in Sierra Leone, the country’s law on mining, the Mines and Minerals Act of 2009, reveres paramount chieftaincy status in Section 34 of the Act.

The Section notes a land lease or other rights to use land by the holder of a large-scale mining licence shall be subject to surface rent which shall be paid as follows: Paramount Chief-15%, chiefdom administration-10%, district council-15%, Constituency development fund-15% and landowners-10%. By virtue of the distribution of proceeds of lease payments, the paramount chief gets the lion’s share.

In a similar vein, government by law owns the air space, sea and land.

But, where government interest clashes with that of the residents over land ownership and use, government always holds sway.

However, a government Land Policy document of 2015 seeks to strip paramount chiefs of enormous land powers conferred on them by custom. Under the policy, committees of land owners in the provinces will be set up to handle land ownership and disposal.

As long as governments in Liberia and Sierra Leone tacitly retain ownership rights over land  against the will of the community people, land conflicts are bound to occur.

 

This story was a collaboration with the Media and Information Bureau in Sierra Leone and New Narratives in Liberia as part of the Excellence in Extractives Reporting Project. German Development Cooperation provided funding. The Funder had no say in the story’s content.

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