It was the eye of a slow-forming, powerful storm in one of West Africa’s most weathered places. In spring 2012, Bumbuna, a hamlet in a war-ravaged Sierra Leone notorious for its “blood diamonds,” witnessed a confrontation between police and workers protesting conditions at a project owned by U.K.-headquartered iron ore producer African Minerals Ltd. (AML).

Authorities said strikers tried torching an AML fuel depot and a police station, allegations disputed by human rights monitors. But the events ending April 18 were clear: After decimating the town market, police unleashed tear gas and live ammunition on the unarmed crowd—killing a female contractor while wounding eight non-employees; three officers were also injured. Sierra Leone’s independent Human Rights Commission called it a “war zone.”  

Whether amid indifference, dismay or connivance—or all three—such episodes have haunted mining for generations. There’s certainly blame to circulate: Barrick Gold Corp., BHP Billiton, Freeport McMoRan and Rio Tinto—among countless others—have long been under fire. But in a world economy globalizing astride social media, bad news—fairly and unfairly—spreads quicker than ever. Consequently, environmental concerns, once at Corporate Social Responsibility’s (CSR) forefront, are taking a back seat to human rights issues—with some companies adapting quicker than others.

"In a world economy globalizing astride social media, bad news—fairly and unfairly—spreads quicker than ever. Consequently, environmental concerns, once at Corporate Social Responsibility’s (CSR) forefront, are taking a back seat to human rights issues—with some companies adapting quicker than others."

AML, Sierra Leone’s No. 1 employer, is hardly alone. The 2012 slaughter of 44 strikers by South African security forces at a Lonmin plc mine, for instance, drew far more publicity to Africa’s mining atrocities. AML differs, however, in its ongoing, if subdued, rapport with leading nongovernmental organization (NGO) Human Rights Watch (HRW) investigators focused on a country beset by near-unchecked land acquisition and a troubled mining sector.

Twelve years have ebbed since Sierra Leone’s decade-long civil conflict claimed 50,000 lives and displaced 2 million others. The equatorial nation remains a top-10, half-legitimate alluvial diamond producer also flush with gold, titanium ore and bauxite. Only now, however, is Freetown aggressively soliciting foreign investment—if too quickly for its own good. “Sierra Leone,” said HRW Deputy Africa Director Rona Peligal, “is a country in a hurry.”

As in wartime, mining is front and center. Unfortunately, “structures and institutions haven’t kept up,” noted Peligal, author of Whose Development? Human Rights Abuses in Sierra Leone’s Mining Boom; her 96-page report, issued February, encompasses 18 months of 100 on-the-ground interviews with residents and workers—and talks with high-level AML representatives.

They have grand ambitions: executives envision a Sierra Leone as Africa’s top iron ore exporter—doubling GDP. Nearly a decade after they began diamond mining in 1996, operations relocated atop one of Africa’s biggest, 12.8-billion-ton magnetite reserves in the Tonkolili district. Following an estimated $2 billion in direct investment, AML employed 6,850 workers in Q4 2013—80% Sierra Leone nationals.

An enterprising second-term President Ernest Koroma embraces firms like AML in his “Agenda for Prosperity”—boosted by World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) donors, which recorded Sierra Leone’s 21% economic expansion as helping lead the continent in 2012. Of this, says the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), mining represents 30% of GDP; Chinese money has further snapped up one-third of AML’s Tonkolili mine while constructing a 124-mile railway.

To most six million multi-ethnic Sierra Leonians, consistently U.N.-ranked among the world’s poorest people, though, this matters little. First colonized in the 1780s by British settlers and African Americans, 50% now subsist on less than $1.50 daily. Laboring under the world’s 10th highest infant mortality rates, more than one-third of children are malnourished; life in AML’s Tonkolili mining district is especially dire—more than 70% of inhabitants are food-insecure.

This is no accident, says the New York-based HRW, and AML fits within a larger picture. In Q1 2013, the EITI disqualified Sierra Leone’s membership bid, citing inconsistencies between reported revenues and company taxes and royalties. One disquieting factor was the Mining Ministry’s inability to produce a $1 million receipt for an AML license. Similar discrepancies by smaller municipalities supported last year’s Transparency International (TI) study calling Sierra Leone one of the world’s most bribery prone nations.

Mayhem and Minerals
One of the primary triggers of violence has been workplace discontent. Inadequate compensation, unpaid overtime, arbitrary dismissals, managerial racism and abuse coupled with restrictions barring union formation—with sanctions against organizers—have stirred deep animosity; even sanitary drinking water has been problematic. “Sierra Leone’s Labor Ministry has been unable to keep pace with the growing employers in the country,” said Peligal’s report.  

Mine-area displacement, stoked by political decentralization and exploitation, however, is equally challenging. “Investors operate in a weak context, allowing them to exploit land title and corruption,” writes Peligal. “These create rights abuses, evidenced by the African Minerals Ltd. case—protecting the rights of Sierra Leonians is not an option, but a legal obligation.”

Relocation of hundreds of families from the Tonkolili site to land near Bumbuna began in Q4 2011. In interviews, residents said their livelihoods since deteriorated sharply despite pledges of housing, food, land, jobs and schools; little materialized and all claimed being better off before, growing food and panning for gold.

“We accepted the deal because they told us they would build houses and we could get food; then we could be given compensation, but it wasn’t enough,” said one woman. “We had no alternative but to leave;” HRW noted 200 newly built homes were mostly empty, farmland stood uncultivated, and independent efforts by parents to establish an educational facility faltered by residents who by then lacked money to send children to school.

Another villager was similarly bitter. “This is very different from what we expected,” the elder told HRW. The company, he said, “failed to understand our need for land—they just wanted us out of the way.”

Following a Q1 2010 presidential visit, the Freetown government stood firm “with full force of the law,” according to a statement from his office. “This is not only a Tonkolili affair, it is a national asset,” it read. “This is an opportunity for all Sierra Leone—an opportunity to ensure everyone benefits from our God-given resources.”

AML, for its part, has been relatively open in its responses. “This has been a steep learning curve and although efforts have been made in CSR, the program has not been well-managed,” former Global Head of Sustainable Development Graham Foyle-Twining conceded. “This has been exacerbated by weak management controls over our contractors, some have not behaved to an acceptable standard toward employees.”

In Q1 2013, however, 400 company and 500 contractor expatriate workers were laid off to allow Sierra Leonian jobs; officials further promised closer monitoring of contractor-employee relations, along with 16% wage increases. “We’re the first to admit the way things were a year ago is not where we want to be,” former CEO Keith Calder also said. Complaints were “addressed in an ad-hoc manner.”

Twenty-two “positive impact” community projects, worth $3.6 million, will further include medical clinic upgrades and the growth of 180 acres of farmlands as well as schools, bridges, a market for trade, and a technical institute, added Foyle-Twining. All are currently complemented by development accounts equaling 0.1% of exports, capitalized at $302,000; 0.1% more goes to impact mitigation.

At the same time, company officials said they welcome HRW “support in implementation monitoring and rating of AML’s performance.”

Earlier this March, however, Peligal was disillusioned after a meeting with company and government officials in Freetown to discuss her findings. “I hoped for an open and constructive dialogue,” she said, “but government officials were dismissive, and corporate representatives quite hostile.”

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