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Sierra Leone's dilemma: There's gold under those trees

What happens when conservation and economics collide? In this impoverished African nation, the answer, so far, is economics wins. 

By Paige McClanahanCorrespondent, Felicity ThompsonContributor / October 15, 2012

International boundary expert John Donaldson (c.) and fellow surveyor Robert Peggs (l.) look over topological maps while planning the demarcation exercise asked of the Kangari Hills Forest Reserve.

Felicity Thompson

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Freetown, Sierra Leone

It’s an age-old question, and one that’s been played out countless times in cities and countries around the globe: What happens when conservation and economics collide?

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Here in Sierra Leone, a small, impoverished nation that’s still tending the wounds of a protracted civil war, that question is just now coming to a head. And in one recent instance, the answer was clear: Economics wins.

Sierra Leone has been working hard to attract foreign investment since the war ended in 2002. The West African nation has a lot to offer potential investors, including rich seams of iron ore, rutile, diamonds, and gold. But the country is also rich in pygmy hippos, chimpanzees, lowland rainforest, and mangrove swamps.

Striking a balance between those two national assets – mineral resources and flora and fauna – is a delicate task, especially in Sierra Leone, where the laws are often murky and enforcement of them is weak.

That’s certainly the case in the Kangari Hills, a 21,000-acre forest reserve that lies in the central region, about a six-hour drive from the capital, the last two on rough dirt roads. It’s here that Cluff Gold, a British company, has found a hefty deposit of gold beneath the surface. The company has set up a base, and they’re ready to build their mine.

Rock piles as boundaries

And that’s where things get complicated. The Kangari Hills have been officially protected since the 1920s, when Sierra Leone was still a British colony. When the forest reserve was established, its boundaries were marked by piles of stones and cleared pathways through the jungle. But those boundary lines weren’t maintained during the decades of government mismanagement in the 1970s and '80s, or during the war in the '90s. Today, it’s not at all clear where the actual boundary of the reserve lies.  

But one thing is certain: There is a lot of gold in and around the Kangari Hills, and Cluff Gold wants to mine it.

“You have a fairly vague description of a forestry reserve boundary that was marked by piles of stones in an area that’s full of piles of stones, so that makes it a bit tricky to try and recover,” says John Donaldson, an academic and international boundary expert who was brought in by the United Nations to reestablish the outlines of the reserve.

Mr. Donaldson and his small team determined that parts of Cluff Gold’s mining site lay within the Kangari Hills Forest Reserve. Donaldson presented the findings to a government steering committee in February. Two months later, the committee issued Cluff its environmental license, despite the evident overlap. 

Cluff Gold claims to have already found 3 million ounces of gold in and around the Kangari Hills. With gold prices hovering near record highs – gold was trading at $1,742 per ounce today – those hills are worth more than $5 billion. That’s more than twice the value of the entire Sierra Leonean economy.

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