KOIDU, Sierra Leone, May 5 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A
dispute over a bridge in eastern Sierra Leone thought to span
diamond deposits has divided a local community with a foreign
mining company accused of illegally mining the area after
volunteering to rebuild the overpass.
The Congo Bridge in Koidu, the capital of Kono District, was
deemed by local authorities to be in danger of collapsing after
years of illegal small-scale mining around the base.
With backing from the government, structural repairs started
in mid-2016 by Israeli owned Pluto Mining Company but this
prompted fears of large-scale mining as excavators removed raw
materials from under the road, river banks and nearby wetlands.
A coalition of Kono activists joined Sierra Leone's
Environmental Protection Authority and National Minerals Agency
to condemn the bridge work that removed the natural buffer and
led to the flooding of local houses, making more than 60 people
The groups say this is one example in an ongoing wave of
foreign companies stepping in to offer free infrastructure
repair as a means to conduct exploratory work in mining-free
zones, overriding local residents rights to land.
"We've contacted people in our own agencies, we've sent
notices for them to stop, but the mining goes on," K.K. Dabor,
regional head of Sierra Leone's Environmental Protection
Authority (EPA) told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"Rivers, wetlands, the hills, even people's livelihoods.
All are being destroyed in one way or another."
Despite the protests, Dabor said a similar situation
unfolded in 2013 with Pluto while a large plot on a road leading
out of Koidu is currently being mined and signs saying "Property
of Pluto Mining" are clearly visible despite the Mines and
Minerals Act of 2009 making it illegal to mine within 200 metres
Pluto Mining did not respond to numerous telephone calls and
written requests seeking comment over several weeks.
The Thomson Reuters Foundation also visited the home of
Pluto's founder, Maxim Brandwain, in Kono in an attempt to seek
comment but was turned away by the gateman.
Brandwain, an Israeli businessman, is best known in Sierra
Leone as head of Mercury International, the nation's largest
sports betting company. Brandwain did not respond to multiple
requests for comment left with his secretary at Mercury's
DIGGING FOR DIAMONDS
Diamond and agriculture form the backbone of Sierra Leone's
economy as the country recovers from the Ebola epidemic that
killed nearly 4,000 people.
Diamonds fuelled a decade-long civil war in Sierra Leone
that ended in 2002 in which 50,000 people were killed. Rebels
forced civilians in the east to mine the stones and bought
weapons with the proceeds, leading to the term 'blood diamonds'.
The United Nations lifted a ban on diamond exports from
Sierra Leone in 2003 but the sector remains plagued by smuggling
and strife at local levels.
During a town hall meeting after the riverbank collapse last
June, local politicians, including Acting Mayor Aiah Bartholomew
Komba, told residents the bridge's structural integrity had been
compromised by long term, peasant mining.
This had the potential to endanger lives and, as a result,
local authorities deemed it necessary to remove "unsuitable
materials" beneath the bridge that prompted the mining.
Officials told residents that the city did not have access
to the heavy excavating equipment required for the job so Pluto
Mining was recruited and undertook the operation without charge
as "an act of corporate social responsibility".
"We talked among ourselves, and the only name that came up
was Pluto. They say charity begins at home, and this is a
company that's very involved in our communities," said Karamoh
Kabba, Resident Minister for Sierra Leone's eastern region.
"Besides, we cannot licence mining the road, but the place
where they clean the unsuitable material is licensed. So if
mining happened here, it did not happen on the road."
But environmental agencies and activists said this
excavation resulted not just in illegal mining of diamond
deposits with no benefit to local residents but also the removal
of a natural buffer that protected residents from floods.
According to local laws, regional chiefs are entitled to 15
percent of surface rent fees paid by companies mining their
chiefdoms and also have the final word on land deals.
Paul Soquee, paramount chief of the Tonkoro chiefdom, where
Koidu sits, declined to comment.
Acting Mayor Komba told the Thomson Reuters Foundation the
issue had been "put to rest".
"The roads are getting good use and the bridges are more
stable now, so none of us have anything more to say. All I see
is good road and people enjoying a good road," Komba said.
But activists and local residents said the community had
been promised water pumps, a community library and marketplace,
a youth centre and two schools at the meeting last June.
To date, they said all they have received is a plastic water
jug donated to each family when they returned to their homes
Congo Bridge resident, Serrah Kamara and her extended
18-person family lost their home and its contents to the flood
waters and now share a two-bedroom apartment near the bridge
with the children forced to sleep on the floor.
"So many government people came down here promising us this
and that after the flood, but look where we are," Kamara said
glancing back at what's left of her home. "They already forgot
(Reporting by Cooper Inveen, Editing by Paola Totaro; Please
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