Sierra Leone, which was devastated by wars, rebuilds and gives up its only protection against rising sea levels
A half dozen dump trucks roll on the golden sands at this narrow, long beach every day at dawn.
Numerous young muscular men, armed with shovels, emerge from the village to begin work. They rush to load sand into their trucks.
It takes the laborers — known as sand miners — about half an hour to fill a truck. They then rest their shovels as the sand is left to dry on a hillside.
Every truck is returned to the beach again and again.
“Get busy working!” one of the bosses shouts over the roar of the Atlantic as it batters the shoreline.
Sierra Leone’s vast beaches are enabling a construction boom. After a civil war that ravaged large parts of the country in a bloody civil war, roads are being paved, extended, and houses, hotels, and restaurants seem to be appearing everywhere, two decades later.
None of it would be possible without sand, a raw ingredient of modern civilization and one of the world’s most important commodities.
However, the unrestrained extraction of sand comes at a high price: coastal erosion leaves the country particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels due to climate change.
“The sand has been a buffer,” said Papanie Bai-Sesay, biodiversity officer at the nonprofit Conservation Society of Sierra Leone. “But we are destroying our first line of defense. If we don’t stop, it will be a disaster for millions.”
John Obey Beach slowly disappears as dump trucks move sand away. The tides push further inland, pushing sand farther away, toppling beach huts, destroying them, and creating a yawning rock of soil where once there was dry, flat land.
Removing sand can alter the wave patterns that transport sand along coast. John Obey Beach’s operation also causes damage in Bureh, just a few miles to the south.
Although sand mining was illegal for many years, several buildings and hotels that were half-built have been destroyed by the sea.
Even the surfing in Bureh — one of the most renowned spots in Africa — has suffered, said John Small, a 27-year-old instructor, pointing out the huge rocks that have been exposed as the coastline erodes.
“Ten years ago, you couldn’t see any of them,” he said. “It’s happened so quickly.”
Last year, the ocean flooded Bureh’s waterfront cemetery, washing away several graves. “I saw the bodies,” Small said. “It’s not something you should ever see.”
Christine Cooper, who owns a small hotel on Bureh’s prime beachfront, has been fortifying sea walls in hopes they will offer some protection from the encroaching tides.
“I’ve been piling truckloads of stones in front of them since last year,” she said. “But they will probably collapse in the near future because the sea is constantly rising even more.”
Officials from the government defend sand mining as a source of employment and necessary step towards rebuilding after more that a decade of wars that claimed thousands of lives and left the country desperate poor.
The population has nearly doubled since the war ended in 2002, with more than half of the country’s nearly 8 million citizens living in poverty.
Sierra Leone boasts 300 miles of sandy beaches that allow it to be self-sufficient in sand. Beach sand has a high demand, and is not like desert sand.
“Sand is a great thing,” said Kasho Cole, chairman of the Western Area Rural District Council, which governs most of Sierra Leone’s popular beaches. “We use it to build bridges, roads and houses. It’s important for the livelihoods of people.”
Below the Local Government ActIn 2004, the law, which was adopted by the Parliament, provided that regulation of sand-mining operations was transferred to the local authorities as part of a post civil war effort to ensure communities get the most out of their local resources.
The trucks are owned by local governments. Officials claim that only locals have the right to mine the sand. Developers or anyone else who is interested in it can then purchase it. Proceeds go to the council to fund various community projects.
Cole stated that his council is sensitive about environmental concerns and has banned sand mining from certain beaches due to the destruction it has caused.
However, he also admitted that there haven’t been any environmental impact assessments done in his district. He did not know how much Sand was being mined.
He stated that there is more work needed to stop sand-mining in areas where it is illegal.
“They do it at night,” he said. “It’s ongoing and we are doing our best to stop it.”
Sand mining opponents claim that the industry is susceptible to corruption.
“The trucks are owned by politicians and they, too, want the money,” said Cooper, who has tried and failed to stop the mining at John Obey Beach.
Paul Lamin, a senior official at the government Environment Protection Agency, said that local councils were using sand to raise revenue on an “ad hoc” basis.
“There’s no accountability or control,” he said. “There aren’t receipts for these transactions.”
Critics argue that indiscriminate mineral mining is also limiting another economic opportunity, the revival of tourism. Before the war, Sierra Leone’s beaches were popular with adventurous Europeans.
“We have some of the best beaches in Africa and the world,” said Fatmata Abe-Osagie, minister of tourism. “But if something is not done about the mining, these beaches will disappear.”
Alusine Timbo is the deputy director of mines for the National Minerals Agency. He stated that sand should come under its jurisdiction. Lamin has recently introduced a bill to increase the requirements for sand mining permits.
As sea levels rise, the problem will only get worse. Sierra Leone is especially vulnerable. 55% of its inhabitants live near the coast.
A glimpse into the future may be found at the seafront of Lakka.
The ban on sand mining was passed too late. The beach is nothing more than a thin strip of sand, lined with rows of crumbling structures, many of which are now abandoned.
Paul Bangura, a father of nine at 49, stated that two trees fell onto his restaurant by coastal erosion in August 2019, destroying the roof and causing a wall to be destroyed. He couldn’t help but shut down his restaurant for a month to take out a $6,000. loan.
“I’m still fixing the damage,” he said. “If it wasn’t for support from friends, the business would have gone under. This is my future, my life. But the waves are coming closer every day.”
Sand miners who work night shifts to evade authorities only make matters worse. Bangura claims he has information about the suspects, but reports to police have not had any effect.
The sand miners at John Obey Beach continue to load the trucks hourly until the sun sets.
After a long day of hard work, fatigued men sit down on the trunks to enjoy a snack of fried plantains and rest their tired bodies.
“I don’t want to be here,” said Ousman Korgbo, a 19-year-old miner who earned $5 for the day. “I wish I could go to university and get a real job, but there’s no other choice for me.”
He would be back in morning.
Peter Yeung is a very special correspondent.