By Emmanuel Freudenthal and Alloycious David
For Siah,* the math was simple: she had 500 Liberian dollars in her pocket. She’d already spent 300 on transport to the hospital and would need the same amount to pay for the hour-long journey back home.
Joseph, her toddler, had malaria, and the medicine cost 1,500. The net reality was that Siah could not afford the cure. Joseph, her youngest son, died that day as Siah cradled him in her arms.
Siah lives in Kinjor, a town set in the lush forest of western Liberia. Just a few steps away from her house, the country’s first industrial gold mine, New Liberty Gold, is digging out a total of about a billion dollars worth of the precious metal.
To make way for the mine, the people of Kinjor had to abandon their homes, their farms, and the small gold mines that had provided them a bit of income. New Liberty Gold was supposed to make life better for the town’s folk, with new houses, a school, jobs and a clinic.
In 2014, the project got a boost of over $19 million from The World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC), with the aim of improving the lives of Liberians.
But the development promised by New Liberty has fallen well short. And, for Siah, with no income and now a dead child, the company’s pledges fueled a sense of betrayal. Despite the World Bank’s mission to alleviate poverty, so far, its investment appears to have only benefited company shareholders, some of whom may have links to Charles Taylor, the former insurgent turned president, now a convicted war criminal.
In 2015, after an internal review of resettlements funded by the bank over the past two decades, its president, Jim Yong Kim, said, “We took a hard look at ourselves on resettlement and what we found caused me deep concern.” He promised to resolve what he described as “major problems.”
Yet the bank has not held New Liberty Gold accountable for failing to meet the basic obligations required to obtain the public funds.
Asked about these failures, the World Bank first directed inquiries to the mining company, then provided vague replies, and finally just stopped answering questions.
“I’m really disappointed to say that [this case] is one amongst many” said Jessica Evans, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, “We’ve seen time after time serious failing by the World Bank and the IFC when it comes to resettlement.” Even when those cases are made public, she said, “what we haven’t seen is any efforts from the World Bank, at all, to go back and identify who were the people who have been harmed by resettlement that’s gone wrong and [remedy] the situation for them.” Evans added, “I’m really concerned about the bank’s practices in the future.”
Projects funded by the World Bank displaced over 3 million people in 124 countries between 2004 and 2013, according to data published by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.
As Siah leaned on the concrete wall of a neighbor’s house in Kinjor, she gazed into the distance. Holding back tears, she spoke in long whispers about her son’s death, but her voice rose angrily when she explained that there was “no hospital here, no safe drinking water. … There are toilets right next to the water pump. It makes us sick … we are suffering.”
The owner of the mine, Avesoro Resources Inc. (at the time called Aureus Mining), was supposed to have built a medical clinic for the people of Kinjor. This was not a philanthropic gesture, but compensation for having resettled 325 families against their will.
According to the Resettlement Action Plan it filed with the bank, Avesoro, should have also built new houses for the resettled families, provided land to grow crops, dug wells to pump clean water throughout the new village, and installed 144 modern toilets.
The company did build the school and a few water pumps.
Looking at Kinjor today, the promises of the resettlement plan read more like a fairytale.
Controversy at mining projects like New Liberty Gold are not new in Liberia. For nearly a hundred years, the extraction of natural resources in the West African nation has been steeped in violence and corruption.
In 2016, Global Witness, a British-based nonprofit that monitors natural resource extraction, alleged that in an unrelated case, in order to obtain a mining permit in Liberia, a company called Sable Mining had bribed speakers of both houses of parliament, senators, ministerial aides, and at least one minister.
Opaque investments carry a tremendous risk in countries with poor checks on corruption, so much so that strengthening governance and increasing transparency were the primary objectives of a $40 million World Bank grant to the Liberian government in 2016. The bank noted that “that economic exclusion was one of the primary drivers of conflict in the past, supported by a lack of transparency.” It added that bribery and corruption in mining agreements “not only result in health risks through exposure to damaging chemicals and substantial revenue loss, but also damage to the environment.”
In making its case for the project, Aureus “committed to implement resettlement in accordance with the applicable Liberian laws and regulations, as well as international best practice standards” as dictated by the IFC. These included pledges to “improve living conditions” for residents displaced by the mine by providing “adequate housing with security of tenure at resettlement sites,” and to giving “opportunities to displaced people to derive appropriate development benefits from the project.”
During the IFC board meeting that approved the New Liberty Gold project, the United States delegate formally raised “serious concerns” regarding “the environmental and social risks posed by this project.”
Nevertheless, the IFC claimed it had found “the potential governance risks to developmental impacts of the Project to be limited.” On its website, it states that it will “provide support to Aureus to implement best practices standards in the management of environmental and social issues … and provide a stamp of approval.”
Avesoro broke its funding conditions, but the bank hasn’t publicly uttered a critical word.
In one of Kinjor’s narrow alleys flanked by mud huts, an old man in a faded black polo shirt approached a visitor.
Sitting in front of his home, Yarpawolo Gblan leaned back on a wooden wall scrawled with his children’s phone numbers. He couldn’t remember his age, but recalled that he got married in 1948. He also remembered that three years ago, the company forced him to move away from the village where he had lived for over a decade.
He was told the house would be a temporary solution before he moved into one of the 325 “improved houses” promised by the company. But Gblan and his family have been living in the temporary house for three years already. The structures were built with two small rooms, not nearly enough to accommodate Gblan’s wife and seven children. He says he used planks to expand it, on his own.
A few hundred meters away, brand new – but unfinished – homes stand in regular rows. Construction stopped over a year ago, and weeds grow between the brick walls, while slimy bright green flora thrives in puddles fed by rain falling straight through where roofs should be.
Half a day’s drive from there, in a suburb of Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, a villa with white walls that intersect to form striking shapes and high ceilings serves as headquarters for New Liberty Gold.
Debar Allen, a Liberian who fills his large office with his height and wide shoulders, is the company’s General Manager. From behind a large wooden desk and through a calm baritone voice, he explained that the people, like Gblan, who were resettled
The delay in building the houses, he said, was “for two reasons. One, we needed to get going with the mining project because we were running out of funds … And two, [the people who were resettled] wanted to build the permanent houses, … so rather than bringing contractors from Monrovia, we have to team up with them.”
Some of the project's "improved houses" have a roof but lack windows and finished walls
Many of the "improved houses" lack a roof
Dead Fish and Rashes
Towards the end of March 2016, the New Liberty Gold mine accidentally released poisonous chemicals, such as cyanide and arsenic, into a river which reached several villages downstream.
The village of Jikando is just a few steps away from that river. The inhabitants used its water to fish, bath and wash clothes. One day, they saw dead fish in the stream. Then, they said, they developed skin rashes.
Near the river, a slim teenager lifted his t-shirt, to show a rash he has had since the spill. The rash itches, he said, but “it doesn’t worry me all the time.”
Several mothers also said many children in town were still afflicted with the same rash.
According to villagers, no medical tests have been conducted on villagers who’ve reported ill effects since the spill. Neither the bank nor the company responded to questions on the subject.
Avesoro’s Debar Allen said the company found out about the leak in April, informed by a phone call from the chief of Jikando. He added that the company is regularly delivering frozen fish to replace the poisoned ones, as the community’s “source of protein was from the creek.”
On April 14, shortly after the leak, the Liberian Environmental Protection Agency fined the company, saying it had disrupted an investigation into the leak by blocking one of the mine’s effluents – at a spot where the agency should have taken water samples. In its letter to the company, the agency stressed that the river was a “primary source” of livelihoods for the villagers.
On May 10, a month after Debar Allen received the call from Jikando, Avesoro publicly disclosed the spill to shareholders, stating that its