Grand Cape Mount County -Today’s Lofa Bridge in the Gola Konneh District of Grand Cape Mount County is a different place from yesterday’s — before the 1960s when mining activities began in that part of Liberia. From a tiny, unknown village it has now grown into a big town, buzzing with trade and commerce.
Report by James Harding Giahyue
In this first of a three-part series on the impacts of artisanal mining on rural communities we report on how this form of mining is polluting natural sources of safe drinking water in Lofa Bridge, its implications on the health and safety of mineworkers, and the gradual fizzling of the farming tradition there.
There aren’t a lot of differences between Lofa Bridge and any urban Liberian setting, except for the distant tall trees and the noticeable Lofa River.
There is all sorts of merchandise, from radio to sunglasses. There are even desktop publishing services. The squealing of motorcycles is routine.
The sounds of soccer commentaries from video clubs are loud enough to lure in passionate fans of the popular sport. And you can frequently hear vehicles tapping against the planks on the Lofa Bridge, from where the community gets its name.
But there is a downside to this idyllic scene: mining has polluted the Lofa River and creeks along it once used for drinking. Residents now depend solely on a couple of hand pumps as the only source of safe drinking water.
“Way back we did not have any hand pumps here,” says Town Chief Momo Seh, 56, who was born in Lofa Bridge shortly before the first shovel struck the ground there.
“We used to drill well at the banks of the [Lofa] River. The water was safe to drink but right now we can’t do it.”
Town Chief Seh says the townspeople did not know from the outset that creeks and the river were contaminated.
“The children started vomiting and toileting, so we said to ourselves ‘This place is not safe again,’” he recalls. “You only go now to the Lofa River to take bath, wash your clothes and come home.”
Town Chief Seh blames population growth for the problem. When he was a little boy, the population of the town was not even close to a thousand people.
Now there are more than 4,000 people living in the community. People now defecate in the river and creeks nearby, he says, and they are uncontrollable.
One in four Liberians does not have access to safe drinking water, according to the World Health Organization, one of the highest numbers of people without access to safe drinking water anywhere in the world.
The situation is even worse in rural communities that depend mainly on creeks and rivers for drinking water. The WHO also says one in five deaths in Liberia is due to waterborne diseases. One in eight children dies before his or her fifth birthday due to the same reason, according to the UN child agency UNICEF.
And the World Bank finds that Liberia loses five percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) yearly due to a poor water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) sector.
While experts blame the lack of safe hygiene practice and poor sanitation for this high rate of water-related fatality, environmentalists such as Francis Colee of Green Advocates says mining is a big contributor.
“One way that you can easily see that is that the [mineworkers] are washing the gravels down the water,” Colee says.
“Artisanal mining or alluvia mining and even industrial mining require extensive use of water to be able to recover the gold or the diamond.
“If they are up the river, it will require the number of men [and women]. If they are 50, 60, 100 or 200 miners and all these guys are [washing and sieving], and the waste water being pumped back into the river is washed down a long way, that is how pollution occurs.”
Dehwehn Yeabah, Director of Environmental and Occupational Health Department at the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare agrees with Colee.
“We quite agree that when mining is taking place water sources are being polluted, not just physically being polluted but…by use of chemicals,” says Yeabah, one whose responsibilities is to ensure water quality nationwide.
It is not difficult to sense that Lofa Bridge is a mining town. Mining utensils from shovels to diggers and sifters to carpets hang on every shop.
Welding shops are specialized in forging rafts for river dredging and fortifying brand new wheelbarrows for the mines.
Everyone in Lofa Bridge is a miner or has something directly to do with mining, including Town Chief Seh himself.
It does not necessarily take an environmentalist to tell that artisanal mining pollutes the river and creeks in Lofa Bridge.
The pollution there is glaring. As early as 8:am people—young and old—line up on both sides of the river digging, washing and sieving for gold and diamonds.
Open holes and sandbars line the riverside and the edges of creeks. Some creeks look greenish as if something regularly decays in them.
“During the rainy season, the river and creeks carry a lot of sediments (minerals) that are deposited at their banks, so people dig to find those minerals during the dry season when the tide of the water drops,” explains Geologist Urias Taylor.
A team of New Narratives fellows earlier this month witnessed about two-dozen men and women working on a raft as four water pump machines dredged the river, profusely bobbling the water.
They coordinated their work both on the raft atop the river, and on shore in Gohnzoe next to Lofa Bridge in an area between Grand Cape Mount and Gbarpolu Counties.
Just a few yards from the dredging raft, three mineworkers mined at a mine whose license is held by a miner named Faliku Kamara. One man put moist earth into an improvised sifter—a plastic tub with several holes at the bottom.
Another man dipped water from the river just beneath his feet, while the other washed and sieved for gold. The remaining gravel was placed in a pile of moist earth encased with a mosquito net to be rewashed for diamonds.
Muddy water rushed back into the water, coloring a huge portion of the river. Their supervisor, Alfred Gbanjah, blamed the color of the river on a heavy downpour of rain the night before.
“I don’t drink this water,” says James Paye, one of the mineworkers, who dig holes from which moist earth is washed and sieved.
The holes Paye and his colleagues dig are the commonest features in Lofa Bridge and its surroundings. Some are as deep as 15 feet. Some mines have as many as a score of holes with just few inches separating such as the one in Gohnzoe.
With felled trees littered about, the close interval of spaces between the holes makes it look like one giant-sized hole from a distance. Paye and his colleagues do not cover the holes they dig.
“They create danger for waterborne diseases and also water-related diseases,” says Yeabah.
“Sometimes they mine and those pits remain there and water settle down in there and mosquitos breed in there and get back in the community, bite our people and give them malaria.”
Mineworkers also dig what locals call a “boogeyman hole”, where they create a small opening at the top of the hole and dig wider as they go down.
Authorities are alarmed over this practice because the uncovered holes are deathtraps to both mineworkers and locals.
A mineworker was buried alive at a mine called Gold Camp in the neighboring Kaita Town in 2016, says Sando Lumei a patrolman with local office of the mines ministry.
Mine disasters are not frequent in Liberia, except for few cases such as the mineworker in Gold Town or a mineworker struck by a felled tree in Forkpa Town in Gbarpolu County in 2016.
However, there is one reason why Lofa Bridge and any other mining community in Grand Cape Mount County should jitter even at the whisper of mine-related disasters.
On October 6, 1982 a landslide in a mining community called No-way Camp in the Mano River area —some 60 kilometers from Lofa Bridge and 95 miles northwest of Monrovia—killed at least 47 people and injured 39.
The landslide, according to records at the Liberia Geological Survey, occurred after debris of iron ore placed on hill steeped beyond its natural angle.
More than a million tons of iron ore loosened, burying people alive. The No-way Camp landside is the worst mine-related disaster in the history of Liberia.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) conducts an environmental and social impact assessment of Class “A” mining license or major mining concessions such as ArcelorMittal and Aureus Mining but does not conduct such for Class “C” mining or artisanal mining.
In fact, nothing about artisanal mining is mentioned in the Environmental Protection and Management Law of Liberia, leaving mineworkers to be solely governed by regulations of the Mines Ministry.
Those regulations are not sufficient to keep mineworkers safe and mines environmentally friendly, says Colee of Green Advocates.
He recommends that the Mines Ministry should work with mining stakeholders to make interventions to get alternative water sources for artisanal miners as well as industrial miners.
The Mines Ministry is faced with logistical constraints and subsequently cannot properly monitor and regulate mines, Chief Mining Engineer James Kaybe Smith said in an interview in January.
Despite an exhaustive chain of command that features a regional coordinator, county coordinator, mining agent, mining inspector, patrolman and mining chairman, Smith getting to rural communities was a problem for local staff.
“If you ask the government now, we’ve got constraints, we’ve got budget shortfall,” he said in that interview.
The EPA along with the mines ministry is currently devising a strategy that will mandate site verification of Class “C” license holders, according to Jerry Toe, Director of Compliance and Enforcement.
As part of the strategy, Toe says miners will form cooperatives to make it easier to see to deal with them.
The strategy will mandate miners to refill the holes mineworkers dig just like bigger concessioners are mandated by law to decommission their mining sites.
A Class “C” license holder is entitled to up to 25 acres of land and may have up to four licenses at the same time. There are 49 Class “C” license holders in the Lofa Bridge area, according to the mine ministry.
Yeabah of the Ministry of Health agrees but says that it will be more workable for the Mines Ministry to directly deal with miners with other agencies supporting.
“Our teams have been working with the miners but we think that the miners will listen more to the Ministry of Lands, Mines and Energy that licenses them to mine in those areas.
“If the guy’s license is threatened, he will pay more attention…”
Mineworkers do a lot of hard labor without any personal protective equipment (PPE). Mine injuries are commonplace, be it an injury of a blow of a shovel to the leg, a cutlass to the arm or dirt in the eye.
Fear has no role to play there. Even death is not spoken of with that deep sense of grief and sympathy.
“It has a lot of risks,” admits Paye, the mineworker from Gohnzoe.
“Sometimes you sustain injury. Sometimes when you are digging you have yourself cut. It has happened to me lots of times,” he adds with his ten toes on the ground like his other colleagues. Shoes would provide more protection but he won't wear them.
“I don’t like to wear boots, it has too much heat.”
Divers who work on the raft that dredge for gold and diamonds on the river have far scarier tales.
A diver dives deep down the riverbed and breathes through a tube that is attached to a generator-powered, oxygen-filled compressor.
A life rope is then tied to the diver’s waist to enable him signal for an emergency. This means that someone always keeps an eye on the life rope at all times or must be alert to pull the rope if he suspects something.
While at the riverbed, the diver then uses a sucker that sucks gravels and sands, which pass through a water-pump machine and are pumped on a rug-laden, slanted stage where the minerals are trapped.
“Some divers spend three or four hours under the water sometimes,” says James Jalloh, who plied the dangerous trade for four years, saved enough money and bought a motorcycle he now rides. “I used to stay two hours and thirty minutes [under the water].”
He says he experienced a lot of head and chest pains while still a diver.
“You close your eyes until you come out, you don’t see what is around you. You only feel. You risk your life because it is where you find your living,” he says, recalling an event where one diver died after the generator powering the oxygen unit that supported him to breathe went off.
Mining does not only pose a risk to the natural environment in Lofa Bridge. It does to farming as well. Though some people still farm, farming today is just a shadow of what farming was back then.
One man who understands this threatened farming tradition is 65-year-old Siafa Brown, Dean Elder of Lofa Bridge. He was born in Lofa Bridge and has lived all his life there, even during the civil war.
“We used to operate in the farming business but that system has died down completely because of the mineral business,” he laments.
“Our children don’t want to help us on the farm. According to the age we are on now, it is not like way back when we used to fell forest. Now you see that we don’t have country rice here. It proves it that there is no farming in this area."
Elder Brown does not see a bright farming future for Lofa Bridge but he is not worried at all.
“It is left with them (the new generation). Our administration now has passed. When their time comes, they will decide. They know how they will live.”
This story was produced by FrontPageAfrica. It was written as part of a media skills development program run by the Thomson Reuters Foundation and New Narratives, and funded by German Cooperation. The funder had no influence on the story’s content