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Project July 14, 2023

Sand Mining in Sierra Leone: Who’s Benefiting?

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Sand is one of the most precious and extracted natural resources with about 50 billion tones used per year, a United Nations report says. This natural resource drives economic development globally.

Waves break against white sand that beautifully decorates John Obey beach, a small village on the outskirts of Freetown, Sierra Leone. Even though this is a fishing community, most of the youths here have long abandoned fishing for sand mining, which guarantees them quicker income. Although there are no national data that indicate how much sand is mined and its impact, locals believe that the dodgy business is destroying the environment and endangering human lives.

People have lost homes due to erosion, because removing the sand means removing the buffers against sea level rise with effects on bodies being exposed. Beaches have been stripped bare and have become more dangerous for swimming and children playing.

John Obey had one of the largest creeks and natural fishponds along Freetown’s coast, which served as a breeding ground for juvenile fish. But sand mining has destroyed all of these. Fishers now have to travel miles at sea to get catch and that means that fish is now a luxury for a community that once had enough and some to spare.

In a country where one in three people is young, and 60 percent are structurally unemployed, thousands of youths see sand mining as a way of self-employment to address their desperate economic and livelihood challenges. But, the risky trade is stripping bare Sierra Leone’s 530-kilometer coastline, which is predominantly low-lying, dotted with beaches and islands.

By the same token, the industry faces little to no government scrutiny. There are scant regulations for protecting the environment, workers’ safety, and the livelihoods of affected communities.

Unemployed youths are desperate to mine, local chiefs are believed to be making fortunes taxing the sand, and construction companies need a steady supply to continue their work. The result is that sand is being extracted far more quickly than it can naturally be replaced, and that’s causing environmental damage, jeopardizing livelihoods and, in some cases, costing human lives.

In this project, journalist Abdul Samba Brima seeks to find out who’s benefiting and at what cost for the environment. Where does the sand go? What is the percentage of legal versus illegal, and why does illegal mining continue to happen?

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