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Liberian villagers threaten to leave mining agreement, citing broken promises

Solitary figure in a partly cultivated field, Nimba mountain range in the background. Image by Maarten van der Bent via Flickr CC BY-SA-2.0

The Nimba mountain range as seen from Guinea. Image by Maarten van der Bent via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

  • Communities in Liberia have threatened to withdraw from an agreement they made with a mining company two years ago, on the grounds that none of the promised benefits have materialized.
  • Much of the dispute hinges on the interpretation of the agreement, which mandates Switzerland-headquartered Solway Mining Incorporated to make payments to communities, but doesn’t make clear how or when to do so.
  • Solway denies any wrongdoing, while the mining ministry has questioned the relevance of the agreement, saying it’s not legally required for exploration to proceed.
  • But community members say the company is “proceeding wrongly”: “Solway is a big disappointment. We don’t see the schools and health centers they promised us.”

NIMBA COUNTY, Liberia — In 2020, villagers from the Blei and Sehyi Kodoo districts agreed to allow Solway Mining Incorporated to explore for iron-ore deposits in their territory in the Nimba mountain range in northern Liberia. Under pressure, these communities overrode their decade-old conservation management plan and agreed to allow Solway access to community-managed forests in exchange for jobs and funding for health and education. The villagers now say these promises have not been kept and are threatening to withdraw from the deal.

Solway is a subsidiary of Solway Industries Limited, headquartered in Switzerland and majority owned by an Estonian multimillionaire, Aleksandr Bronstein. The parent company operates mines in Ukraine, Argentina and Indonesia, among other places. The company’s Liberian subsidiary was granted an operating license in 2019.

The villagers say the company is violating the terms of a memorandum of understanding and damaging the forest while failing to pay agreed fees or even reveal the budget against which payments should be calculated.

“I regret that this is happening to our people after putting in place all of the legal instruments for the right things to happen,” Saye Thompson, chairman of the area’s joint Community Forest Management Bodies (CFMBs), tells Mongabay.

Mount Nimba Strict Nature Reserve across the Liberian in Guinea: the Nimba mountain range’s forests are home to pygmy hippopotamus and western chimpanzees. Image by Guy Debonnet for UNESCO.

Situated in the foothills of the Nimba mountains on the country’s northern border, the community of Blei was one of the first to take up greater control over their environment and resources under new laws passed following the end of the civil war in 2003. The forests around the Nimba range are home to several endangered species, including the pygmy hippotamus, the Nimba toad, and western chimpanzee. A nature reserve designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site was created on the Guinean and Ivorian sides of the border in 1981.

From the 1960s until civil war broke out in the 1990s, parts of the forest on the Liberian side were heavily impacted by iron mining, both directly from mining activities and by people taking advantage of the roads and mining camps to expand into new areas. Once the civil war began, several waves of people displaced by the conflict found relative sanctuary in this area, putting further pressure on the forest through farming and hunting bushmeat.

As Liberia reconstituted itself in the aftermath of the war, part of Nimba county was set aside in 2003 as the East Nimba Nature Reserve (ENNR), home to endangered and protected species. Residents of the villages of Blei and the nearby community of Sehyi Kodoo, who generally make their living growing rice, plantain and cassava, took up the opportunity presented by new legislation to acquire a community forest permit, and adopted community-designed and -operated management plans in which farmers and hunters agreed to respect biodiversity hotspots.

The scheme promised a great deal, but something went wrong.

In June 2020, the board representing Blei and Sehyi Kodoo community forests signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Solway allowing it to explore for new deposits of iron ore — something not permitted under the area’s conservation management plan. The Ministry of Mines and Energy had already granted the company an exploration permit for the area in 2019 — a fact discovered by communities only when bulldozers appeared and began building a road into the forest.

With the Forestry Development Authority and local officials unwilling or unable to challenge the mining permit, and only limited benefits to show for community forestry management, the board was under pressure from the company and some community members to grant Solway permission to explore the Blei and Delton mountains for three years.

A satellite map of the border between northern Liberia and Guinea. The Blei Forest lies along the southernmost tip of the East Nimba Nature Reserve.

“People were really anxious to see development in the communities,” Thompson says. “Our people expected social improvement and better living conditions after changing their conservation plan.”

With the communities’ forest management plan changed from “conservation” to “multiple use,” Solway’s work continued.

But a year later, the board says the company has not held up its end of the deal. The CFMB expected that Solway would pay it $260,000, equivalent to 2% of its exploration budget, money the board would spend on community development projects. The board also expected $49,000 for community support programs — Solway taking over annual payments previously made by ArcelorMittal — as well as $10,000 in land rental fees for 2019 and 2020.

But Blei and Sehyi Kodoo have seen none of this money. Community members say they’re disappointed that there are as yet no signs of the benefits they expected would accompany granting Solway permission for exploration.

“Solway is a big disappointment. We don’t see the schools and health centers they promised us,” says Marie Yah, a resident of Gba.

“Solway is proceeding wrongly,” Thompson says. “Our people did not anticipate that it would behave in the manner it is behaving, and this is my only regret.”

Much of the dispute hinges on the interpretation of provisions in the MoU. For example, the agreement mandates the company to make payments to communities, but does not lay down clear procedures on how and when said payments are to be made.

“This was an oversight in the agreement. Everyone recognizes this,” says Jenkins Johnson, the Gbehlay-Geh district commissioner, who participated in the drafting of the MoU. “Everyone agrees that these are issues in the agreement that we must fix to satisfy the parties.”

As commissioner, Johnson is responsible for the day-to-day running of the district and reports to the county superintendent. He told Mongabay that both parties have begun addressing the loopholes.

An iron-ore train, Liberia: forests in Nimba County were heavily impacted by iron mining from the 1960s until civil war broke out in the 1990s. Image by jbdodane via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

So many loopholes

Obscurities in the MoU are not grounds for non-compliance, says Sagie Kamara, an attorney with the Heritage Partners and Associates law firm. “Weaknesses in the agreement are not enough reasons for the company to falter on its assurances to communities who gave it land. The law takes precedence where the MoU is silent.”

Both the MoU and the mineral exploration law of Liberia compel Solway to pay 2% of its exploration budget to the host community, which can then spend the money on health and education programs. Solway had announced a budget of $13 million for its three-year iron ore exploration, so the communities expected to be paid $260,000.

But Ben Davies, Solway’s public relations manager, says the company expects to pay $200,000, once disagreements over procedures are settled.

“Solway has not committed anything wrong here,” he tells Mongabay. “The MoU says communities must produce a blueprint of their health and education projects before the 2% payment is made.”

But the MoU contradicts Davies here. Solway’s agreement with communities does not permit it to withhold payment pending a review of planned projects. It says simply that the amount “should be deposited in an account established by the communities, and that the fund can only be withdrawn through a resolution signed by community leaders.”

The question of exactly how much is due exposes an important omission in the agreement: the community board accuses Solway of concealing its budget, but the company says it has no obligation to disclose this directly. “Communities need to go to the Ministry of Mines [and Energy] to get this information,” Davies says.

Lack of access to details of the company’s budget also applies to payments due as rental fees. Solway’s exploration agreement covers 1.55 square kilometers (0.6 square miles). Mining companies are charged a “surface rent” for each square kilometer covered by their permit. “This [surface rent fee] is intended for communities to benefit so as to compensate for the environmental impact of such operation, and bulk of this depends on how a county charges,” says Djomba Mara, a consultant on natural resource governance in the Mano River Union Countries, a bloc that comprises Liberia, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea and Sierra Leone. The surface rent in Nimba county, Mara says, “could be $1 million per km2 or more.”

The Fenix ferro-nickel mining project operated for a few years in the late 1970s. The Solway Group, the conglomerate that now owns the project, started up operations again in 2014. Photo by Sandra Cuffe for Mongabay.

Solway says it has no objection to paying this rental fee.  “We are obligated to paying this money and will do so in line with the terms of the agreement,” says company spokesperson Davies.

Liberia’s Ministry of Mines and Energy has refused to disclose how much it is charging Solway for its Nimba county mining exploration, or to share any budget information it has from the company. The assistant minister for mining, Rexford Sartuh, tells Mongabay he’s not even aware of an MoU concerning mining exploration in the Nimba mountains.

“This is strange. Under the law, exploration does not call for communities to sign MoU,” Sartuh says. The 2009 Community Rights Law of Liberia recognizes communities’ right to participate in and make decisions over the management, development and protection of their forests, but the Ministry of Mines and Energy has consistently refused to recognize this.

Sartuh also tells Mongabay the ministry has not seen a budget for the exploration. “We are still waiting for Solway to provide information on its exploration budget,” Sartuh says. (Solway insists it has submitted this, but has not provided proof it has done so.)

Campaigners and civil society groups have criticized Solway for failing to honor its promises to the communities.

“Concessions agreements have never been the real solution to social development across forest communities,” says Marcus Garbo, executive director of the Society for the Conservation of Nature of Liberia (SCNL). “Communities have always been robbed of their benefits. In my mind, they should have stuck to their conservation plans and find alternative livelihoods such as ecotourism and small-scale farming.”

In the meantime, tempers are rising across towns and villagers as locals vow to pull out of the deal.

“We are planning a major meeting shortly to determine whether we should stay with the agreement or withdraw,” says communities’ representative Thompson. “The outcome of this meeting will determine whether citizens will continue to allow Solway to operate here.”

Liberia gave villagers control over their forests. Then a mining company showed up

Banner image: The Nimba mountain range as seen from southern Guinea. Image by Maarten van der Bent via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

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