Sand is one of the most precious and extracted natural resources with about 50 billion tones used per year, according to a UN report. This strategic resource drives economic development, provides livelihoods for millions and maintains biodiversity and ecosystem balances. But the mining and management of sand remain a largely contested affair with dire social and environmental consequences.
In Sierra Leone, the resource faces a challenging future outlook despite the fact that it remains a critical source of livelihood for many young people. The sector is challenged by a lack of regulation, sustainability problems and equity concerns.
A massive boom in the construction industry is driving the trade–most of it illegal– eroding rivers, causing flooding, polluting low lying areas, disrupting the marine ecosystems, reducing local fish catch, and forcing the relocation of communities.
Also, vested interests are believed to be hampering efforts to address the problem. Unemployed youths are desperate to mine, local chiefs are said to be making fortunes taxing the sand, and construction companies need a steady supply to continue with their work. So, who’s benefiting and at what cost for the environment?
Buried Under Water; a podcast on the impact of sand mining in Sierra Leone produced by Abdul Samba Brima.
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This is Francis Small, a young man from the small village of Bureh on the outskirts of Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone.
He is telling me about the destruction taking place on the beach; all thanks to sand mining.
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Francis grew up here in Bureh, an ecotourism spot that once brimmed with life. Not any more.
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I am Abdul Samba Brima, a freelance journalist based in Freetown. I have closely followed and documented accounts of the controversial business of sand mining.
Buried under water is one of a series of podcasts on this issue. This particular episode is funded by The Pulitzer Center.
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Coming up, we find out what is driving sand mining in this small nation along the coast of West Africa? Who’s benefiting from it and at what cost for the environment? But, before we get started properly, I must warn that you may find some of the descriptions in this podcast distressing.
Sounds of Sand miners under my voice
Eachday hundreds of thousands of Sierra Leone youths go dig out sand and load them up in trucks in exchange for money. These are artisanal miners; men, women and sometimes children. They spend hours and hours doing backbreaking work, sometimes at great personal risks.
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In Sierra Leone, sand mining is a murky business. Most of it happens illegally with vested interests believed to be hampering efforts to address the problem.
There are scant regulations for protecting the environment, workers’ safety and the livelihoods of affected communities. And, fewer entities monitor or document the trade for its impact. But, what is this sand mining trade and why are people so desperate about it in Sierra Leone and other parts of the world?
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Jean-Baptiste Jouffray is a researcher at the Stockholm Resilience Center, Stockholm University in Sweden, who co-authored a new report on Ocean sand; putting sand on the ocean sustainability agenda.
Well back here in Sierra Leone, the former Mayor of Freetown, Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr, knows the damage that sand mining activities are having on the country’s coastlines.
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And this destruction to beaches and livelihoods the former mayor talks about, is felt by people in some of the worst affected communities. One such place is Burreh Town.
Residents here are worried about the future of their environment. When I visited back in March, Francis Small took time to show me around.
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Well, the people in this village do not mine sand, but they believe that their environment is paying a heavier price because of the sand mining taking place in neighboring John Obey. I am traveling to the mining site of John Obey to see things for myself.
I am standing on the banks of the sea at the John Obey sand mining site. From here, I can hear the waves breaking against rocks.
With sound of ocean underneath my voice
There used to be lots of mangroves here and a beautiful small river that empties into the ocean. The river was a breathing ground for fish, but all these have disappeared because of sand mining.
I managed to speak to one of the sand miners. His name is Samuel James.
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When James and his colleagues mine sand, it’s the environment that pays the price. Their activities lead to erosion, which causes destruction to coastal communities.
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That’s Jean-Baptiste again from Stockholm University.
From Nairobi to Ghana and from Gambia to Sierra Leone, the challenges posed by sand mining are very similar as pointed out by Jouffray. Fatou Geng is the founder of Clean Earth Gambia, a youth-led organization advocating on climate related issues, and also a youth climate adviser to the UN Secretary General.
She told me more about the impact of sand mining on communities in The Gambia when I visited back in May.
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It’s poverty, economic hardships and unemployment problems that are forcing youths into this sand mining as many look for alternative means of livelihood. Edward Bendu works as Chief Director at the Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Environment.
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Vehicle sound .
I am back here in Bureh to find out more about the impact of sand mining on fishing and the marine ecosystem generally.
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That was Donald Maccualey, but before him wasFrancis Small, residents of Bureh.
Good implementation of policies are important to managing the sand mining sector, according to Jouffray at Stockholm University.
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That is the reason why Fatou from Gambia thinks that the solution to the challenges wrought by sand mining are first and foremost having policies in place and finding solutions to corruption.
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Sounds of Freetown….
Back in the tight office of the Ministry of Environment, situated on a busy road in central Freetown, the challenges posed by sand mining are not a question of a lack of leadership or regulations, but they are a question of trade off and local people taking more responsibility, says Bendu, the ministry’s Chief Director.
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For Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr, who’s now reelected as Mayor of Freetown for another five years, the need for strong political will is key to addressing the problems associated with sand mining.
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Well, will the proposed policy that Bendu talked about earlier address the different environmental hazards associated with sand mining? Will it guarantee workers safety and the livelihoods of affected communities and will it improve better governance of the sector? It remains to be seen how the proposed sand mining policy responds to these questions and more.
That’s all what we have time for. Buried under water has been a podcast on the impact of sand mining in Sierra Leone and it was funded by The Pulitzer Center.
I have been your host Abdul Samba Brima. Many thanks for listening.
Sound engineer: John Michael Gayah
Producer and Host: Abdul Samba Brima
Music Credits and links: