Pursuing Responsible Mining in Liberia

The oldest republic in Africa, Liberia is a country rich in natural resources, including water, forests, wildlife and minerals. In recent years, Liberia’s substantial mineral wealth and progressive political leadership has attracted foreign investments from major global extractive companies.

Visiting Nimba County Community College to give a presentation on Healthy Sustainable Societies and CI-Liberia's work with ArcelorMittal in the NImba area (© Conservation International/photo by Heidi Ruffler)

Visiting Nimba County Community College to give a presentation on Healthy Sustainable Societies and CI-Liberia’s work with ArcelorMittal in the NImba area (© Conservation International/photo by Heidi Ruffler)

While these investments provide a welcome source of revenue to Liberia, the challenge remains to avoid the familiar “resource curse,” whereby nations with an abundance of non-renewable natural resources often paradoxically end up with lower growth rates, worse development outcomes and increased corruption over time.

Liberia is working hard to steer clear of these dangers and to overcome this situation by working across partnerships to invest in sustainable development. As I recently discovered during a visit there, this interest in “getting it right” and ensuring sustainable development can be felt not only in government ministries, but also in villages and in speaking with future local leaders.

abandoned vehicles

In 1987, political instability in Liberia led to the departure of LAMCO. Although its assets were transferred to a Liberian company, insurrectionist forces from Ivory Coast and invasions by a series of warlords not only put an indefinite halt to the mining operations, they also damaged and looted much of the infrastructure left behind by LAMCO. (© Conservation International/photo by Heidi Ruffler)

One of the most memorable parts of my trip was engaging with an inspirational group of students and teachers at Nimba County Community College (NCCC).

As their country rebuilds after its long and damaging civil war, the NCCC students and teachers are interested in creating a future where the importance of nature to people is recognized, and where development needs are met without damaging the country’s rich natural heritage.

It hadn’t rained, so the roads were relatively passable and we completed the 300 km drive from the capital city of Monrovia to Nimba County in less than seven hours. The closer we got to Nimba, the more spectacular the scenery became: dense forests interspersed with agricultural plots and villages.

The Nimba Mountains in northeastern Liberia are shared with Ivory Coast and Guinea. Home to an incredible array of biodiversity, including numerous species of flora and fauna that are found nowhere else on Earth, the Nimba Mountains have been designated a World Heritage Site (Ivory Coast and Guinea), a priority site for the Alliance for Zero Extinction (Ivory Coast) and are part of the Guinean forests of West Africa hotspot.

The Nimba Mountains in northeastern Liberia are shared with Ivory Coast and Guinea. Home to an incredible array of biodiversity, including numerous species of flora and fauna that are found nowhere else on Earth, the Nimba Mountains have been designated a World Heritage Site (Ivory Coast and Guinea), a priority site for the Alliance for Zero Extinction (Ivory Coast) and are part of the Guinean forests of West Africa hotspot. (© Conservation International/photo by Heidi Ruffler)

This area is also rich in mineral deposits, including iron ore. In the 1950s, the Liberian American-Swedish Minerals Company (LAMCO) started exploring iron ore on Mount Nimba. After production began in 1963, the company excavated 84 million tons of iron ore from Nimba in its first 10 years.

The lasting effects of mining have had a detrimental effect on wildlife in the area, and an increasing human population continues to exert pressures on the area’s natural resources through activities such as logging, the bushmeat trade, alluvial mining, slash-and-burn agriculture and wildfires.

After peace was restored in Liberia, ArcelorMittal Liberia Ltd. took over the LAMCO concession to restore the abandoned and damaged infrastructure, including the port and railway to Buchanan, and mine in several sites. Part of the world’s leading steel company, ArcelorMittal Liberia’s product is used in everything from bridges to railroads to refrigerators.

The company is working closely with CI, local communities and other stakeholders to avoid and mitigate additional negative impacts on the area’s biodiversity. One of these partners is the NCCC.

Nimba County Community College, in Sanniquellie.

Nimba County Community College, in Sanniquellie. (© Conservation International/photo by Heidi Ruffler)

Established in 2010, part of its mission is to “invest and educate for today, tomorrow and the future, while searching for new ways to reconcile, unify and develop our people, our college, our county and our country.” One of the college’s four departments is Science & Agriculture, which includes tracks in agriculture, natural resource management and forestry.

Today, NCCC is home to 1,038 students and 81 staff. The age range of students is between 17 and 70; several older students who had to interrupt their studies because of the long war have now enrolled to complete their degrees.

My colleague from CI-Liberia, Borwen Sayon, and I gave a presentation to approximately 200 students at NCCC during our recent trip.

We discussed the importance of moving toward a healthy sustainable society — where the needs of nature and people are met over the long term — and the role of the private sector in helping us to get there.

We discussed the importance of moving toward a healthy sustainable society — where the needs of nature and people are met over the long term — and the role of the private sector in helping us to get there. (© Conservation International/photo by Heidi Ruffler)

We were supported by a biodiversity expert from ArcelorMittal, who provided answers to the students’ questions on the impacts of mining, mitigation efforts taken, and plans to engage with local communities to ensure they benefit from the mining operation.

ArcelorMittal Liberia (AML) is providing scholarships to the 23 natural resource management students currently enrolled in NCCC’s Department of Science and Agriculture. Our CI-Liberia team is working closely with AML, the NCCC, and other partners to establish conservation agreement pilot projects in several villages around the East Nimba Nature Reserve. The team has also just completed a workshop with stakeholders, held at NCCC with activities in several surrounding villages, to discuss management of the reserve.

Plans are being made to take some of these students to Blue Lake, a previous mining site of LAMCO, which did not go through full close-out due to the hasty departure of the former company and which is currently serving as a test site for reforestation and close-out for ArcelorMittal.

Plans are being made to take some of these students to Blue Lake, a previous mining site of LAMCO, which did not go through full close-out due to the hasty departure of the former company and which is currently serving as a test site for reforestation and close-out for ArcelorMittal. (© Conservation International/photo by Heidi Ruffler)

It’s clear that Liberia still has far to go to achieve its goals of conservation and sustainable development. However, what I saw at NCCC and in villages in the Nimba area convinced me that steps are being taken in the right direction. Facilitating discussions and partnerships between local communities and the private sector and building local capacity are important steps toward ensuring that the extraction of Liberia’s mineral wealth is done in a way that is not detrimental to Liberia’s important biological diversity but that also provides sustainable benefits to Liberia’s rural people.

Heidi Ruffler is technical advisor to CI’s Africa + Madagascar field division.

 

Comments

  1. Mandy DeVine says

    To learn more about community endorsement of conservation agreements around the East Nimba Nature Reserve, read this blog by CI’s Senior Director of the Conservation Stewards Program, Eduard Niesten: http://alturl.com/34cxk

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