Liberia: Tension Brews in Bomi County over Mining Machine
Beagonah, Bomi County – Tension is brewing between artisanal mine owners and local authorities in Sueh Mecca District of Bomi County over the use of mini rock crushers, widely utilized on diamonds and goldmines across the country.
Report by Ibrahim M. Sesay, with New Narratives
Colloquially called “kata-kata” machines due to the sound of their engines, artisanal miners find the mini rock crushers very effective at grinding rocks, welding and providing electricity for nighttime work. The machines, imported from Guinea, cost between US$800 and US$1,500, according to miners. But local agents of the Ministry of Mines and Energy say artisanal miners or class “C” license holders are not allowed to use any machine unless they have a permit to do so.
Mine owners insist they will continue to use the machine, claiming that the machine does not violate the terms of the license. They accuse the ministry of not being clear on which machines are allowed for class “C” license holders.
The situation is heating up. There have been a number of melees at various mining sites in the district already, where government mining agents were chased away from goldmines while conducting regular inspections, according to Steven Geru, chief patrolman of the Suehn Mecca Mining Agency.
“We have closed down those machines many times, and at times the miners want to fight with us and even [go] as far [as] threatening to harm us because they feel that we are stopping their work,” explains Jeru. “They stand in our way trying to prevent us from doing our job, but again [I] always told them that anyone who wants to use the kata-kata or dredges should go to the ministry to get permit.”
There are 96 class “C” license holders in Bomi County alone, figures from the Ministry of Mines and Energy’s online cadastral repository show.
Alex Roland, owner of the Lion Head artisanal goldmine in Beagonah, owns five kata-kata machines. He says the machine is not like the contraptions used in large-scale mining operations such as Hummingbird or ArcelorMittal. He says even with the kata-kata machine, he still needs a lot of manpower to use it.
“It is a mini washing plant used in places where people have worked for many years, and the waste that is left over is what we wash to get the gold,” says Roland, who chairs an association of mine owners who use kata-kata machines here.
One kata-kata machine sits on two sticks. It has several tubes that supply water from muddy ponds with the aid of a water pump, as mineworkers shovel gravel into the machine’s jaws. Other mineworkers rinse a long rug used to trap tiny gold nuggets as crushed bits of gravel are washed down an incline stage. Roland tells FrontPage Africa there are about 100 of these machines in goldmines in Bomi and Gbarpolu alone.
Mineworkers say they cannot afford to work without the machine.
“It can do one month’s work in one day’s time,” says Musa Sesay, one of the mineworkers at Lion Head goldmine. “It is not like when you [are] using [a] shovel to wash the gravel.”
They even use the machine to mill rice, he adds.
“This machine [is] really helping [us] the workers here on this Mandingo Hill and [is] fast in washing the gravel,” says Salia Jabateh, whose Mandingo Hill goldmine is an hour walk from Lion Head. “Before we starting the kata-kata, it was hard for us to wash the gravel because [of] the time we were taking to complete the washing.”
Jeru, the mining agent for Suehn Mecca, refutes the claims of the mine owners and workers. He tells FrontPage Africa at his mining agency in Tubmanburg that only mine owners with a permit are allowed to use any kind of machine.
“Government is losing revenue due to the illegal use,” Jeru says. “Those that are involved should be ready to face the full weight of the law.”
“People with class ‘C’ mining license should not use big equipment like the excavator, yellow machine, dredges that people use in river mining and including this kata-kata machine that we are talking about as well.”
According to Chapter 6 Section 6.3 (f) of the Liberia Mineral and Mining Laws of 2000, the holder of class “C” mining license “shall conduct mining predominantly as a small scale operation, and the minister may pursuant to this law and regulations, penalize any holder of class “C” license that is not predominantly engaged in small scale operation.” The document does not specify the type of equipment permitted under the license.
The Ministry of Mines, in a press release last month, announced a ban on the use of dredges for diamonds and gold mining and a moratorium on the issuance of class “C” licenses. That press release did not mention mini rock crusher machines either.
Roland says he and other mine owners did not know about a permit, adding that the kata-kata machine union had asked Jeru in the past to inform ministry authorities about their plight but to no avail.
“We as mine workers who formed this union [are] willing to pay any amount that [the Ministry of Mines and Energy] will call because we know that if we don’t pay…the government will be losing money, and we don’t want that to happen.”
Musa, the mineworker from the Lion Head goldmine, supports Roland’s claims. “The agent doesn’t want us to use the kata-kata machine because he said it is illegal, and he and the ministry officials can’t tell us how much to pay,” he says.
Jeru denies any previous discussion with Roland and other mine owners on the issue but reveals he was recently chased from Lion Head when he, his patrolmen and inspector went
ON A ROUTINE INSPECTION
“We had to run from there for our lives,” he says of that ordeal. “I think they wanted to kill us.”
Musa admits that the incident Jeru references did happen. “Sometimes when they continue to close down our machine while we are working, we get angry and react because they have failed to tell us where this machine belongs and they can’t continue to embarrass our work,” he says.
One member of the mine owners union, who speaks to FrontPage Africa on condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisal, alleges Jeru and other officials of the mining agency use the issue of permits to extort money from mine owners. He further alleges that for every time a machine is shut down, Jeru and his team demand a certain sum of money before they are allowed to resume work. Jeru denies any wrongdoing.
This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the Excellence in Extractives Reporting Project. German Development Cooperation provided funding. The Funder had no say in the story’s content