The tragedy of a nation’s over-reliance on natural resource extraction: why time may be running out for Sierra Leone.

Sierra Leone is running out of fish. In March last year, the government announced a moratorium on fishing in the country’s waters. Fish stocks were low and fingerlings had been decimated by illegal fishing practices such as the use of undersized nets and pair trawling. This catastrophe was years in the making- the culmination of poor regulation, corruption and neglect. The assumption that our waters contained inexhaustible supplies of marine life has been thoroughly dispelled. The month-long hiatus by itself would not yield any positive, long-term outcome without a profound shift towards more sustainable and inclusive management approaches.

Then there are the country’s forests. At independence, more than 60% of the country’s land space was covered by primary forests. Within half a century that has been whittled down to less than 5%. Forests in rural areas continue to be threatened by logging and mining. Despite the well-publicised loss, the government continues to pursue logging as a revenue stream. Under the 2018 Finance (Amendment) Act, the government charges a timber royalty of US $2500 on every cubic metre of timber shipped out of the country. The fact that successive governments have seen the destruction of the country’s ancient forests as a source of revenue is a tragedy in itself.

The peninsular forest in the capital is perhaps the most visibly threatened of the four protected forests in the country. Far less than the 17,000 hectares that were declared protected now remain. Under the nose of the authorities and in the full view of the public, the once lush hills that prevented flooding in the city have been scraped to make way for “development”— buildings constructed in a scattered fashion without proper planning, access to water, electricity or good roads. The Protected Area Authority is unable to mount effective guard over the peninsular park— it is poorly funded and does not have the required labour or technology to do its work.

River networks and wetlands are also vanishing. The Pampana River in the north is already dead— killed off by unrestrained gold mining activities. The largest river, the Rokel River, is being imperilled by mining, hydro projects and dumping of toxic waste. Some of the villages along its path which used to rely on it for drinking, cooking and irrigation can no longer use it. Being an important Ramsar wetland site since 1999 has counted for nothing. The country’s biggest river will soon be dead.

Across rural communities, hundreds of wetlands and small rivers have been destroyed by mining. The fact that communities rely on these resources for water and food has meant nothing to power holders who are always quick to negotiate away these valuable resources in exchange for water wells and promises of improved wellbeing that never come to fruition.

Highland areas – like the Sula Mountain range, the Kangari and Peninsular Hills – are on course to disappear as they continue to be whittled down by mining, quarrying and erosion. Nothing is off-limits in the wild hurry for resources. Soon, the “Sierra” part of the country’s name will no longer be justified as the country will be devoid of any.

Coastal areas could soon be submerged by the Atlantic Ocean as a result of sand and zircon extraction. Along the Freetown coast, a number of communities like Sugarland and Hamilton have had their sands mined to exhaustion. The sandy buffer has been lost and the land is being eroded. In Shenge, in the south, extraction of zircon from the coast has left beach land vulnerable to encroaching waves. Coastal populations are at risk of losing their land and their way of life.

After nearly a century of extraction, Sierra Leone remains a very poor country. Massive amounts of resource extraction on land and at sea has not translated into an improvement in living conditions for its citizens. Essential services like healthcare and potable water supply remain out of reach for millions. Mortality and morbidity rates are among the highest in the world. Infrastructural projects—mostly road construction— in the country have not been bankrolled by wealth generated from natural resources but by debts and benevolence.

The scale of the human, environmental and social injury of extraction, though clearly visible in many places, has not been properly assessed. This failing perhaps accounts for why successive governments find it easy to gloss over the trail of destruction in the extractive industry and quickly move on to the next set of deals. The verdict across several generations of Sierra Leoneans however is that the extraction of natural resources has been more of a curse than a blessing.

Yet, like governments before it, the present regime continues to zealously pursue large-scale investments, touting the country’s “impressive natural resource credentials.” In the last three months, officials have put in appearances at investment conferences, mining indabas and bilateral engagements.

After decades of extractive abuse, the country is showing the strain— violent rainfalls, flooding, landslides, drought, poor harvest, loss of plant and animal species, increased temperature, and dramatic landscape changes. Perhaps now is the time to slow down the resource extraction juggernaut to allow for some serious reflection on (i) the current impact of extraction (ii) long term consequences of continued extraction (iii) alternatives to extraction and (iv) effective ways to manage natural resources.

It is now painfully obvious that the overused formula of “resource extraction for economic development” has not worked out for the country. It is impractical to continue on this same path while hoping for a better outcome. The time to act is now but like much of the country’s natural resources, time is fast running out.

By Sonkita Conteh, Director, Namati Sierra Leone

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