Massive iron ore project brings mining tensions back to Sierra Leone

The London-based African Minerals firm claims its efforts to mine a whopping 11.7 billion tons of iron ore will bring $1.75 billion in foreign investment to Sierra Leone.

A London-based firm says iron ore mining projects in Sierra Leone will bring $1.75 billion to the country. But the African nation has a history of mining-related conflict, and the exploits could cause tensions reminiscent of the diamond conflict of the 1990s.

Nine years after the end of Sierra Leone's notoriously grisly civil war, the small West African nation still known for its "blood diamonds" has attracted a deep-pocketed and ambitious investor. The project in question promises huge economic gains but could threaten the country's still-fragile peace. The sector? The same one that caused so much trouble back in the 1990s: Mining.

Today, iron ore – not diamonds – is the precious commodity at stake. And the investor is not Charles Taylor (the former Liberian president on trial at The Hague for war crimes) but a London-based firm called African Minerals.

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The company claims to have found an 11.7 billion-ton deposit of iron ore in Sierra Leone's Tonkolili district, roughly 140 miles east of Freetown, the country's capital. If its estimates are on target, the cache would be one of the largest deposits of its kind in the world.

Massive infrastructure projects

The company, which was granted a lease to the land in August, is tackling some formidable logistical challenges to access the iron ore. Construction of a massive deep-water port is under way and a new railway line to connect the site to the Atlantic Ocean is nearing completion. A 50-megawatt hydropower dam is also in the works.

All of this activity will bring in foreign investment worth $1.75 billion, African Minerals claims, a figure that represents nearly 40 percent of the country's 2009 gross domestic product.

10,000 jobs

Some of that money will end up in the hands of locals, as African Minerals has promised to employ more than 10,000 Sierra Leoneans over the course of the project. If it hits that target, the company would become the single biggest employer in a country where unemployment hovers around 65 percent.

More than workers, though, the company needs land, both for the mine itself and for the supporting infrastructure. This is where tensions are highest.

Training locals, building schools

African Minerals has vowed to help affected locals, most of whom are poor subsistence farmers, adjust to living with the new mine. The company is providing vocational training, building new schools and soccer fields, and, in some cases, offering to relocate entire villages.

But some locals say African Minerals is not keeping all of its promises for aid, according to a report from the Sierra Leone Network on the Right to Food, a local NGO. Others refuse to abandon the lands that the company wants to use for its dam. Some residents of Kemedugu village say the company is planning to raze an area that the community considers sacred ground.

Violence over land rights

Tensions spilled over into violence outside Kemedugu on the evening of Nov. 25. According to the same NGO report, a group of youths upset over the bulldozing of a particular plot of farmland barricaded a road near an African Minerals' worksite, effectively holding hostage a small group of the company's staff.

After initial negotiations failed, local police blasted the crowd with tear gas and shot live rounds into the air. Several people were badly beaten; at least one woman was hospitalized.

Later that night, another group of locals did $400,000 worth of damage to African Minerals' equipment. The clash died down soon afterward, but underlying tensions remain high.

Despite the flare-up, African Minerals continues its work apace. The company plans to ship its inaugural batch of ore in the first quarter of 2011.

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