27 August 2013

Liberia: Railways Revived for Liberia's Iron Ore Boom

Yekepa — In the second part of our five-part series on railways in Africa, we head to Liberia, where a major steel company has restored an old railway line as part of efforts to tap into the country's iron ore reserves.

During Liberia's civil war, which raged for almost 20 years, ending in 2003, mining companies were forced to close their operations.

However, in the past decade, several international mining majors have poured investment into the west African country. Among them is the multinational steel manufacturing company, ArcelorMittal, which is tapping into huge iron ore deposits in the landlocked north of Liberia.

Since there is only one major - and unpaved - road that runs from north to south in Liberia, ArcelorMittal has restored an old railway line to transport millions of tons of iron ore.

Workers at the mining town of Yekepa, in Liberia's east, wake up early for a busy work day, boarding a bus that makes pick-ups along the road to ArcelorMittal's Tokadeh mine, 18 kilometres from the town.

Once there, machines dig through the earth for the precious mineral, iron ore used in the production of cars, military hardware and electrical appliances, among other things. In the distance is the crushing plant, where the iron ore dug from the ground is crushed into dust to be shipped overseas.

When mining activity resumed in Liberia at the end of the civil war 10 years ago, ArcelorMittal, together with local mining partners, soon began rehabilitating the Yekepa to Buchanan railway line.

Sanniquellie is one of 26 towns situated along the 243-kilometre rail line connecting ArcelorMittal's Tokadeh mine in the east of the country and to the Port of Buchanan in the south.

Residents of this small town are not happy about the railway being revived.

"Actually, the location of the railroad in Sanniquellie is very bad for the residents," says one of them, Uriah Ericks. "At night when we are in bed, passing trains blow their horns and disrupt our sleep."

"The location of our hospital is very adjacent to the railway so each time we have patient at the hospital, there are lots of difficulties we encounter because the heavy sound alone causes lots of damages," says James Domah, another resident.

ArcelorMittal signed a 25-year mining agreement with the Liberian government in 2005. In September 2011 it became the first mining company in post-war Liberia to export iron ore through the port of Buchanan.

Despite local people's concerns over the disruption the railway causes them, ArcelorMittal has bigger plans for the future.

"We are looking at moving the operation into higher tonnage phase of 15 million tons," says ArcelorMittal's spokesperson Hesta Pearson. "We'll have to do some additional work on the rail to be able to adjust to the higher railing that we'll be doing between now and 2015."

But there are no immediate plans to open new lines, she says.

"The goal right now is to increase the amount of locomotives probably on the rail."

With Liberia's economy experiencing a growth rate of about 8.3 per cent ,Liberians are hopeful that the reopening of the country's doors to foreign investment companies after the civil war will mean a better future.

But that future will depend on ensuring local people are happy.

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