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Sand is being removed at a completley unsustainable rate from the beaches. Image copyright Matt Badenoch.

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How illegal sand mining in Sierra Leone is destroying the local beaches

April 3rd, 2013

by Ramatu Kanu

Ramatu Kanu is a citizen journalist based in Freetown, Sierra Leone. She is being trained by Radar - a new charity that trains marginalised groups to report on what would otherwise be neglected news and environmental stories. Here, Ramatu investigates the impact of illegal sand mining in Sierra Leone...

It all started after the civil war in our country when most of the houses were burned, leaving people homeless. 

When people were finally ready to rebuild their homes, contracts were given to Chinese and Senegalese construction companies which led to a huge demand for sand. Today, sand mines have become a place where otherwise unemployed young people can find work.

While Sierra Leone has some of the finest beaches in Africa, not enough is being done to protect those beaches from this burgeoning industry.

Originally, the beaches around the country’s capital city Freetown – such as Hamilton and Lakka – were selected by companies in need of sand to make asphalt for roads or concrete for buildings. This rapid development generated a new image of success, allowing Sierra Leone to shake its associations with war and blood diamonds.

But then in early 2012, the ‘free sand for all’ bonanza suddenly exploded. Without permits, hundreds of trucks began arriving to mine the beaches on a daily basis, hiring local young men as daily labourers to effectively destroy their own communities.

Trees collapsed and mangroves disappeared, removing coastal protection from rainstorms and floods. Soon, the trucks moved west to John Obey beach. 

Mohamed Karrim, a 30-year-old local resident, said: “Recently when the tides came high the water passed the normal level where it used to stop and now we are afraid of what will happen during the rains. I am never in support of taking sand from the beach because they are taking away the beauty of our community and leaving damage for us behind.” 

While some like Karrim turned down ‘get-rich-quick’ promises, others did not. On the beaches along the peninsular, many communities are reaping short-term financial rewards. The local community is bribed to allow their beaches to be attacked with machinery while councillors take kickbacks and government authorities look away.

The Government, which wants to see rapid infrastructural development in the country, has ordered the Western Area District Council (WARDC) to allow construction companies to continue collecting sand in the communities without any disturbance. 

And in an article in the Standard Times, one of Sierra Leone’s national newspapers, members of the Big-Wata community said the WARDC Chairman passed the message on, by authorising truck drivers to enter the beaches and load up with sand. 

Stuck in the middle are those Sierra Leoneans who work for these sand and construction companies. They are torn between needing to work and wanting to protect their country’s pristine coastline.

Foday Kargbo is 45 and works for Senegalese CSE. “I am not happy with what I am hearing from other beaches which are losing their beauty, but I am just a worker and do what I am ordered to do,” he said. 

“My company uses a lot of sand for road construction which in one way pushes the country’s development. However they should find a way to schedule the removal of sand from this beach, it would make things better. 

“But for now, I have to feed my family, so I must work even if it is to destroy and remake my country.” 

With heavy trucks loading sand on Sierra Leone’s pristine beaches on a daily basis, the Environment Protection Agency of Sierra Leone must take firm action and start issuing strong recommendations. Otherwise this country - which was once recognized for its beautiful beaches - will lose a vital environmental and tourism asset. 

Ramatu Kanu is a citizen journalist. The Ecologist is supporting the work of Radar by publishing some of the stories submitted by the group's new citizen journalists.

For more on the work of Radar in Sierra Leone, Kenya and India see: https://twitter.com/OnOurRadar

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