Millions of miles away from West Africa where the ebola virus is currently causing havoc on the population and fragile economies of those countries, the impact of the disease is also being felt in the Chinese city of Guangzhou, where just a few weeks ago, between the 10th and 14th of November, the Kimberley Process (KP) plenary was held. The Chinese government had banned civil society organisations and companies from several African countries who are major diamond producers, including the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Guinea, Sierra Leone and the Republic Liberia, from travelling to China and participating in the annual KP meeting.
There were quick reactions from civil society organizations and the Association of African Diamond Producing Countries (ADPA). For its part, ADPA expressed concerns that many of its members affected by the Ebola outbreak have not been invited by the Chines Government to participate in the Kimberley Process Plenary even though these members have “adopted effective health control measures on travelers at their airports and borders”. Responding to the Chinese actions, civil society organizations expressed concerns that the decision of the Chinese government will add to the “further stigmatization and misinformation that affected countries are currently dealing with.”
Away from Guangzhou, the horrors of the ebola virus and its impact are devastating West Africa, and Liberia in particular is now the epicenter. To date there are almost 14,000 cases and Liberia alone has reported about 2700 deaths. West Africa as a whole and Liberia in particular is a significant source of diamonds, and artisanal miners are the lead producers. The Ebola outbreak in this region is therefore an on-going human tragedy, and its economic effects have just started to hit in the mining communities and the population at large, with many miners losing sources of income, and facing threatening control and enforcement regimes by the Government.
In Liberia, death among miners has created fear among the population. In several counties such as Grand Kru, Grand Gedeh, River Gee, ebola outbreaks among the population have been traced to alluvial mining communities. For instance, in Grand Kru County, 17 persons have died from the ebola virus, while 28 others were seriously sick. According to a Parliamentarian from the area, the deaths occurred in the Porluken Community in Forkpo District, a mining community hosting people from Monrovia and other counties.
Some local chiefs have thus been advocating for a temporary ban on mining to prevent the movement of infested strangers to mining communities. The Chairman of the Traditional Council of Gbarpolu County, Chief Koisee Gahn, has recommended the suspension of mining activities in the county for fear of the influx of migrant miners who may spread the ebola virus among the population. However, in Gbarpolu County, the Acting Mining Agent and Patrolman, Morris Nyeh, disagreed with calls for the closure of mining activities, promising preventive measures across the mines to stop the spread of the virus.
Additionally, there has been news about huge diamond discoveries. The US-funded Youssef Diamond Mining Company (YDMC) has reportedly discovered a kimberlite pipe located in Liberia’s Camp Alpha region of Cape Mount County. The discovery was reportedly made before the ebola outbreak, but could potentially fuel new conflicts over ownership and denial of ebola infections, etc.
Several local miners interviewed in Grand Cape Mount and Gbarpolu Counties have confirmed that overall, mining and the production of diamonds has been reduced in terms of scale, but hasn’t stopped. This can create new fears over leakages as illicit activities would likely increase because diamond law enforcement officers with the requisite expertise to implement the country’s internal control and diamond chain of custody process would be withdrawn from these diamond producing areas as part of the Government of Liberia’s ebola virus disease decongestion measures at all public institutions.
With frequent media allegations that Liberian police officers and soldiers are soliciting and extorting bribes from people wanting to leave quarantined areas, this could further exacerbate illicit diamond related activities and smuggling, because sending armed law enforcement officers who do not have the requisite expertise in enforcing the Kimberley process internal control procedures and diamond chain of custody processes might actually create incentives for them to get involved in illicit diamond trade.
Economic effects of the outbreak
The situation described above and the way the Ebola crisis is managed has several further profound impacts on the diamond economy in Liberia:
1.) Restrictions of free movement, trade and transport have been implemented, and more deaths among miners (as seen in Grand Kru County) could potentially trigger concerns to quarantine mining communities, reducing movement and trade in diamonds but also providing an incentive for illicit diamond trade;
2.) All schools, including academic and vocational skills training and learning institutions have been closed. For a post conflict society emerging from fifteen years of civil war with massive illiteracy and diminished human resource capacity this may have profound long-term impacts.
3.) Non-essential government staff have been sent home, as in early August, the Government of Liberia announced a compulsory leave for all non-essential staff as a measure to fight the spread of ebola. This compulsory leave has now been renewed for almost 90 days. According to the Government, this measure remains necessary to decongest government work places in order to contain the spread of the virus. Even though this measure was instituted to address the Ebola outbreak, it is now having profound impacts on productivity in the diamond sector, and especially on law enforcement and the implementation of internal control procedures in Liberia. As described above, cross border smuggling of diamonds between Liberia and neighboring countries may increase as a result.
4.) National budgetary constraints: Further reduction in mining revenues (from taxes, royalties, etc) would further damage the struggling economy in Liberia, increasing hardship among the population.
5.) The need for health care could lead to further withdrawals of government enforcement officers (police and immigration officers, Mining Agents, Regional Diamond Officers, etc), creating room for more illicit mining due to lack of monitoring. The lack of enforcement or oversight could thus lead to further revenue loss for the government.
6.) Ebola fears have triggered a force majeure situation. Some of the major investors in mining, like the steel giant ArcellorMittal, have already declared force majeure on a project that was set to triple its iron ore production in Liberia
7.) Widespread poverty when families and communities of miners can’t afford to buy basic consumer goods. Traditionally, miners are not farmers but have funded farming activities around them in the form of money to hire workforce.
Local efforts to remediate the impacts of ebola on mining communities
Some local organisations have been working to remediate the impacts of ebola in mining communities. For example, Green Advocates, a member of the Kimberley Process Civil society coalition, has been busy organizing and mobilizing local communities in Liberia to create awareness and response to the outbreak. These efforts led to the organization of the Citizens Alliance to Stop Ebola (CASE), a civic group and citizens-led initiative with the aim of ensuring “Zero Transmission (Infection)” of the ebola virus in Liberia and addressing its related causes and consequences including human rights, poverty, food security and governance. The Gold and Diamond workers Union of Liberia (GODIMWUL) has also been creating Ebola awareness among miners in two counties, Grand Cape Mount and Gbarpolu. A network of community based organizations, pro-poor informal sector institutions, the Natural Resource Women Platform and the newly emerging and independent labor/trade unions in Liberia, called the Alliance for Rural Democracy (ARD), works to address violations of economic, social and cultural rights, particularly of the rural poor, and in urban slums and squatter communities. ARD members have been documenting ebola outbreaks and suspected cases among community members including mining communities in several counties. ARD also distributed sanitation materials to mining community partners in all of Liberia’s fifteen counties. Lastly, the Natural Resources Women Platform (NRWP), a platform of rural women organized to increase the visibility of natural resource-dependent women in Liberia as a way of understanding their needs, problems and motivations as well as to enable them to express their own ideas and concerns about challenges impeding progress and empowerment, has launched a campaign to address the impact of the ebola outbreak on women’s livelihoods and health.
Recommendations and action points for the diamond industry and the international community
Based on the unfolding realities in Liberia, Green Advocates would like to propose renewed attention for the alluvial diamond sector in Liberia (and the Mano River basin) as follows:
1.) The need to address potential leakages in the diamond industry in the Mano River basin and to mitigate the flow of conflict diamonds due to weak enforcement of mining regulations during the ebola crisis.
2.) The need for increased support to local miners in order to increase ebola awareness among miners, saving the industry and its contributions; and
3.) The need to commission a report documenting the overall impacts of the ebola outbreak on miners, communities, the national economy as well as the KP regime, including the safest ways to do mining while containing the spread of the ebola virus.
Green Advocates and the local organisations mentioned above see the following immediate needs and options for support to local diamond mining communities and campaigners in the region:
1. Restoring health facilities and medical assistance
The health system has been overwhelmed by ebola. Medical support could include training for medical personnel, medical supplies and medicines, personnel, social workers, medical equipment for easy and quick testing as well as Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs) for both health workers and care givers, especially mothers and women who are the major care givers and are among the largest number of individuals who have died from the ebola.
2. Food security
There is an acute food crisis for the population due to the ebola outbreak. This is more pressing for family members who are quarantined for having been affected by the virus, especially family members living in poor rural communities who are now restricted from engaging in their subsistence farming activities. Urban communities, especially slums and squatter communities, are also under serious food security stress resulting from price increases, hoarding and travel restrictions which impacts on trade and commercial activities, reducing the supply of food items. Almost 90% of Liberia’s essential food is imported, with subsistence agriculture covering for the balance 10%.
3. Technical support
Technical support is needed in three key areas: a.) The completion and operationalization of an online hub for gathering and disseminating reliable information including regular updates and alerts on the ebola outbreak globally and locally; b.) Training in psycho-social support in order to provide psycho-social and trauma counseling for victims, their relatives and communities and provide the basis for post-Ebola community reconciliation and reintegration; and c.) Contact tracing using GIS/GPS technology to break the chains and ensure zero ebola transmission and infection
A global campaign is needed on two fronts: a.) to ensure that Liberia and the rest of the region are not isolated by neighboring countries and the rest of the world, and that trade and travel routes remain open, in order to ensure that food and medical supplies can reach the affected and threatened population; b.) to enhance concerted efforts both locally and internationally to ensure transparency and accountability for humanitarian emergency support and financial contributions by donors and partners and materials and equipment supplied to the Government and local partners;
5. Innovative Resource Mobilization and Fundraising initiatives
Given the nature of this campaign, the urgent need for resource mobilization and funding cannot be overemphasized. Innovative fundraising initiatives by local organisations should be supported. CASE-Liberia for example has collaborated with local musical artists from Guinea, Nigeria and Sierra Leone to produce “Stop Ebola Music” in various languages of the region in order to raise local and international awareness on Ebola and raise funds.
6. Ebola Education, awareness and outreach materials.
Supporting local organisations technically and financially to develop, produce, translate and disseminate awareness raising, outreach and education materials such as brochures, fliers, stickers, banners, posters, audio-visual material and training manuals across the country.
Alfred Lahai Gbabai Brownell Sr. is the Lead Campaigner and Founder of Green Advocates, Liberia’s first public interest environmental law and human rights organization. Alfred started Green Advocates to work with impoverished rural communities to ensure them a voice in decisions affecting their communities’ natural resources. Alfred has been one of the lead campaigners advocating for the reform of Liberia’s land, extractive and natural resources sectors since 2001. Before founding Green Advocates, Alfred represented and provided legal support to local communities affected by natural resource extraction operations such as rubber and palm oil plantations. Between 2006 and 2010, he campaigned for the recognition of the customary land and property rights of indigenous communities throughout Liberia.
He presently serves as a member representing local civil society on the Liberian VPA/Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade Steering Committee and the Liberian EITI Multi-stakeholder Steering Group. He is also a an active member of the Kimberly Process Civil Society Coalition, the Steering Coordination Committee of OECD, as well as the Steering Committee of the Extraterritorial Obligations (ETO) Consortium, a network of more than 80 human rights related Civil Society Organizations and academics.
Alfred holds a B.Sc in General Agriculture from the University of Liberia, a magna cum laude JD/LL.B degree in law from the Louis Arthur Grimes School of Law of the University of Liberia, and an LL.M in Environment and Energy Law from the Tulane Law School, New Orleans, USA.