Faraba Banta: The environmental tragedy of The Gambia

From ToxicLeaks

History of Gambian sand mining[edit | edit source]

The Gambia is a small coastal West African nation, bordered on three sides by Senegal and home to some 2 million citizens. For more than 22 years, it was ruled by capricious and cruel dictator Yahya Jammeh, who fled to Guinea in January 2017 following the disputed election of current President Adama Barrow. In the aftermath, Gambians seek to rebuild their nation and reconcile with their political history. That history involves repression of democratic freedoms, extrajudicial killings and Jammeh kleptocracy, but it also includes allegations of corruption under the dictator involving “secret” sand mining minerals, one of the country’s few extractive-industry resources. Sand mines deliver ilmenite, rutile and zircon to foreign markets – primarily China – and operated over the years through companies including a Gambian subsidiary of Carnegie and Astron, an Australian firm with a presence in neighboring Senegal.

The most glaring of the environmentally disastrous operations, though, belonged to Jammeh himself. He owned the Alhamdulilai Petroleum Mineral Company (APAM), and sent USD$7.75 million in minerals to China in the last two years of his rule alone. Following Jammeh’s flight to exile, the Gambian authorities are investigating the APAM licensure, the trail of revenues “lost” to Jammeh, and the social implications.

In December 2017, The Gambia’s Geological Department issued a decision to allow APAM to resume sand mining. The mining issue is met with fierce, and now fatal, opposition from environmental activists.

Fatal clashes at Faraba Banta[edit | edit source]

The village of Faraba Banta in southwestern The Gambia sits less than a mile from the river that gives the country its name; a few thousand people live there, and view mining as a threat to their rice farms. In this case, the Julakay Engineering and Construction Company owned by Ansumana Marenah uses the sand for construction purposes. Julakay and Marenah, a longtime financial backer of Jammeh and his former APRC ruling party, have a long history of criminal charges, violations, and corruption allegations. He has been questioned in the June 18, 2018, incident that claimed three activist lives in Faraba Banta.

Police fired live ammunition at protesters who had been active since at least May because the mining poses a threat to public health and their food security. Bakary Kujabi, Amadou Njang Jawo and Ismaila Bah died, while many others were injured. Those detained remained in custody, while the Barrow government promised a full investigation. The police chief resigned and mine activity was suspended.

Barrow described the incident as “the saddest day” of his administration, one that is meant to be a new beginning for The Gambia – yet the Faraba Banta clashes hearken to the climate clashes of the past.

Climate and environmental activism[edit | edit source]

The community leaders of Faraba Banta insist their village is peaceful, not given to political violence, and intent on protecting its vital interests. During similar protests in May, village leaders said they’ve met with the National Environment Agency and other stakeholders, and Julakay was told to stop mining until their practices complied with regulatory protections. Instead, the company continued operations. The villagers described palm trees leveled, the destruction of buildings and the demise of their football field. While the circumstances were unique to Faraba Banta, they represent the rise of climate activism in The Gambia, and a fight against sand mining that’s spanned the old government and new. The Gambia relies heavily on its tourism economy, and sand mining was outlawed in The Gambia in the mid-1990s in order to protect its fragile coastal ecosystems and rich biodiversity, which includes monkey and bird species.

Yet the mining continued, with Carnegie and Astron launching operations in 2003 until the permits were revoked in 2008 – not to protect the coast, but to benefit Jammeh. Those prior sand mining operations in Kartung, Batukunku and Sanyang were at the heart of a corruption scandal and investigation, but they also stand as the cause of increased coastal erosion and sea level rise, and village agricultural disruption.

In 2015, nearly four dozen protesters were arrested in Kartung as they demanded closure of the illegal mines. They were successful, but Jammeh’s APAM simply moved its operations. In February 2017, with the dictator gone from Banjul, sand mining continued at Sanyang. So did its costly climate impacts.

The Gambia’s climate challenge[edit | edit source]

Barrow has promised to make environment a priority, but The Gambia’s environmental activists say sand mining is just one of the nation’s problems. They include deforestation and trade in endangered species; illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing in Gambian waters; poor waste-management practices, and development in environmentally sensitive areas. In May 2018, Green Up Gambia activists stood against plans for a $50 million conference center – yet another Chinese-funded project – that threatens a 126-acre park, home to the endangered Temminck’s red colobus monkey and other species. The sand mining pollution, however, threatens Gambian agriculture, especially the rice staple crop. A United Nations Development Program report in 2013 found that The Gambia was growing only 4.6 percent of the rice it needs, while 70 percent of the imports could be grown locally if sustainable agricultural practices were implemented. According to a European Union-funded coastal management project, the country’s beaches are retreating at one to two meters per year, and a one-meter sea level rise puts all of Banjul at risk. Salination is placing further stress on Gambian agriculture, which supports 70 percent of the population, and only a third of the country is 10 meters or more above sea level.

The emerging freedoms under Barrow have created civic space for environmental action in ways that were not possible under Jammeh, but his sad legacy remains in the sand mines and in the draconian paramilitary response to those who protested them in Faraba Banta. Fortunately, Gambian climate activists say they are accelerating efforts that, much like the tides that threaten them, they hope will wash over those sands in time without leaving a trace of the political and ecological tragedy of the past.