The Ebola epidemic and small-scale mining in Kono District, Sierra Leone

By Roy Maconachie

Since the formal declaration of peace in 2002, Sierra Leone has travelled far in overcoming the devastating impacts of a decade of civil war during the 1990s. In recent years, the country has experienced dramatic economic growth on the back of an extractive industry-led development trajectory. World Bank estimates suggest that real GDP growth increased 13 percent in 2013, 15 percent in 2012 and 6 percent in 2011, due largely to the commencement of iron ore production. My own research on artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) – low-tech, labour intensive mineral extraction and processing – suggests that the informal mining sector has also expanded rapidly, becoming the country’s most important rural non-farm activity and generating disposable income for hundreds of thousands of families in an employment-constrained economy. The current Ebola epidemic that has gripped the country is threatening to de-rail much of the progress that has been made over the last decade.

It goes without saying that the Ebola crisis has been devastating in terms of the loss of life that has resulted, but it is also having far reaching knock-on effects for rural livelihood activities, and more specifically the ASM economy. Reports suggest that the outbreak of the virus began at the funeral of a traditional healer in Koidu, a diamond mining town in Kono District where I have been carrying out research for over a decade. While I have not been able to travel to Sierra Leone to carry out fieldwork over the past summer, I have had regular email contact with colleagues in Kono District, who describe life as a “living hell”. The disastrous livelihood impacts of the virus are well summarised by a Sierra Leonean research colleague with whom I have worked for many years:

“The Ebola outbreak is not only claiming the lives of Sierra Leoneans but has halted and reversed the few successes slowly achieved in the country’s post-conflict development drive. Its’ so hard for the poor. The exchange rate has risen with corresponding increase on commodities, especially food items. How difficult it is to live in an environment/country like Sierra Leone where its citizens are exposed to all forms of dangers: first we experienced a brutal civil war now we are faced with a deadly virus – Ebola. God have mercy on us.”

ASM is today Sierra Leone’s second largest employer after agriculture, is carried out in over 80 chiefdoms and provides a livelihood for at an estimated 200,000-300,000 individuals and their families. It is also an activity that is characterised by a high degree of mobility, and it often takes place in confined spaces where there is poor hygiene. While the spread of Ebola has forced many ASM operators to abandon mining altogether, tight border controls implemented to halt the spread of disease have also made activities within the ASM sector increasingly difficult.

Everyday life in rural Sierra Leone is a challenge at the best of times, with many people in Kono District experiencing some of the worst poverty in the country. This summer I have spent a lot of time thinking about my friends and colleagues in Kono. I have also had the opportunity to reflect on how devastating the virus must be for the poor men and women in my research areas who are dependent on small-scale mining to make ends meet. The short film below provides an overview of the work I have been doing with small-scale miners in recent years, highlighting the importance of ASM for poverty alleviation and livelihood upliftment. Let us all hope that increasing international efforts to contain the Ebola epidemic will soon have an impact, and put an end to this looming humanitarian disaster.


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