Poverty in the Midst of Plenty in Liberia

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Written by Robtel Neajai Pailey and Silas Kpanan Ayoung Siakor, Guest Contributors

In front of a collection of sticks, torn plastic sheeting, and broken pieces of harvester zinc held together by taut rope and shiny nails, 63-year-old Francis Selee stands stoic like a statue.

When Ebola charged through Liberia, leaving behind more than 4000 dead and nearly 10,000 infected as of 22 March, Selee and his family survived unscathed. Yet, they have had to deal with more pressing existential threats to their livelihoods—before the outbreak, now, and undoubtedly after Liberia is officially declared Ebola-free.

From 1970 to 1989, Selee worked for the German-Italian owned Bong Mining Company (BMC), named after the iron-ore rich mountain range in the north-central region of the country. For over 30 years, BMC surface mined iron ore for export and built one of Liberia’s major rail lines to ease shipments of the lucrative mineral. Then war came and operations sputtered to a halt.

China Union took over the mines in 2009, signing a 25-year mineral development agreement with the Liberian government valued at $2.6 billion. What appeared to be an investment boon for the post-war country translated into hardship for local communities directly impacted by the mining operations, including Selee’s family.

According to a recent report by the Sustainable Development Institute (SDI) in Liberia, mining communities were increasingly agitated long before Ebola. As operations intensified and companies began extracting iron ore, the so-called development dividends did not trickle down. Liberian employees of China Union complain of gross labor rights violations—from abuse by Chinese managers, low wages, long workdays without overtime pay, and little to no employee benefits.

In February 2014, China Union exported its first shipment of 50,000 tons of iron ore, valued at $1 million in royalty payments. Under its agreement with the government of Liberia, the company has failed to meet many of the commitments and only partially met others, including, but not limited to: contributing $100,000 to relocate communities directly impacted by mining operations, such as Selee’s family; rehabilitating a major railroad; providing housing, safe drinking water and sanitation, and free medical services to its employees; and hiring 50 percent Liberian senior management. China Union expatriates rarely interact with their Liberian neighbors in Bong Mines. According to locals, they reside in the mountains in self-imposed seclusion.

Although the SDI attempted to share its findings with China Union, the company was unresponsive. Despite the company’s reticence, however, community and worker discontent has been bubbling for some time now. In September 2013, community members and China Union contract laborers staged a weeklong blockade to prevent access to the concession site, with numbers swelling to 400. After government intervention proved unsuccessful, the Emergency Response Unit (ERU)—a paramilitary force—swooped in firing live rounds to disperse the crowd.

When representatives of the demonstration, including clan chiefs, were invited to Monrovia, Liberia’s capital, to meet the Minister of Justice, they were summarily arrested, detained and charged with disorderly conduct, rioting and criminal mischief though the case was not formally pursued in court. Riots continued into 2014 without any redress.

Selee’s story is emblematic of a larger struggle pitting foreign multinationals against local communities. His family’s ordeal began when the president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, visited in 2013 to inform them that China Union was about to scale up their mining operations. According to Selee, she asked the former workers living in what remained of the BMC workers’ estate after the war: “If China Union comes will you turn over the houses?”

Excited about the prospects of jobs with the company and the rebuilding of the area, they all said yes. Government agents later arrived and handed out $500 to each former worker as a resettlement package. They protested the paltry amount but were threatened with forced eviction.

The ERU was already deployed in the area and on standby for instructions. Along with many others, Selee and his family had 10 days to move out of the estate to make way for China Union’s take-over. Most of those evicted slept in the open for more than two weeks while looking for land to construct shelters. Few found rooms to rent in private homes in the community. Others left the area altogether.

“My wife was scared,” said Selee. “She didn’t want disgrace. So we decided to leave before the deadline, which was the end of December [2013].” Since then, Selee has called home the makeshift house constructed with sticks and tarpaulin. Most of the surrounding households of former Bong Mines employees are made of similar material. Others have clay-like mud walls. Their community has no source of safe drinking water. They rely on a three-meter deep dugout well in the nearby swamp, where the water smells faintly of dirt and clay. Toilet facilities are the nearby bushes.

Selee is bitter about China Union’s conduct, but even more incensed that the Liberian government has failed to protect the interests of its citizens. Like other mining companies, China Union shut down indefinitely in August 2014 citing Ebola as an occupational hazard. During a recent visit to the United States, the Liberian president said that her priorities were strengthening the healthcare system, building infrastructure and attracting foreign investment by instituting waivers on taxes and royalties. While this may entice companies back to Liberia, citizens often wonder when they might see real benefits from their natural resources.

When China Union eventually resumes full operation in Bong Mines, Selee and others like him across the country will want more than poverty in the midst of plenty.

Robtel Neajai Pailey is a Liberian academic, activist and author based at SOAS, University of London. Silas Kpanan Ayoung Siakor is founder and lead campaigner of the Sustainable Development Institute (SDI) in Liberia.

Photo by Wikimedia Commons.