Mining For Peace in Sierra Leone

Natural resources could be the foundation for real growth in Sierra Leone after years of war.
By: /
June 19, 2012
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Sierra Leone is at a unique juncture in the process of peace. In many post-conflict situations, governments face persistent challenges from belligerent groups. But warring parties in Sierra Leone have disbanded without mutating into militias and gangs, and the UN peacekeeping mission is on track to be the first peace-building effort to complete a planned withdrawal.

After years of civil conflict and a period of stabilization, the country has entered a development phase. With the progress of peace, investors are returning.

During the war, which ended in 2002, industrial mining was reduced to virtually nothing. But by 2009, more than 150 prospecting and exploration licences had been granted to more than 100 companies, covering 80 per cent of the country’s surface area.

Though known for diamonds, Sierra Leone is rich in iron ore, gold, bauxite, rutile, and rare earths. Marine resources are abundant, soil is fertile, and there is great biological diversity. And in 2010, the American exploration firm Anadarko discovered oil and gas offshore near the Liberian border.

In the near-term, while the service and manufacturing sectors are small, economic growth is going to come from the exploitation of these natural resources. Investments are raising public expectations for increased employment opportunities and an end to poverty. But many of the risk factors for conflict that existed in the 1980s and 1990s are not yet adequately addressed.

The decade-long war that consumed the country was triggered by mass resentment over the inequitable allotment of natural resources. Until recently, Sierra Leone was ranked at the bottom of the UN Human Development Index, and had some of the highest rates of adult illiteracy and child and maternal mortality in the world. The country was ranked last in Yale University’s 2010 Environmental Performance Index, scoring particularly poorly in environmental health.

If managed effectively, the country’s natural resources could build the foundation for sustainable growth, and in this way play an important role in peace-building. But mining and oil companies have a history of under-delivering on promises of social benefits and environmental protection. Unless this round of resource extraction promotes inclusive development, it will endanger the peace-building process.

The mission of Sierra Leone’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is to establish systems, regulations, and mechanisms to ensure investment supports sustainable development. This means prioritizing sustainable livelihoods, participation and consultation, and joint management of water, mineral, and agricultural resources.

In 2010, we began working with the United Nations Environment Programme and Southern African Institute for Environmental Assessment to build the EPA’s capacity for environmental impact assessment, monitoring, and enforcement, which are key to sustaining Sierra Leone’s peace.

Environmental planning and management will help develop a common vision for how the country should exploit its natural resources. A participatory, inclusive approach can heal the divisions of communities and facilitate the creation of a common identity built around resource management.

In this sense, good resource governance is a proxy for the effectiveness of government. Effective resource management will build confidence in the wider political process of peace consolidation. If, on the other hand, mining benefits are not equitably allocated and the environment is ruined, it will breed popular resentment.

To succeed in rebuilding Sierra Leone, we need companies to recognize that economic power cannot be consolidated among a small number of investors. Because the country’s tax base is thin, investments could result in a democratic deficit if the government is more responsive to investors than the citizenry. And if investors’ promises of widespread social benefit are not fulfilled, unmet expectations could quickly spread into a wider sense of disappointment with government, and anger at mining companies.

As part of this effort to sustain peace, we especially need the support of junior mining companies. The majority of mining companies operating in Sierra Leone are juniors. They are an important part of the mining sector, but have not yet adopted high standards of transparency or accountability.

I also strongly advocate policy and legislation that holds companies accountable in their home countries for environmental and human-rights violations in host countries, along the lines of the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and the Cardin-Lugar transparency provision of the Dodd-Frank financial-reform law. Oversight of companies operating overseas by countries like Canada would go a long way toward maintaining peace in Sierra Leone, where we are still developing our technical and institutional capacity for auditing and enforcement.

Sierra Leone needs enlightened investors who understand that responsible extraction is fundamental to peacekeeping. Good resource governance is not about making investment harder: It is about minimizing the risks of conflict and environmental degradation, and improving the benefits of investment for citizens, states, and investors.

It is the responsibility of the government of Sierra Leone to ensure citizens benefit from mining. The present government has demonstrated its commitment to achieving this by establishing the EPA and becoming a member of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative. But we cannot fully achieve this goal unless the mining industry and home governments like Canada become partners in the process of peace.

Photo courtesy of Reuters