By Cooper Inveen
KOIDU, Sierra Leone, May 5 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A dispute over a bridge in eastern Sierra Leone thought to span diamond deposits has divided a local community with a foreign mining company accused of illegally mining the area after volunteering to rebuild the overpass.
The Congo Bridge in Koidu, the capital of Kono District, was deemed by local authorities to be in danger of collapsing after years of illegal small-scale mining around the base.
With backing from the government, structural repairs started in mid-2016 by Israeli owned Pluto Mining Company but this prompted fears of large-scale mining as excavators removed raw materials from under the road, river banks and nearby wetlands.
A coalition of Kono activists joined Sierra Leone's Environmental Protection Authority and National Minerals Agency to condemn the bridge work that removed the natural buffer and led to the flooding of local houses, making more than 60 people homeless.
The groups say this is one example in an ongoing wave of foreign companies stepping in to offer free infrastructure repair as a means to conduct exploratory work in mining-free zones, overriding local residents rights to land.
"We've contacted people in our own agencies, we've sent notices for them to stop, but the mining goes on," K.K. Dabor, regional head of Sierra Leone's Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"Rivers, wetlands, the hills, even people's livelihoods. All are being destroyed in one way or another."
Despite the protests, Dabor said a similar situation unfolded in 2013 with Pluto while a large plot on a road leading out of Koidu is currently being mined and signs saying "Property of Pluto Mining" are clearly visible despite the Mines and Minerals Act of 2009 making it illegal to mine within 200 metres of town.
Pluto Mining did not respond to numerous telephone calls and written requests seeking comment over several weeks. The Thomson Reuters Foundation also visited the home of Pluto's founder, Maxim Brandwain, in Kono in an attempt to seek comment but was turned away by the gateman.
Brandwain, an Israeli businessman, is best known in Sierra Leone as head of Mercury International, the nation's largest sports betting company. Brandwain did not respond to multiple requests for comment left with his secretary at Mercury's Freetown headquarters.
DIGGING FOR DIAMONDS
Diamond and agriculture form the backbone of Sierra Leone's economy as the country recovers from the Ebola epidemic that killed nearly 4,000 people. [nL4N1964UV]
Diamonds fuelled a decade-long civil war in Sierra Leone that ended in 2002 in which 50,000 people were killed. Rebels forced civilians in the east to mine the stones and bought weapons with the proceeds, leading to the term 'blood diamonds'.
The United Nations lifted a ban on diamond exports from Sierra Leone in 2003 but the sector remains plagued by smuggling and strife at local levels.
During a town hall meeting after the riverbank collapse last June, local politicians, including Acting Mayor Aiah Bartholomew Komba, told residents the bridge's structural integrity had been compromised by long term, peasant mining.
This had the potential to endanger lives and, as a result, local authorities deemed it necessary to remove "unsuitable materials" beneath the bridge that prompted the mining.
Officials told residents that the city did not have access to the heavy excavating equipment required for the job so Pluto Mining was recruited and undertook the operation without charge as "an act of corporate social responsibility".
"We talked among ourselves, and the only name that came up was Pluto. They say charity begins at home, and this is a company that's very involved in our communities," said Karamoh Kabba, Resident Minister for Sierra Leone's eastern region.
"Besides, we cannot licence mining the road, but the place where they clean the unsuitable material is licensed. So if mining happened here, it did not happen on the road."
But environmental agencies and activists said this excavation resulted not just in illegal mining of diamond deposits with no benefit to local residents but also the removal of a natural buffer that protected residents from floods.
According to local laws, regional chiefs are entitled to 15 percent of surface rent fees paid by companies mining their chiefdoms and also have the final word on land deals. Paul Soquee, paramount chief of the Tonkoro chiefdom, where Koidu sits, declined to comment.
Acting Mayor Komba told the Thomson Reuters Foundation the issue had been "put to rest".
"The roads are getting good use and the bridges are more stable now, so none of us have anything more to say. All I see is good road and people enjoying a good road," Komba said..
But activists and local residents said the community had been promised water pumps, a community library and marketplace, a youth centre and two schools at the meeting last June.
To date, they said all they have received is a plastic water jug donated to each family when they returned to their homes last September.
Congo Bridge resident, Serrah Kamara and her extended 18-person family lost their home and its contents to the flood waters and now share a two-bedroom apartment near the bridge with the children forced to sleep on the floor.
"So many government people came down here promising us this and that after the flood, but look where we are," Kamara said glancing back at what's left of her home. "They already forgot about us."