Liberia: The Place Where Elephants Turn Farmers Into Miners
VAGUAYE, Grand Cape Mount – In 2018, James Mulbah expected a big harvest like previous years. He had planted rice on five lots of land, and that year he really wished for the rain. But when the rain finally came, it did not bring the 36-year-old any good. Just as the first raindrops hit the ground, a herd of elephants raided his farm.
By James Harding Giahyue, with New Narratives
“The elephants destroyed all the rice,” says Mulbah, who has five children. I have nothing on the farm again, so I just decided to leave the farming work and join the mining.”
Mulbah is one of several farmers in Vaguaye and other towns and villages in the Gola Konneh District of Grand Cape Mount have abandoned farming and taken to the mines as the result of continuous raids by the elephants. The giant mammals have wreaked havoc in the area since 2015, and have made people here more dependent on food and other supplies from outside.
Most of the farmers-turned-miners work at an artisanal goldmine in Weajue, which lies beneath the Bea Mountain, a chain of highlands that stretches from Kinjor to Gola Konneh. Others work on the different mines along the mountain range. They say they do not make much but must mine to fend for their families. The range is a part of the Bea Mountain concession but local chiefs and elders, and the Ministry of Mines worked out a way to allow residents mine there.
Now it is a haven for the former farmers.
“If you woke up and saw that the animals have destroyed the plants that you labored for one year, tell me what would you do?” Says Emmanuel Doupah, 42, another farmer-turned-miner from Vaguaye. Doupah digs gravels in what locals call Pupu Field. He puts the gravels in a machine that grinds the rocks and washes them for any sign of gold nuggets.
“I have children and I have to support them,” says Adam Freeman, who had a four-acre cassava farm he lost to the elephants.
Johnny Williams, the acting mining agent for the Kieta Mining District, one of the two local offices of the Ministry of Mines and Energy—the other being the Vaguaye Mining District—says the number of miners in the area has increased due to the situation.
“It was so unfortunate that we heard that elephants overran them,” Williams says, who oversees the Gold Camp, a mine next to the Pupu Field, where Mulbah works. “So, they came back to the mountain to survive.”
Gola Konneh is known for its artisanal mining activities. In fact, Lofa Bridge, its most famous town, is the one of the oldest mining communities in Liberia. But Vaguaye, which is a farmers’ community, has seen its identity vanishing gradually. People are compelled to buy a 25-kilogram rice L$3,300 or L$75 for cup and pay L$2,500 for transport on a motorcycle.
Kpelleh Village, Bonel, Managodua and Gbalajah are among the worst-hit places. Simeon Henry, a villager, was killed by the animals in 2018, a year after residents first started spotting them in a village called Kporwo.
In Gbalajah, for instance, villagers fled their homes and are not living in Weajue. It followed several weeks of the elephants’ nightly attacks, according to villagers FrontPage Africa interviewed. Nearly all the men in the village are now miners, residents say.
Some villagers are trying to cope. In Gbandalla, farmers sleep on their farms and clang pot tops to scare off the elephants. Last year, the animals prevented villagers from traveling on the main route in the district. In Vaguaye women bleat to keep the animals away since they do have goats.
It is not clear why the locals use one of the smallest animals to scare off the largest land mammal. However, goats once defeated elephants in an eating competition, according to a folklore here.
Villagers have reported the situation to the Forestry Development Authority (FDA), the government office that has oversight over wildlife, but say they were advised to burn pepper to keep the elephants away. Liberia’s Wildlife law prohibits the hunting of the West African elephant, an endangered species. Violators face a maximum US$10,000 fine and a four-year prison term.
“They are only protecting the elephants. They don’t care about their own citizens,” says Isaac Gopee, one of the few farmers left in Vaguaye. He tells me in an interview on his farm, destroyed just two days ago. “We can’t get pepper because it is very expensive. FDA doesn’t give us pepper. Elephants eat all crops, including the peppers. People have nothing left to burn.”
Ruth Varney, the coordinator of FDA’s western region did not reply to emailed questions for comments on the matter. This reporter followed up with her on two other occasions via email and phone call but got the same result.
Anger is flaring in the region.
Famatta Pratt, a farmer in Vaguaye, whose husband cannot mine because of his ailment, vows to kill the elephants.
“I will kill the elephant so that they can put me in jail and feed my children,” Pratt tells me, wearing raged expression. She says the towering mammals dislodge her and her family for several nights. Yassa Zaza, her 81-year-old mother-in-law, now lives in Monrovia after a raid on her farm. “That is the only way they will come to our rescue.”
Some farmers-turn-miners do not dream about farming.
“I will not lie, I want to remain a miner,” reveals Doupah, who says he still misses farming. I never used to buy things like pepper and cassava. Now, I have to buy them with a lot of money.”
Mulbah wishes to return to his farm.
I love agriculture. My mother reared me in agriculture,” he says. “If only FDA comes in to take away…the elephants, I will come back to agriculture. I am not pleased at doing mining.”
This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of its Excellence in Extractives Reporting Project. German Development Cooperation provided funding. The Funder had no say in the story’s content.