Saturday, October 20, 2007

Mining companies violating rights in Sierra Leone – activist

Some Canadian mining companies are committing human rights violations and major environmental degradation in Sierra Leone, jeopardizing the health, security and well being of people, says a visiting community activist.

Sierra Leone activist Abu Brima is Development and Peace's fall solidarity visitor

Abu Brima, executive director of the Network Movement for Justice and Development (NMJD), pointed the finger specifically to Koidu Holdings, which mines diamonds from kimberlite in the Kono district in eastern Sierra Leone.

The company, which Brima says has changed names and headquarters several times in the past to avoid international scrutiny, mines in the heart of the heavily populated Kono District and its operations are damaging both the environment and the community.

"They blast and they blast during the day when the people are at work or going about their business," Brima said. "Stone particles fly around destroying homes and buildings.

"They have failed to relocate about 5,000 people who are directly affected by the blasting. And they have not compensated the people of the community appropriately for the damages caused to their plantations."

Brima is the 2007 solidarity visitor of the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace, which supports the work of the Network Movement for Justice and Development.

He is visiting Edmonton, Camrose and St. Paul before going to Ottawa to accompany CCODP officials to deliver 160,000 petitions to the Canadian government demanding firm action against Canadian companies that violate international standards.

The petition demands the government to refuse support for mining companies that do not respect international environmental and human rights standards.

The WCR was unsuccessful in its efforts to track down a head office for Koidu, which Brima said was Canadian owned, in order to get a response to his statements. A May 2007 press release from Energem Resources of Vancouver said that company had sold its 40 per cent interest in Koidu.

Water pollution

Brima says Koidu Holdings has reduced the amount and the quality of the water that people in the community have access to. Ponds of polluted water sit everywhere and people have to walk several kilometres to find fresh water.

The rights' activist also accused the company of routinely using state police forces to arrest community leaders who oppose their mining practices.

"They use the state forces because they have money," he said. "The communities are very poor communities, very backward and so the people do not have the power and the company, in alliance with the authorities, hire the services of the police."

Brima said Koidu Holdings has shut itself off to the public. "They do not consult and when we organize meetings they do not attend. They do not respect the laws of the land."

Working conditions

The about 400 workers employed by the company make about $200 a month, enough to support a family of five for about two-and-a-half weeks.

"They do not pay well and the living conditions are very poor," lamented Brima, a father of four. "The workers are not very well protected. Last year two workers were actually killed by machines."

What do Brima and his Network Movement for Justice and Development want Koidu Holdings to do?

"We are trying to get them to operate responsibly and that means that they have to comply with not only their own environmental assessment and action plans but over and above to operate according to international standards," Brima said.

The company did an environmental and social impact assessment in 2003 but has not followed its own action plan as it publicly promised, he said.

"They must take into account the need to protect the community, to protect the environment and to compensate and relocate the people affected by the blasting, the dust and the noise. It's part of their action plan. I'm talking about 5,000 people who live in the community."

Brima said people are also demanding the newly elected government of Sierra Leone review the contract with Koidu Holdings, which was signed during the war with a military junta, not a democratic government.

Brima agreed with the current CCODP campaign demanding the Canadian government establish an independent ombudsperson's office to investigate complaints and make recommendations to ensure that Canadian mining companies abroad respect human rights and the environment.