Liberia: Gold Rush in Belleh Yallah Amid Coronavirus

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Crowded Red Light market in Paynesville outside Monrovia six days after Liberia recorded its first case of the novel coronavirus March 22, 2020. FrontPage Africa/Harry Browne

(UPDATE: April 20, 2020—Story is updated to reflect nine more coronavirus cases and adds an additional paragraph on the denial of the gold rush by the Ministry of Mines and Energy.)

Monrovia – Artisanal miners are flocking to Belleh Yallah in Gbarpolu County amid a new gold rush there, with mining authorities fearing an outbreak of the novel coronavirus in the western mining hub.    


Report by Mae Azango, New Narratives


“I am aware of it,” confirmed Abraham Gappie, the secretary general of the Federation of Miners Association of Liberia, in a mobile phone interview. “Immediately [after] people heard of the gold rush in the region, people from all over the country started going there. Even before the lockdown, the number of people that have been going in the area is huge.” 

The association had spoken with member-miners in Henry Town, Kongbor and Weasua—three of Gbarpolu’s largest mining communities. Some people are crossing the Sierra Leonean border from Kongbor to seek their fortune, and others are investing their money into minerals hoping for big profit once the pandemic ceases, according to Gappie.

The gold rush is leaving some existing mines empty.  

“Many of our miners are rushing to the newly opened mining sites in Bellah Yallah in search of better wages,” said Abraham Somah, the Sierra Leonean governor in Bellekpalamu, a town along the Sierra Leone border with Liberia. “With all the warnings we have been hearing over the radio… our people are not taking it seriously. You can’t blame them because of the economic hardship during this coronavirus period.” 

Coronavirus cases are surging in Liberia. The country has recorded 99 cases of the disease and eight deaths as of April 20. President George Weah announced a 21-day state of emergency in the country and a 14-day lockdown for Montserrado, Margibi, Nimba and Grand Kru that began just over a week ago. The Legislature on Friday extended the state of emergency to 60 days, beginning April 10 when it was first announced by President Weah. It mandated the President or health authorities to lock down counties when they deem necessary. The body also called on the public to wear masks and adhere to preventive measures.  

Normally, mineworkers, businesspeople and other members of the mineral industry travel from faraway places as well as nearby towns and villages to join a gold rush. Healthcare professionals fear an influx of people to Belleh Yallah from counties with recorded cases of coronavirus could bring the virus to western Liberia. Coronavirus cases have been recorded in four of the 15 counties so far— Montserrado, Margibi, Nimba and Grand Kru. Gbarpolu county has no recorded cases as of this article’s publication.

Citizens in rural areas are encouraged to observe safety measures to contain the spread of the virus, according to Joseph Wiah, communication director of the National Public Health Institute of Liberia (NPHIL). The NIPHIL urges temperature screening, regular hand-washing and use of hand sanitizers. “We are working through county health officers and health teams in every county to carry out awareness,” Wiah said.

Coronavirus is “a serious concern” to the mining community, confirmed Gappie, who disclosed that the miners’ association will soon embark on an awareness campaign in mining districts across the country. “We have to do it despite the constraints.”

“Many of our miners are rushing to the newly opened mining sites in Bellah Yallah in search of better wages,” said Abraham Somah, the Sierra Leonean governor in Bellekpalamu, a town along the Sierra Leone border with Liberia. “With all the warnings we have been hearing over the radio… our people are not taking it seriously. You can’t blame them because of the economic hardship during this coronavirus period.” 

Gbarpolu is Liberia’s largest artisanal mining community, with 129 active class “C” licenses as of April 6. Out of that number, the Belleh region has 52 artisanal mining licenses for diamonds (27) and gold (25).  There are also four active exploration licenses for the two minerals and base metals in the area.

Mining accounts for a huge part of Liberia’s gross domestic product (GDP). Before the coronavirus pandemic, the Liberian economy was projected to grow by 1.6 percent this year, after a plunge of 1.4 percent in 2019. The expected growth is driven by a moderate expansion in the mining industry and recovery of the non-mining sector, according to the World Bank.

Assistant Minister of Mines Emmanuel Swen denied the gold rush exists and said he first found out about a possible issue when contacted by FrontPage Africa. “I immediately contacted the regional coordinator for the region since I could not get to the mining agent who was out of coverage area. The regional coordinator didn’t have any knowledge of said gold rush. I was able to contact the mining agent [on April 16], but he also informed me that no such thing as gold rush is happening in his mining district.”

Due to its crucial role in economic growth, it was early for the Ministry of Mines and Energy to order the closure of mines across the country at this stage of the coronavirus outbreak, Swen said. “What the ministry has done,” he further noted, “is to have their field staff educate people in mining communities to take the situation of the virus seriously and not think the government just wants to make money.”

This story was 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.

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