When the Chinese gold miners came to Masumbiri, a town in northern Sierra Leone, everyone lined up for jobs.
Teenagers lied about their age, and women and girls went to cook and clean at the miners’ camp, a gated compound on a nearby mountainside overlooking rice fields.
Dayu, a private company that started working in Sierra Leone last year, is the latest in a line of Chinese firms drawn to the mineral-rich ground of the west African state’s Tonkolili district in search of gold.
“The people were happy at first because of the employment,” says Hassan Tholley, Masumbiri’s weary-looking chief, sitting on his porch alongside village elders in the dirt-road town.
Hundreds of young men in hard hats were soon bringing home pay cheques and the town of 5 000 people had cell signal and water pumps for the first time – all courtesy of Dayu.
But 18 months into the multimillion-dollar project locals say the income they earn does not make up for their loss of land and poverty is worsening.
Like many African countries, Sierra Leone has courted foreign companies which pay governments big fees for mining rights, while locals often feel they have no say nor benefit.
China is by far the biggest importer of minerals from sub-Saharan Africa. It invested about $30 billion (R456.4 billion) in metals mining on the continent in the past decade, nearly 15% of it in Sierra Leone.
Gold mining has been a relatively small industry in Sierra Leone compared with diamonds and iron ore, but it is growing owing to companies such as Dayu, which says it has the biggest underground gold mine in the country – which is Dayu’s only project.
Chinese mega miners are moving into Sierra Leone in search of gold. While they provide stable employment and amenities, they also exploit the livelihoods of local communities.
Various smaller Chinese outfits, some operating illegally, have also been mining gold in the area alongside the big firms.
“Looking at the mining, there should have been a lot of development in these communities,” says Mohamed Smooth Bangura, a Tonkolili district councilman.
On the potholed, mud track towards Masumbiri, rusted signs announce mining companies that have come and gone. The only new roads, cars or buildings for miles around are at the Chinese camp.
From his shop on Masumbiri’s main street, filled with locks, T-shirts and watches, Ibrahim Thulleh says business has dropped.
“People have less money to spend since Dayu came,” he says, sitting in the open-air shack on a hot afternoon.
Before Dayu, there had been no big mining company for a few years. People flocked to the town to pan for gold, often getting lucky and coming to spend their earnings at Thulleh’s store.
Dayu hired about 350 locals, and other miners left town since the company took over their mining sites.
When workers are paid – each one earning between $50 and $150 a month – they distribute it to family and neighbours, and use some to pay off debts, Thulleh says.
“At the end of the month there is no money left,” says 29-year-old miner Abdulai Kargbo, who has one of the higher-paying jobs – blasting and drilling into the mountain for gold.
Before Dayu, he gave rides on his motorbike and made $10 to $15 a day, more than twice as much as now, says the father of six.
The benefits of a steady job do not make up for the pay cut, he says. In a few weeks, after he has worked at the mine for a year, he plans to quit and go back to his motorbike.
William Bangura, who has two sons working for Dayu, could not think of anything the family can now purchase that they could not afford before.
“It is only enough to get by,” he says. Still, he is grateful for the jobs: “We have no other option.”
Instead of being sifted by hand and sold locally, gold dust is now crushed from rocks at a mountainside processing plant.
In the last room, large white bags are stacked on the floor, full of grey powder containing a few grams of gold. At this stage, they are trucked to the port and shipped to China.
limited benefits A woman stands at a water pump in Masumbiri, Tonkolili district, Sierra Leone
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Sierra Leone is “open for business” according to President Julius Maada Bio, who has touted the message to investors in China, Britain and the United Arab Emirates since taking office last year, with a pledge to ensure that mining benefits the country.
According to the mining code, companies such as Dayu pay $500 000 a year to the government for a large-scale mining licence and are required to put 0.01% of their revenues into community development.
But the policies on community development are unclear and this law has not always been applied, the government said last year in a new mining policy intended to kick-start reforms.
Dayu has decided to raise its contribution to 1%, but is still in talks with locals on terms, says the company’s community manager Mohamed Daffae.
Three towns in the area have different demands.
One wants a school, another a healthcare centre, and the third needs drinking water, says Bangura.
Only the water pumps have been installed so far, but the water comes straight from the river unfiltered.
“We try our best to help with community development.
“We really want to create happiness with the local people,” said Dayu’s general manager Peng Hui Yao.
Daffae said people were impatient, that benefits would come. He said people felt like the land and minerals were theirs but they had no licences.
“The biggest challenge is understanding the concession,” he says, sitting in an office at the compound.
Dayu’s agreement with the government gives it access to 9.6km2 for 25 years.
Recently, Daffae faced pushback from locals who were mining in an area where the company wanted to dig.
“I had to go there and tell them: ‘You cannot stop this type of operation; this is for all of us.’”
This article first appeared in the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian news, women and LGBTIQ+ rights, human trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit news.trust.org