In Liberia, a former mining activist gets the bully pulpit

  • In 2013, Foday Fahnbulleh led a group of student activists who were arrested for protesting the operations of a Chinese mining firm in Liberia.
  • The activists accused China Union, which holds a 25-year concession agreement to mine iron ore in Bong County, of neglecting the social development terms of its contract.
  • Elected to represent Bong County’s District #7 in October 2023, Fahnbulleh has already forced China Union to testify about what it admitted were “lapses” to its contract responsibilities.
  • After one of its managers was held in contempt and detained, the company has asked for a joint working group to address its strained relationship with Fahnbulleh’s district.

It’s been about a decade since Foday Fahnbulleh was arrested. Along with other students and workers from his home in Bong Mines about an hour’s drive north of Monrovia, he’d been staging protests at the gates of a Chinese mining company. China Union, they said, wasn’t living up to the promises it had made in its contract with the Liberian state. The campaign was making headlines in Liberia, and it had angered politicians from Fahnbulleh’s district. One called him and his co-organizers “thugs” and urged the police to detain them.

Now, they’ll have to call him by a new title: “Honorable Representative.”

In October, Liberia held national elections that resulted in a peaceful transfer of power from former footballer-turned-president George Weah to his opponent, Joseph Boakai. In Bong County’s District #7, the 39-year-old Fahnbulleh ran as an independent promising to hold that same mining company, China Union, to the infrastructure and social service clauses in the 25-year concession agreement it signed in 2009.

His election is raising hopes in Bong Mines that the district might finally see the roads, schools, and employment promised in that contract. And for China Union, the headaches are already arriving.

“The community wanted someone who has passion for corporate accountability,” he told Mongabay in a phone interview. “Because in our country, corporations are not living up to the terms of their agreements.”

[Note – the author of this article wrote a report on China Union’s operations for a Liberian civil society group in 2014, and met Fahnbulleh during that time.]

Foday Fahnbulleh, left, at a campaign event in Liberia in 2023. Image via Facebook.

Not long after taking office, Fahnbulleh wrote a letter to the Liberian legislature, calling for an investigation into China Union for alleged breaches of its contract obligations, which include paving a modern road in Bong County, hiring Liberians to comprise at least 70% of its workforce, and building a hydro-power plant. After accepting Fahnbulleh’s letter, the House Committee on Lands, Mines, Natural Resources and the Environment subpoenaed China Union to offer a formal response to his accusations. When one of its managers claimed key documents explaining the contract breaches were held in China, the committee ordered him to be detained and post bond.

Fahnbulleh says he means to follow through on what his constituents elected him to do.

“The voters have an expectation. And that expectation is to see someone who is willing to fight for them,” he said.

Holes in the hills

Bong Mines isn’t an outlier in Liberia, it’s part of the norm. Before Liberia’s civil war, iron ore made up more than 65 percent of export earnings and accounted for one-quarter of its GDP. But there’s little to show for those exports, especially in the areas where they were produced.

Despite a downturn in commodity prices during the mid-2010s, this figure hasn’t changed much. According to the Liberia Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, the British-Indian firm ArcelorMittal exported around $250 million in unprocessed iron ore from the country in 2019 – just shy of half of Liberia’s total exports. None of that ore, however, is turned to steel inside Liberia.

Instead, mining operations have left a legacy of unfulfilled promises, ecological devastation, and stunted development. Since the end of the country’s civil war, contracts with foreign mining companies have included requirements that they build infrastructure, hire locals, and contribute to regional budgetary funds meant to alleviate poverty. But follow-through has typically been lax, raising the ire of communities who have watched as nearby hilltops and forests are decimated.

Protester holds a sign at a demonstration against China Union in 2013. Image via Facebook.

“Historically, Liberia has neglected to transform mining-related foreign direct investment into social investments such as roads, education and health,” said Robtel Neajai Pailey, a Liberian academic and assistant professor at the London School of Economics. “Mining firms disregard environmental, social and governance (ESG) standards with the complicity of national government, and this has pushed affected communities to engage in both legitimate and clandestine forms of civil disobedience.”

China Union is in the hot seat right now but the firm is in crowded company. Solway Mining, a Russian-Swiss firm active in northern Liberia, is currently embroiled in a dispute with the government over its contract. And miners taking more than they leave is an old story. Not far away in Bomi Hills a subsidiary of the U.S.-based Republic Steel Corporation once held an iron concession until the late 1970s. Today, locals call the area “Bomi Holes,” a tongue-in-cheek reference to the mining pits left behind by the company.

“You go to all these mining communities in areas where the resources are existing, and it’s the same story,” said Alfred Brownell, a Liberian environmental advocate who won the Goldman Prize in 2019 for his legal work defending community rights. “No consultation, no consent, locals aren’t involved in the conversation. The big guys sit with investors in the city and play God.”

An old mine-turned-lake in Bomi Hills, Liberia. Image by jbdodane via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

The ecological scars of mining operations in forested regions can also be long-lasting. A Mongabay investigation found that gold mining is damaging waterways in Liberia’s rainforests, and the steel giant ArcelorMittal was fined for dumping sewage into wetlands last year.

Fahnbulleh wants better for residents of Bong Mines and its surrounding towns.

“We have to stand up against these big corporations and ensure that our people in communities that have natural resources can benefit from them,” he said.

In the minefield

Fahnbulleh will have his work cut out for him. Historically, Liberia’s legislature has a spotty track record when it comes to foreign investment. During a renegotiation of ArcelorMittal’s concession agreement in 2008, the company ‘donated’ 100 pickup trucks to the government, which ultimately found their way into the hands of local legislators. The donation was widely seen as a bribe.

More recently, the administration of former President George Weah was widely accused of corruption, leading the U.S. State Department to sanction some top officials, including the former Minister of Finance.

Fahnbulleh told Mongabay that he intends to hold true to his campaign promises.

“It’s not a job I’m taking to enrich myself. I need to work so that local communities will feel the impact of what I’ve been advocating for years,” he said.

Rep. Foday Fahnbulleh meeting with newly elected President Joseph Boakai of Liberia, Jan. 9, 2024. Image via Facebook.

In the weeks after his election, he said, China Union offered to meet with him privately to discuss his criticisms, but balked at his requirement that it be recorded and posted publicly on his Facebook page. When the meeting was held, it was brief and perfunctory.

But after the company’s manager was detained by the legislature, it sent a letter to the House committee – which has been seen by Mongabay – acknowledging that it “exhibited lapses in the execution of our responsibilities under the [Mineral Development Agreement].” Citing “challenges that are both local and external” the company asked to set up a joint working group to “identify feasible intervention activities” that it could undertake to address its strained relationship with Fahnbulleh’s constituents.

Brownell, who was forced to leave for the U.S. by harassment and intimidation by the prior two presidential administrations, says he’s been disappointed by lawmakers before but he hopes Fahnbulleh can keep the pressure up on China Union – and extend it to companies in other parts of the country.

“Once those lawmakers start standing up and building coalitions with NGOs and affected communities, then I can see there’s going to be a light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.

Fahnbulleh says that he’s already reached out to environmental and community rights advocates to offer his help and connections. In a journey that’s taken him from police interrogation to congress, he now has something hard-won: political power. What he does with it will be one of many dramas to watch closely in Liberia over the next six years.

“It has been a serious problem in our country, as to who are those who are willing to advocate and bring corporate accountability to the national space,” he said. “It’s from that factor that our community voted for me.”

A rush for ‘green’ iron is on in Guinea. Will chimpanzees be a casualty?

Banner image: A truck at Bong Mines, Liberia in 1983. Image via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

FEEDBACK: Use this form to send a message to the author of this post. If you want to post a public comment, you can do that at the bottom of the page.