27 February 2013

Liberia: 'Illegal' Sand Mining, Sales

Investigation by this paper has revealed that the Ministry of Lands, Mines & Energy is in flagrant violation of the 2010 Investment Act of Liberia by grating sand mining licenses to Chinese companies.

Chinese companies are heavily involved in sand mining and sales in several parts of the country, but the Ministry of Commerce has declared that such business by any foreigner or company is a violation of the country's law.

"Yes, we gave them permits to operate. "All river sand mining taking place in the country are authorized by the Ministry," the Public Relation Director of the Ministry of Lands and Mines Joseph Matadly told this writer yesterday. "Whether it is in Caldwell, in Virginia or Robertfields Highway, we are aware and it is not illegal," he insisted.

Addressing a press conference in Monrovia Tuesday (Feb 26) Deputy Commerce Minister for Public Affairs Rufus D. Nuefville, backed by other officials of the ministry, announced that Commerce has begun the reinforcement of the Investment Act of 2010 which has seemingly been violated by some individuals.

Section 21, schedule 1&2 of the statute sets aside certain businesses to done exclusively by Liberians.

The Minister named them as: "Supplier of Sand (sand mining and sales), block making, peddling, travel agencies, retail sale of rice and cement, Ice Making and sale, tyre shops, auto repair shops with investments of less than US$50,000, shoe repair shops retail sales of timber and plank, operations of gas stations, Video Clubs, operations of taxis, importation or sale of second-hand or used clothing (DK), distribution in Liberia of locally manufactured products and importation and sale of used cars ( except authorized dealerships which may deal in certain used vehicles of their make).

Asked whether the Ministry was aware of the heavy sand mining and sale being carried out by the Chinese firms Hau Lee (Caldwell) and Sand Mining (Robertfied highway), the Minister fumbles and noted that the Ministry will investigate.

Nuefvile stated that if it is confirmed that these are foreign companies engaged in sand mining, the law would take its course.

"This is information... and we want to get adequate fact as much as possible to investigate the issue that is at bay," Assistant Minister Steve Marvey, one of those addressing the conference, noted. "The information you gave will help us to investigate," the Assistant Minister responded as if the Ministry is unaware of the deal.

Citizens in areas where the companies are mining river sand have alarmed that the operations was affecting the environment, such are water pollution and future threats of landslide.

Hua Lee, which operates in Caldwell has boasted that it is fully authorized by the Liberian Government--the Ministry of Commerce and licensed by Lands and Mines--to mine and sell sand, regardless of the environmental effect.

The Lands and Mines PRO claimed that the welfare of the environment was taken into consideration before the Ministry authorized the companies' operation, but failed to comment on the threat on the environment and complaints of the people.

"Before any river sand mining is authorized by the ministry, an environment assessment is done, and this happened in all the areas--in Caldwell, in Virginia and other places," he claimed.

On whether the Ministry was aware that authorizing foreign companies to mine and sell sand was a violation of the country's law, Matadly said he could not comment on that. "I don't know much about that and I can't comment on it."

The Commerce Ministry said it will no longer sit and allow business set aside exclusively for Liberian be run by foreigners companies, but expressed regret that Liberians themselves were their own problem as they front for foreign companies. "They front for foreign companies, and this is wrong and unscrupulous," said Marvey, while Nuefville noted that those caught in such unwholesome acts would face punitive measures.

The Ministry said the statute was passed three years ago and those doing businesses in violation were given a year to regularize. "Two years has passed, and we are now ready to enforce it," said Nuefville.

However, it remains unclear whether the Ministry has teeth to bite off foreign companies from sand mining rampantly ongoing in many parts of the country.

The issue of sand mining in the township of Virginia, Montserrado County last year created serious attention amongst Virginians in the Americas, noting that the Chinese are mining good clean sand from the St Paul River. The concerned Liberians said the sadly learned that the company was only paying US$10,000 per year to the settlement.

The Chinese work all night and haul sand all day, and dust from the trucks used to transport the mined sand is unbearable, citizens in many areas have complained.

Sand mining is a practice that is becoming an environmental issue as the demand for sand increases in industry and construction. Sand is mined from beaches and inland dunes and dredged from ocean beds and river beds. It is often used in manufacturing as an abrasive, for example, and it is used to make concrete. As communities grow, construction requires less wood and more concrete, leading to a demand for low-cost sand.

Besides the mining of river sand, it is reported that these companies are extracting minerals such as rutile, ilmenite and zircon, which contain the industrially useful elements titanium and zirconium. These minerals typically occur combined with ordinary sand, which is dug up, the valuable minerals being separated in water by virtue of their different densities, and the remaining ordinary sand re-deposited.

Sand mining is a direct and obvious cause of erosion, and also impacts the local wildlife. For example, sea turtles depend on sandy beaches for their nesting, and sand mining has led to the near extinction of ghariyals (a species of crocodiles) in India. Disturbance of underwater and coastal sand causes turbidity in the water, which is harmful for such organisms as corals that need sunlight. It also destroys fisheries, causing problems for people who rely on fishing for their livelihoods, research states.

The Government of Liberia through the Ministry of Lands, Mines and Energy last October ban sand mining on beaches throughout the country as a result of its devastating effect--including the washing away of beautiful beaches in Monrovia including the CECE Beach.

Minister of Lands, Mines and Energy, Patrick Sendolo said beach sand mining is hardly or not practiced at all throughout the world, as it poses a great risk to the environment. Sendolo stated further that sand taken off beaches can cause severe erosion and flooding, problems that Liberians have noticed over the past few years.

"The key challenge at the outset of this initiative was the fact that the livelihood of numerous young Liberians depended on mining sand on the beaches, which necessitated a responsible and considerate course that struck a balance between eliminating beach sand mining and ensuring, as much as possible, that Liberians who depended on beach sand mining for their livelihood are not displaced," Minister Sendolo stated.

"Through a process which involved extensive and broad- based consultations between beach sand miners, trucker's unions, river sand dredging companies, political leaders and the Ministry of Lands, Mines and Energy, we have concluded an arrangement which will enable us to finally close the beaches to sand mining and transition completely to river sand mining," he continued.

"Even though the beaches are closed to sand mining and sand will henceforth be mined from rivers," he continued. "We fully expect that the transition will not be free of challenges. We fully anticipate that there will be some fluctuation in the price of sand at the outset, but we are putting in place appropriate regulatory mechanisms to address this problem."

"We also anticipate that with the growing demand for river sand, there may be some challenges in terms of the effects of sand dredging activities. To address this problem, we are instituting appropriate measures to regulate river sand mining to ensure that it is conducted in full compliance with applicable laws, including mining and environmental laws and regulations. We will also ensure that river sand mining is carried out in such manner that it does not unduly interfere with the rights of landowners and residents in the areas of their operations," the Minister stressed.

Citizens' complaint

Early this year, citizens of Kpor Town, along the Robertsfield highway, raised fears over sand mining in the Kpor Town River by Chinese Company called "Sand Mining" which is located in a yellow building on the Robertsfield High Way.

According to them, since the company started mining sand in the river, they have come to realize that the force of the river's current is increasing on a daily basis and is causing them to live in fear.

They maintained that digging sand from the river which lies very close to their town is a serious threat to the inhabitants and they will not wait for disaster to hit the town before government puts a halt to the act.

They explained that areas near the bank of the river where they wash their clothes and set their baskets to catch fish, crabs and other marine animals have become deeper and it is making it difficult for them to get fish, thereby affecting the daily livelihood.

The citizens noted that if government does not put halt to the sand mining in the river, it may cause flooding disaster in the near future which could damage lives and properties as being witnessed on other parts of the country and the world at large.

They said the sand mining from the river is also undermining the safety of the bridge connecting Boys Town and Kpor Town because sand that holds the pillars is being mined.

They further indicated that most of the mangroves around the river bank are falling apart from their root which poses a threat to environmental protection.

"The sand mining in the river is also causing sand erosion from the land and this could even cause earthquake in Kpor Town in five years time if the process of mining sand in the river continues," observed a middle aged man only identified as Eman.

They stated that since government put a halt to sand mining from the coastal areas across the country, river sand mining is not the best option to resolve sand mining issues in Liberia.

A source close to the Chinese's Company revealed that the company received a permit from the Ministry of Lands, Mines and Energy, the Liberia Maritime Authority and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to carry out sand mining in the river.

Many observed that the effects of such activity, if not checked, will be damaging.

"The mining of sand from the St. Paul River by a Chinese company named and styled Hua Lee in the Caldwell area is alarming due to limited sand resources in its alluvial reach," a citizen told this writer recently while visiting the area.

Quizzed by journalist about the danger posed to the environment by the Chinese company's activities, in 2011, the Minister of Public Works Samuel Kofi Woods said: "Those are issues that we are considering, and that is why I came here today. This is my first time coming to see it." Woods spoke after he visited the Caldwell sand mining site.

Woods described the method being used by the company by extracting the sand from the river as alternative measures and that the government is testing it out to know the full control mechanism that can be put in place.

The Minister disclosed that the Ministry of Lands Mines and Energy is aware of the activities of the sand mining company but, the lack of adequate information on the environmental impact of river sand mining makes it difficult for the locals to consciously engage government on the impact of the mining activity in the area.

Experts say sand is vital for sustenance of rivers. Geologists know that uncontrolled sand mining from the riverbed leads to the destruction of the entire river system. Research shows that if sand and gravel is extracted in quantities higher than the capacity of the river to replenish them, it leads to changes in its channel form, physical habitats and food webs the river's ecosystem.

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