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War-torn Sierra Leone is rebuilding, sacrificing its only defense against sea-level rise

Every day at sunrise, about half a dozen snarling dump trucks roll onto the golden sands of this long and narrow beach.

Crowds of muscular young men with shovels emerge from the nearby village to begin their work, angrily hurling sand into the trucks.

The workers – known as sand miners – take about half an hour to fill a truck. They then throw away their shovels and rest while the sand is deposited on a nearby hill, where it dries and is later sold to make concrete and glass.

Each truck returns to the beach to be refilled again and again.

“Get busy with work!” yells one of the bosses over the sound of the Atlantic Ocean pounding against the shore.

The wide beaches of Sierra Leone enable a construction boom. Two decades after a brutal civil war devastated much of the country, streets are being paved and widened while homes, hotels and restaurants seem to be popping up everywhere.

A beach seen from above.

An aerial view of sand miners shoveling sand into trucks at John Obey Beach in Sierra Leone.

(Peter Yeung for The Times)

None of this would be possible without sand, a raw material of modern civilization and one of the most important raw materials in the world.

But the limitless extraction of sand comes at a high price: coastal erosion, which makes the country particularly vulnerable to sea-level rise caused by climate change.

“The sand was a buffer,” said Papanie Bai-Sesay, the nonprofit’s biodiversity officer Conservation Society of Sierra Leone. “But we’re destroying our first line of defense. If we don’t stop, it will be a disaster for millions.”

John Obey Beach is slowly disappearing as dump trucks haul sand away and the tide pushes further inland, toppling trees, destroying beach huts and gouging a gaping cliff of earth where once was dry flat land.

Sand removal is changing the wave patterns that transport sand along the coast, so the operation at John Obey Beach is also causing damage a few miles south in the surf town of Bureh.

A truck whose bed is filled with sand.

John Obey Beach is slowly disappearing as dump trucks haul sand away and the tide pushes further inland, toppling trees, destroying beach huts and gouging a gaping cliff of earth where once was dry flat land.

(Peter Yeung / For the Time)

Sand mining has long been illegal there, but several homes and unfinished hotels have collapsed into the advancing sea.

Even surfing in Bureh – one of the most famous spots in Africa – has suffered, said John Small, a 27-year-old surf instructor, pointing to the huge rocks exposed by coastal erosion.

“Ten years ago you couldn’t see them,” he said. “It happened so quickly.”

Last year, the sea 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 beach, has fortified seawalls in the hope they will provide some protection from the encroaching tides.

“For the past year, I’ve been piling truckloads of rocks in front of them,” she said. “But they will probably collapse in the near future because the sea keeps rising more and more.”

Government officials are defending sand mining as an important source of jobs and a necessary step in rebuilding after more than a decade of war that has claimed tens of thousands of lives and left the country desperately poor.

The population has nearly doubled since the end of the war in 2002, with more than half of the country’s nearly 8 million people living in poverty.

But with 300 miles of beaches, Sierra Leone can claim sand self-sufficiency. Unlike desert sand, which is too fine to use in concrete, beach sand is in high demand around the world.

“Sand is a great thing,” said Kasho Cole, chairman of the Western Area Rural District Council, which manages most of Sierra Leone’s popular beaches. “We use it to build bridges, roads and houses. It’s important to people’s livelihoods.”

erosion near shore

Limitless mining of sand comes at a high price: coastal erosion, which makes the country particularly vulnerable to sea-level rise caused by climate change.

(Peter Yeung / For the Time)

Under the Local Government Actenacted in 2004, the central government handed regulation of sand quarrying to local councils as part of a post-civil war effort to help communities benefit from local resources.

The councils operate the trucks. Officials say only locals are allowed to mine sand, which is then sold to developers or other interested parties, with the proceeds going to the council to spend on various community projects.

Cole said his council is sensitive to environmental concerns, having banned sand quarrying on certain beaches because of the havoc it has already wreaked.

At the same time, he admitted that no environmental impact assessments had been carried out anywhere in his county and that he did not know how much sand was extracted there.

He also said more needs to be done to stop sand quarrying in places where it is illegal.

“They do this at night,” he said. “It’s going on and we’re doing our best to stop it.”

Opponents of sand mining say the industry is vulnerable to corruption.

“The trucks belong to politicians and they want the money too,” said Cooper, who has tried but failed to stop mining at John Obey Beach.

Paul Lamin, a senior official with the government’s Environmental Protection Agency, said local governments use sand to generate revenue on an “ad hoc” basis.

“There is no accountability or control,” he said. “There are no receipts for these transactions.”

Critics also say indiscriminate mining is sacrificing another economic opportunity: reviving 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 Tourism Minister Fatmata Abe-Osagie. “But if nothing is done about mining, these beaches will disappear.”

Alusine Timbo, deputy mine director at the National Minerals Agency, said sand should be brought under his jurisdiction. Lamin recently introduced a bill in Parliament that would tighten requirements for sand mining permits.

The problem is only likely to get worse as sea levels rise. Sierra Leone is particularly vulnerable, with 55% of the population live near the coast.

The seafront promenade in the town of Lakka may offer a glimpse of the future.

Sand mining is now illegal there, but the ban came too late. The beach is little more than a thin wedge of sand lined with rows of crumbling buildings, many of which are now abandoned.

Paul Bangura, a 49-year-old father of nine, said coastal erosion caused two trees to fall on his restaurant in August 2019, smashing in the roof and demolishing a wall. He had no choice but to close for a month and take out a $6,000 loan.

“I’m still fixing the damage,” he said. “Without the support of friends, the business would have gone broke. This is my life, my future. But the waves are getting closer every day.”

The situation is made worse by sand miners working nights to evade authorities. Bangura says he knows those involved, but his reports to the police have had no effect.

Back at John Obey Beach, the sand miners continue to fill the trucks hour after hour until the orange sun finally sets.

It takes workers about half an hour to fill a truck. Then they throw away their shovels and rest.

The workers – known as sand miners – take about half an hour to fill a truck. They then throw away their shovels and rest while the sand is deposited on a nearby hill, where it dries and is later sold to make concrete and glass.

(Peter Yeung / For the Time)

Exhausted from 10 hours of work, several men fall onto the trunks of uprooted trees and eat fried plantains.

“I don’t want to be here,” said Ousman Korgbo, a 19-year-old miner who made $5 a day. “I wish I could go to university and get a real job, but I have no choice.”

He would be back in the morning.

Peter Yeung is a special correspondent.

https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2022-02-07/a-war-torn-nation-rebuilds-stripping-away-its-only-protection-against-sea-level-rise War-torn Sierra Leone is rebuilding, sacrificing its only defense against sea-level rise

Tom Vazquez

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