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.

Bitter Fruit

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.

Main road of the resettled Kinjor

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.”

The project's "improved houses” due to be finished in January 2014

The World Bank offered a different explanation by email: With “the Ebola outbreak, the company faced significant construction delays. As a consequence, the project experienced some significant challenges that impacted its financial/cash flow position.” As a result, “the full implementation of several aspects of the project had to be postponed, and some of the permanent houses have not yet been completed.”

Yet, the company should have finished the resettlement houses several months before the Ebola virus arrived in Liberia and the virus was virtually wiped away from Liberia over a year and a half ago.

In February 2015, the World Bank poured a few more millions dollars into the mine, stating it would “help Aureus Mining cope with additional costs resulting from having continued its operations through the [Ebola] outbreak, and support the company’s ongoing work in Liberia.”

The Bank did not reply to requests for more details on the resettlement timeline and the mine’s failure to make good on promises to the community.

When the IFC board approved its investment in New Liberty Gold in July 2014, the United States asked to “ensure that all appropriate funds are set aside” for the resettlement action plan. The advice was apparently not heeded. Officially, the total budget for the resettlement was just under 5 million dollars, although it’s not clear how much has been spent so far.

Despite the end of Ebola in Liberia, the housing construction might not resume soon. Debar Allen of Avesoro explained, “We signed with the leaders a memorandum of understanding that postpones the completion to” December 2017. The community representatives said the company asked them to sign numerous times, and that they had given in, reasoning that whether they signed or not, the houses would not be built any faster.

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

Child's hand with rashes that his mother attributes to river water contaminated by a spill from the mine.

A Twisted Trail of Ownership

It is difficult to pin the responsibility of the mine’s failures on an individual, because it is difficult to identify the successive true owners of New Liberty Gold.

Aureus was part of a dizzyingly large galaxy of shell companies, many of which were recently named in the Panama Papers leak and registered in secrecy jurisdictions.

The latest twist in the ownership trail came at the end of 2016, when MNG Gold took over Aureus and changed its name to Avesoro Resources Inc.

Investing in companies with complex ownership is not unusual for the IFC. A recent report by Oxfam found that 84 percent of the IFC’s investments sub-Saharan Africa in 2015 involved companies registered in secrecy jurisdictions.

The roots of the New Liberty Gold project stretch back decades to Charles Taylor, a notorious warlord turned president. Taylor issued a resource extraction license to a mysterious company called KAFCO. The permit changed hands a few times and, today, Avesoro holds its permit via a wholly-owned subsidiary, Bea Mountain Mining Corp., a company created in 1996 by Keikurah B. Kpoto, one of Taylor’s closest associates.

In 2013, Taylor was convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity for providing weapons and support to the Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone, an armed group infamous for mutilating and raping civilians. International investigators also determined that Taylor’s own security forces had tortured, raped and arbitrarily killed civilians. He is serving a 50-year prison sentence in England.

Vehicle of the New Liberty Gold mine project.

Under Taylor, Kpoto was one of Liberia’s highest ranking civil servants . When he died 2002, he was buried in Monrovia, in a lavish state funeral led by Taylor himself.

Taylor trusted Kpoto enough to tell him everything about a covert bank account that he had opened in 1999, and into which millions of dollars were deposited from allies of the regime and companies extracting natural resources.

Investigators have said Taylor enriched himself with funds that transited through his account and fueled conflicts that cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, and displaced even more. During his trial, Taylor admitted that the covert account enabled him to illegally purchase arms and ammunitions while Liberia was under UN sanctions, but disputed having funded armed groups.

After the account was opened, Taylor gave successive permits to Bea Mountain Mining. In 1998, foreign interests bought Bea Mountain Mining and other small companies with over $7 million in shares paid to the mysterious shareholders of the company.

Left to right: Tambakai Jangaba, Taylor, Foday Sankoh (leader of the RUF), and Kpoto.

The beneficiaries of this windfall, the owners of Bea Mountain Mining, were well hidden: according to a document obtained by 100Reporters, three quarters of the company’s capital belonged to a company incorporated in the British Virgin Islands, and the rest were held by owners of bearer shares.

Bearer shares are the vehicles of choice for the corrupt because they are owned by whomever holds the paper certificates, just like cash. There is no trace of their owner in company records and they can easily become covert payments for pretty much anything.

The mine’s bearer shares were sold off in murky circumstances. The company that acquired Bea Mountain Mining in 1998, and was later sold to Aureus and the Avesoro, wrote in its annual report that an unnamed “third party company” held a 25% stake in Bea Mountain Mining, corresponding to the bearer shares, but that this third party had

Doing business with a company using bearer shares appears to run against the bank’s own best judgment. In a 2011 report, the bank said, “no bank with any sort of due diligence standards is willing to conduct business with a company that has free-floating bearer shares.“ World Bank officials declined to address this apparent inconsistency.

Questionable Priorities

The World Bank wrote that it had undertaken due diligence on New Liberty Gold, an investigation that included “desktop reviews, several meetings with (company executives) and a site visit.” Neither Avesoro executives nor World Bank officials responded to questions regarding the historical links between New Liberty Gold and Charles Taylor.

The bank said it “signed a contract” with Aureus “which includes a confidentiality agreement,” adding that even the terms of that agreement are not available to the public. “As the confidentiality agreement is part of the contract, it is confidential as well.”

Kinjor residents like Gblan, who once lived on land now being mined by the project, do not appear richer for their proximity to the gold headed for world markets. Their quality of life has declined. They have scarce land to farm and cannot mine for gold themselves.

Human Rights Watch’s Jessica Evans explains that, as a last recourse, the population affected( by an IFC project) can seek redress through its Compliance Advisor Ombudsman, an independent accountability mechanism within the World Bank. But “too often, the IFC offers a half-hearted action plan that does very little to address the harms communities have suffered.”

Siah’s youngest son is now buried. She said,

The bank’s faith that industrial gold mining can contribute to social development seems unshakable — over the past decade, the IFC has spent over $200 million on projects like New Liberty Gold.

*Name changed for privacy.

Cover Photo: Yarpawolo Gblan sitting in front of his leaky “temporary house” where he has lived with his family for three years. All photos by Emmanuel Freudenthal.

(This story was produced by 100Reporters and is being co-published with IRIN and Le Monde Afrique. IRIN publishes independent reports on humanitarian crises, with the goal of improving the international community's response to crises. Le Monde Afrique is a pan-African francophone media for news, reporting, analysis and debates.)

Alloycious David

Alloycious David

Alloycious David is an award winning investigative Liberian journalist and fixer for several international media. He has extensively probed land grabs in Liberia by multi-national companies and has covered natural resources, the environment and politics in the West African County. His reports have helped lift the voices of poor communities, whose lands were leased by government to oil palm growers and mining companies, without their consent. He assisted foreign journalists reporting on fighting in Liberia in 2013. He has worked for the environmental watchdog, Green Advocates International and managed Liberia’s only environmental and human rights' newspaper, The Activist, for several years.
Emmanuel Freudenthal

Emmanuel Freudenthal

Emmanuel Freudenthal is a freelance investigative reporter covering East and Central Africa, with a particular focus on business, corruption, natural resources, land and social issues. His stories have appeared in Le Monde Afrique, IRIN News, Sydney Morning Herald, African Arguments and elsewhere. Freudenthal has also done investigations and research for the Forest Peoples Programme, FIDH, Global Witness, the Natural Resource Governance Institute and others.   Alloycious David is an award winning investigative Liberian journalist and fixer for several international media. He has extensively probed land grabs in Liberia by multi-national companies and has covered natural resources, the environment and politics in the West African County.
Emmanuel Freudenthal

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