Sierra Leone’s Mines Minister Awards ’Secret Licenses’ to Chinese Gold Mining Companies

Following the exposure of the illegal Chinese gold mining operations in Penguia Chiefdom, Kailahun District, the minister of mines and mineral resources, Mr. Timothy Kabbah, has secretly awarded mining licenses to a company called Metals and Minerals Trading (SL) Limited – one of the illegal Chinese mining companies operating in Penguia Chiefdom – without due process.

The ministry has granted two licenses to the company. The first was the Environment Impact Assessment Licence, which was granted by the Government of Sierra Leone’s Environment Protection Agency (under the auspices of the ministry) for 12 months.

The license is dated 14th June 2021, but it was secretly granted after the publication of our investigative article in the United Kingdom on 20th June 2021, which exposed the minister and his involvement in the illegal gold mining taking place in Penguia Chiefdom. The license was backdated in an attempt to indicate that it predated the investigative article.

The second license, titled Small-Scale Mining License No SML 8/2021, was granted on 22nd June 2021, two days after the investigative article was published. The minister of mines and mineral resources secretly granted these operating licenses without due process to Metals and Minerals Trading (SL) Limited to mine gold in Penguia Chiefdom.

Before the licenses were granted, a handwritten document purporting to be a notice of consent was signed by local chiefs in Kono-Bendu (one of the villages where the illegal mining is taking place) and Metals and Minerals Trading (SL) Limited. It is dated 13th June 2021, and we consider it to be highly likely that it was signed after our investigative article was published and was then backdated.

The agreement states that the local chiefs have agreed to host Metals and Minerals Trading (SL) Limited and have allowed them to build a camp on their land. It also states that the chiefs will work “peacefully with the company as nobody forces them on us” (sic). The chiefs, who are illiterate, signed the document using thumbprints. The only people who could sign with a pen were the company secretary, Anthony B. Gogra, and the witnesses, who were also associated with the company.

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A single page ‘agreement’ called ‘Consent Note’ shows signatures of two chiefs (in thumbprints) and signatures of company-associated people acting as representatives and witnesses (Photo above).

The minister of mines and mineral resources is the key overseer of the devastating illegal mining going on in Penguia Chiefdom. After having his actions exposed, he has gone out to secretly award mining licenses without due process.

The investigative article highlighted the catastrophic environmental and health problems resulting from deadly chemicals percolating into the streams that are the main sources of drinking water for the villages within and beyond the mining areas. Two of the illiterate chiefs who signed the documents have medical issues caused by polluted drinking water – but they cannot say this publicly.

The people of Kono-Bendu, Saalu, and all the other towns and villages, including Sandara, are experiencing health problems because of polluted water systems. The number of first-trimester miscarriages is higher here than in the chiefdoms in the district where mining is not taking place, as is the number of children being born with disabilities, including neurological conditions – but culturally, talking about these things is taboo. Young men who work in the mines or drink from polluted rivers are suffering from dizziness, weakness, and low libido. The miners are subject to prolonged exposure to cyanide and heavy metals. This carries a high risk of developing cancer, but the people here are not informed about this risk.

The environmental impact assessment, which has been completed and signed off in a couple of days, tramples upon the lives of the people of Penguia, who are getting ill or are dying as a result of the mining. Most of the communities here rely on fish from the rivers to feed their families. The fish consume cyanide and heavy metals which enter the water from the mines, and they pass these on directly to the people who eat them.

The signing and awarding of the licenses just two days after the publication of the investigative article is a frightening illustration of ineptness by the minister and shows the seriously entrenched corruption that is sweeping this country to its death.

Can the minister answer the following questions?

Did the ministry publish any environmental impact assessment carried out by the company in Penguia Chiefdom? If so, when was this assessment carried out, and by which approved national body?

Did the ministry carry out its assessment, including testing the rivers for pollutants, determining the impact of any pollutants on the lives of the communities, and investigating whether the rivers are suitable for human use and wildlife?

Since the minister granted these licenses to the company just a few days ago, to whom has the company been paying its taxes in the past three years?

A well-placed chiefdom individual told me that they were never consulted by the minister about the mining licenses. He said: ‘He never consulted us, the chiefdom people, or the landowners.’

When the article was published on 20th June, the first thing the minister should have done was to order the suspension of all mining activities in the chiefdom and then carry out a thorough investigation in consultation with the community. Instead, the minister circumvented this process by secretly granting state licenses to the illegal miners; granting the companies licenses to kill.

We have acquired several videos, including footage from Kono-Bendu where, last week, the company used bulldozers and excavators to clear local landowners’ plantations at night! The shocked plantation owners discovered in the morning that their livelihoods had been destroyed. The company had paid gangs and given them bikes to go round to intimidate and attack landowners.

 

As a local youth filmed the activities, one of the paid gang members attempted to wrestle the equipment from him, which resulted in a scuffle. Local landowners watch helplessly as the excavators linger in the background of a devastating plantation; seeing them lamenting their loss is a harrowing sight.

This is a grim situation, especially in a community where, according to a World Food Programme (WFP) report published just over four weeks ago, 93% of people are food-insecure; they rely on their plantations to buy food for their families.
In another village, Kongo-Nannie, a group of youths filmed the community river, Monday, which is polluted beyond use. As the voiceover in the film explains, this is where they used to get drinking water from, and where they used to fish, bathe, and wash their clothes.

Evidence collected from field activities is now being submitted in a report to the UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson. The report asks the UK Foreign Office to intervene.

A UK rights group involved in the process is also proposing an investigation into the killing of a youth in Gbongboma village, which the Sierra Leone Government has so far refused to undertake. Both the US Embassy and Amnesty International have also been informed.

As civil society entities lie impotent and seem irrecuperable, what we are witnessing in Sierra Leone is a gradual degeneration of the country into a malignant autocracy powered by baleful corruption and inadequacy at the very heart of the country’s leadership. That is an ill wind that blows nobody any good.

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