Let’s Unearth the Truth: Making extractive industries work for citizens

“The govt is our papa; they should make sure things work well for our community. If they don’t, we would continue to suffer from mining companies and a lack of access to basic services.  We are now being asked to go and live somewhere else. We are not happy about being resettled. We have lived here all our lives, why must we be forced out because of company interests that we are not benefitting from.”

These words of Christiana, a 16 year old from a small village known as Sokogbeh in Kono District of Sierra Leone reminded me of my days as a student activist inNigeria. It brought back the many questions I have had about the immense wealth generated from oil, gas and mineral resources which always seem to disappear into thin air.

Christiana’s words reminded me of people like Ken Saro Wiwa who died because they dared to speak out against the injustice of exploitation from oil and gas companies backed up by a complicit and corrupt government.

Her words made me think of the thousands who have lost hope, who have no jobs, no shelter, no schooling and no sound medical care because those who control and allocate these resources are not sensitive to their needs and do not feel they have responsibility.

My saddest moment came on my way to the foot of the aircraft that was taking me back home, after about 10 days of talking to communities affected by mining. Two men, probably in their mid to late 20’s were chattering about the diamond mine that is Sierra Leone.

Their conversation went somewhat like this:

1st man: “Those guys (Sierra Leone) are sitting on a wealth of diamonds, gold and what have you. There is so much money to be made here”

2nd man: Really? How do you know?

1st man: “Of course I am here on the invitation of … (a mining company) I came here on a free ticket, with all my expenses paid. I am coming back to work for them and everything is tax free! I tell you there is a lot of money to be made here. You should come too”

I stopped listening from there on…just sort of blocked out their voices.

Tears of anger welled up in my eyes because of what Christiana had told me and what I had seen in Sokogbeh and the rest of Kono District.

I was not angry at these men.

I was upset with the companies who operate with little regard for the well being of the countries and communities they operate in.

I was more upset with governments who have failed people like Christiana time and time again. Governments have ultimate responsibility. If the proceeds from all the mining activities are not reaching young people like Christiana and others, what are governments there for?

Of course Sierra Leone is not the only country grappling to get out of the woods of what is often regarded as the resource curse. In 2008 exports of oil and minerals fromAfrica were worth roughly USD$393bn. This is 9 times the value of overseas aid toAfrica – USD$44bn. Just USD$100mn out of this money could provide full immunization for 4 million children in some of these countries.

Countries such as Nigeria, Bolivia, Sierra Leone, Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo could do with improved services to local communities.  After all, good management of natural resources changed Botswana from being a destitute country to a much sought-after middle income country today. Natural resources have also brought Norway much good.

Several companies who operate in these countries are headquartered in the US, UK or other parts of Europe. The US has already taken a laudable stand by creating legislation that would make it compulsory for extractive companies to publish all the payments they make to governments of resource-rich countries, so that their citizens can use the information (which is so often hidden) to hold their governments and the companies accountable.

Transparency counts, so similar legislation should be enacted at the EU level. This is why Tearfund is campaigning towards the UK and EU to create measures that would make it compulsory for oil, gas and mining companies to publish payments they make to foreign governments and other financial information at country and project specific levels. You can be part of our campaign by visiting www.tearfund.org/unearth and taking action.

It is time to unearth the truth!

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