Liberians and the international community need to pressure Liberia’s presidential candidates to prioritize sustainable agriculture over mining in the quest to boost their economy.
In addition to iron, extractive industries in Liberia include gold, diamonds, logging, and offshore oil and gas exploration. Foreign companies have invested in all of these industries, but in 2009 a Chinese firm called China Union made the single largest direct investment in Liberia to date: a $2.6 billion USD mineral development agreement (MDA) to revive the Bong iron mines.
Mining operations degrade the environment through soil erosion, ground and surface water contamination, air pollution, and often deforestation, while depleting a valuable finite resource.
The development of natural resources such as iron might seem strategic for a developing country, but in Liberia these endeavors have not created enough jobs for Liberians to even justify the sacrifice.
China Union in particular was initially expected to create 4000 domestic jobs and ended up hiring less than 400 Liberians. The sentiment echoed by a resident who has visited the site was that “mining activities in Liberia doesn't benefit the poor citizens but those in power.”
China Union has certainly been more socially committed than other foreign companies, and found creative ways to use their investment once the iron market started to slip, such as selling crushed rock from the mines.
However, newly paved roads and an unaffordable train do not make up for the underemployment and incomplete infrastructural aid (hospitals without medicines, schools lacking teachers, etc.), not to mention the environmental impact left in its wake.
Regrettably, workman’s wages cannot buy better air, clean water, or arable land once they have been lost.
This is not to say that environmental policy in Liberia has not made progress under President Johnson Sirleaf; it certainly has. However, writing policies alone without acting on them is dangerous in terms of fostering a sense of complacency, and useless for the Liberians whose air, water, land, and livelihoods are affected.
Even with the heroic efforts of the environmental justice organization Green Advocates, which managed to critically analyze the concession contract between the Government of Liberia and China Union in February 2009, disaster could not be averted.
The hopeful plea by Green Advocates and Global Witness for adequate enforcement of the fiscal transparency built into the agreement, as well as recommendations to strengthen clauses governing community resettlement and a feasibility study in order to prevent abuse, sadly fell on deaf ears.
President Johnson Sirleaf seemed to take the groups’ feedback as a compliment on the “government’s determination to ensure that Liberia reaps maximum benefit from its natural resources,” rather than as constructive criticism to act upon.
Today, the site stands abandoned once again due in part to a drop in iron prices two years ago, and it seems few if any of the promises made in the MDA were fulfilled, including the requirement for China Union to clean up or compensate the community before leaving.
In articles covering the story over the past seven years, various government officials consistently blame the Chinese company, and in some cases even the local people, for failure of their own institutions.
Weak institutions are certainly not unique to Liberia—they plague many governments and are the focus of international organizations worldwide. Minimal or ineffective government regulation is usually appealing to private corporations, which is why they persist.
It is the struggle of entities like the Liberian EPA, National Investment Comission, and Ministry of Lands, Mines, and Energy, to have to balance stronger environmental protection with ‘pro-business’ policies (often weaker environmental protection) so as not to oppose economic progress.
And perhaps some government officials themselves stand to benefit from foreign direct investments to specific industries. The result is plenty of detailed legislation, but woefully little enforcement.
Who should bear the burden of change? Ideally, I believe that corporations such as China Union should help extend rather than shorten the time horizons of communities where they operate rather than simply baiting them with aid-for-trade deals.
However, this behavior is rarely most efficient or lucrative for a company, and while concerned citizens should certainly demand it, such a change cannot realistically be anticipated today. There is also a limit to how much social change a foreign multinational can affect.
The other signing member of concession contracts—the Government of Liberia—is more tangible. The October 2017 presidential election presents the opportunity for a new era of environmental progress: it is the first time in over 70 years that the presidency will transition peacefully from one living leader to another, and it does not have to be a “rice and t-shirt” election.
The candidates have begun to speak on key issues, and the latest prediction is a “traditional run-off” between former footballer and senator George Weah (CDC) and current Vice President Joseph Boakai (UP).
Numerous flaws of each party and candidate aside, I am arguing that political participation could help prevent another China Union scenario.
Three newer candidates, Dr. J Mills Jones (MOVEE), Alex Cummings (ANC), and Benoni Urey (ALP), bring relatively progressive platforms and could swing the vote depending on which main candidate they decide to support.
While Jones is adamant on non-specific job creation by and for Liberians, Urey and Cummings have expressed particular interest in achieving domestic food security by shifting away from extractive industries (which recently comprised 17% of the GDP and 56% of exports, mainly from China Union and Arcelor Mittal)  toward agriculture.
Millions of dollars are spent on importing food annually, which comprises about 25% of imported goods, and 41% of Liberian households cannot afford adequate nutrition, despite most Liberians being farmers!
Farming on a large scale can have significant environmental repercussions of its own, but it is easier to regulate because it does not have to involve a foreign multinational third party, and in this case the local skills and knowledge already exist.
Cummings and Urey can only influence the actions of principal candidates if citizens show interest, support them in October, and hold them accountable to their promises through writing, voting, and publicly organizing. If people lose all faith in the political system of their country, whatever seems bad can actually get worse.
Look at the United States today, where the EPA and science itself (from unequivocal evidence of climate change, to rigorously researched pollutants) are being dismantled and refuted by a pseudo-populist administration installed in part by voter ignorance and apathy.
Additionally, if people become complacent about their environmental rights, or simply accept that rapid economic growth is both more important and mutually exclusive from sustainability, there can be dire consequences. Look at China.
They may have accomplished certain metrics of poverty reduction in record time, but at what cost? Biodiversity and farmland decimated, air and water polluted, natural resources depleted, and carbon emissions that are accelerating climate change.
This is not a price Liberians can afford to pay. Where will polluting industries such as mineral extraction be exported next? We have but one earth to live on; climate change and resource scarcity are showing us that only environmentally sustainable economies will remain viable for long enough to defeat poverty.