April 1, 2015 By Jariatu S. Bangura
Land owning families of a concessional diamond land in Tongo Fields, Lower Bambara Chiefdom, Kenema district, eastern Sierra Leone, have disclosed their intention to demonstrate against Octea Mining Company, which they accused of failing to pay them surface rent for 2014 and 2015.
They claim the mining company has deliberately refused to honour their obligation as stipulated in a mining agreement that was ratified by Parliament in 2012.
Investigation by this press revealed that Octea Mining has not paid surface rent for almost two consecutive years.
In an exclusive interview with Concord Times, spokesman for the landowning families, Chief Minkailu Alpha Ngomeh, said they are in a state of confusion as to whether Octea Mining is ready to commence operation because since they signed an exploration agreement with government, they are yet to do any work on the land.
“In 2011, the company paid surface rents to the tune of US$105,000 for two years (2012 and 2013), and since then nothing has been paid to landowners as surface rents or other developmental supports as indicated in the agreement,” said Chief Ngomeh.
He said Octea officials had made several promises to land owning families but to no avail. “Sometimes they lie to us that the money for our surface rent is being processed and would soon be transferred to the account of our Members of Parliament, Hon. Dr. Bernadette Lahai and Hon. Francis Konuwa, ” he further alleged.
The chief also told this reporter that the mining company promised to convene a meeting with them last December to discuss a developmental agreement, but the meeting is still to be held, adding that they are currently in dilemma and that land owning families have planned a meeting with senior chiefdom stakeholders to decide on what action they would take.
“We want our surface rents and we want to know when the company will start operation,” he demanded.
He maintained that the Octea Mining Company’s occupation of their lucrative land is mere seizure and that if that state of affairs continues they would demonstrate against the company.
“We will inform the police about our peaceful protest,” he noted, adding that: “We want the government to remove the company because their exploration period has overdue”.
He said economic activities have come to a halt in the chiefdom and that many residents barely survive as “many businesses have been closed, no employment, most of those who used to survive on artisanal mining on the leased land are no longer earning enough to provide for their families”.
Paramount Chief Alimamy Moiwa Farma V of Lower Bambara Chiefdom also told this reporter that the mining exploration period is long being overdue, thus urging the company to state whether they would continue operating in the chiefdom.
He disclosed that in 2005 the company entered his chiefdom and demonstrated total disregard for his traditional office as custodian of the land. The traditional ruler said Octea’s unwarranted action led to serious dispute, and according to him, the matter was taken to the late former President, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, before it was amicably resolved.
He said they are baffled over the manner in which the company is treating the concessional agreement, and that if they continue in that regard, serious action would be taken against company officials.
President of OCTEA Mining Company, Ibrahim Sorie Kamara, told this reporter that they started exploration in 2005 and mining license was given to the company in 2012. “Our mining license has a 25 years life span,” he disclosed, and further informed that “they are still interested in the concessional area”.
He said the Tongoma Project is a very large operation of about 124.82 square kilometers, noting that the project is capital intensive and requires adequate studies.
He said they are highly committed to the project as Octea has already spent a million dollars on obtaining a mining license, although the mining operation still requires appropriate mining methods and technologies.
“We invited some experts to come and conduct some studies but their arrival coincided with the Ebola outbreak,” he said.
However, Kamara informed that they acknowledged the plight of the people as investors, and that they are considering paying surface rent following agreeing upon a lease agreement.
“Before we pay now let there be a surface rent agreement; the draft is ready and is with our lawyer,” he stated. “We will hold a meeting with stakeholders and collectively agree for the surface rent to be paid before the agreement is signed.”
Kamara confirmed that they would soon convene a meeting with community stakeholders and decide on when to make the payment, noting that for other community projects, they are required by the agreement to keep one hundred thousand dollars (US$100,000) aside for the training of indigenes.
“We have already spent about US$10 million on the Tongoma project and we are still committed to it,” he said.
Member of Parliament for Constituency 14, Hon. Francis Konuwa, confirmed that Octea has not paid surface rent to land owning families and that it is a serious concern, although the manner in which the mining operation is being carried out is more worrisome.
“The company’s operation is moving at a slow pace and this is a serious concern; our youths need job, this is very unfair,” the MP lamented.
According to him, if the company is serious about mining in the area they should have come up with a mining plan indicating their operational activities, because according to the mining agreement, the community could benefit from lots of opportunities.
He said the community is not only concerned about surface rent but other benefits that are stipulated in the agreement.
“We want to know whether the mining is going to start, our people are becoming inpatient,” he maintained. “I have contacted my people to remain calm even though they are running out of patience.”
However, Hon. Konuwa commended the mining company for undertaking some road construction projects in the Lower Bambara Chiefdom, but pleaded that the concerns of his people should be addressed with immediate effect.