Thursday, February 09, 2006


Hunting Gold

30 Jan 06

Last week, Monday, we set out for Dean’s Town, which was known to be home to a large number of large gold mines over the past couple of decades. Dean’s town is in the far east section of our AOR, and nearly three hours drive, 120km from the team site. We set off early in the morning, and one hour away, we came across the destroyed bridge shown below. We got out, spent twenty minutes figuring what had happened, and checking up on the situation. After crossing the temporary bridge, we were back on our way, turning East, crossing through Money Sweet-ta and a dozen similar villages. We hit another road and head southwest along the old railway for about twenty minutes before reaching another artery and cross what remains of the rails. Through another two villages, at the second one we stop to confirm directions. In a town with twenty or more houses, there is one old man in the ghost town. We call him to confirm the village name, and the fifty year old springs up with the spryness of an eight year old, bounds across the hundred yards that separate us to welcome his visitors. His enthusiasm for any sort of human companionship made me feel bad for only wanting to get a town name and jump back into the car. He wants to know my name, and welcome us in. I shake his hand, exchanging the traditional Liberian greeting, reversing the handshake, loosening and half releasing until you are just holding his four fingertips and then snapping our middle fingers as we pull our hands away. It feels odd, engaging in what I consider a third grade secret handshake with every Liberian and respectable elder.

I pile back in to the Nissan Patrol, and ten kilometers later we roll into a weird oasis. We’ve reached an apparent gold company mining camp, several large concrete buildings, electrical wires running between them, an HF radio antenna and air conditioners hanging out of the windows. But what really caught our attention was a shining yellow Caterpillar tractor.

The saddest thing you note around here is any means for carrying burdens except for human beings. In Monrovia, just up from the Gabriel Tucker Bridge, always you pass two kids probably not more than ten, pulling a cart, by hand, of a hundred gallons of water up the steep hillside to sell downtown. On Yesterday’s patrol, between villages we passed a column of over twenty kids, each carrying one piece of corrugated aluminum sheeting, four feet by eight feet. The train was nearly a half mile long, carrying a load five miles or more, for what amounts to enough roofing for one small house. One thing this country could use is a simple beast of burden, something other than dozens of children.

So for us to see a tractor, especially one in working shape, is a rare order. We get out of the truck and ask for the manager. Apparently there is one man working there. A geologist, trained in the states, is collecting samples in preparation for opening up some mechanical mining in the area after the embargo is lifted. We sit down with him for nearly an hour, asking about the region, who is mining there, etc. He claims that although his company has exclusive rights to the area, there is plenty of mining done by the people in town, half a kilometer up the road. The company doesn’t want to kick everyone off their land, as they have to work around there. We thank him for his time and head into Dean’s town.

At the edge of the village, we pick up the local pastor, and he helps us find the Town Chief, Mining Inspector and the Justice of the Peace. The mines draw plenty of ex-combatants for work, and they quickly earn a little money, get drunk and cause trouble. The Justice of the Peace complains to us quite loudly about how there is no order in the town and no respect for the law. There is frequent fighting, but no weapons, and no organized gangs. There is no Liberian National Police (LNP) presence, and the UN Peacekeeping troops only do infrequent patrols.

The Mining Inspector is young, maybe early twenties, and he assures us that there is no illegal mining in the area. There are about seven legal claims, of which two are active, and of course, there’s no alluvial mining at all. His talk of two mines confirms the claim by the company employee of two primary leads being followed. We pile back into the car with the Mining Inspector, and head out of town, to check out the mines. We pass several open areas, were large dirt holes show evidence of human mining activity, but they all look somewhat abandoned. We pull up to the one mine that is working today, and we meet the miner and some of his workers lounging next to the mine.

The mine itself is incredible, about a forty foot hole in the ground, with about a dozen workers in it, digging it by hand. The thick heavy clay of the Liberian soil is damp, and some water collects in the bottom of the mine. A number of workers are toiling away with hand shovels, taking some dirt, and tossing it up, ten feet to the next terrace as the soil works it’s way up. The bottom of the mine will quickly fill with water, so a pump is used to dry it out, and siphon the water into small pools on the side that’s used to process the ore and separate the gold.

We move over to one of the the pools, where three women are standing in knee deep water, taking the dirt, and panning it in large bowls. They remove the aggregate, and look for some small flakes of gold. The washed soil is then piled next to a still, which is a ten foot long run of wood. The mine workers place a wheelbarrow basket with large holes in it at the top of the still, and put small woolen rugs along the length of still. Two additional workers stand at the top, one shoveling dirt into the top, and the other throwing water over it, periodically stopping to check for flakes of gold. In the half hour we are there, the women find some, as do the men at the still.

The mine workers operate in teams of about five to fifteen, with one boss man directing the work. Each team operates the full length of the process, first pulling the dirt out of the mine and then washing it to look for the gold. When they get lucky, a team will clear about one gram of gold in one day. The miner pays the boss man 500 Liberian dollars (or about $9 US) for each ounce, but then takes back 200 LD because he feeds all the workers. So for one day of extremely physical labor, the mine workers are luck to have $5 US to split between the team, with the boss man deciding how much each person’s share is at the end of the week. It will average to a little more than fifty cents a day, depending on the type of labour you do. One worker I interrogate admits to making about 1500 LD, or about $27 US in the past month. The miner tells us there are about forty people working at his mine, and we see three teams in action, one digging, and two washing their dirt. [See photos below]

We spend a while talking and joking with the mine workers. All of them are ex-combatants, and they inform us that they are simply re-processing the same mine that the LURD had exploited during the war. These mines were a key source of financing for the rebels, but they had dug through it very quickly, and were not very through. The mine workers inform us that one of their number had been a general for Charles Taylor [see photo of him with Shahab below]. He is currently 21, and had joined the rebels when he was eleven, and had been elevated to the rank of general by thirteen. The shy figure looked away, obviously annoyed for being called out. When Shahab asked him how he became a general so quickly, the other mine workers shouted “because he was good at killing” while everyone else enjoyed the laugh.

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