Destroying Paradise to Make Concrete Blocks

TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY Fran Blandy Picture taken on April 29, 2012 show the view of Tokeh beach near Freetown. Bone-white sa
TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY Fran Blandy Picture taken on April 29, 2012 show the view of Tokeh beach near Freetown. Bone-white sand squeaks beneath your feet, the curved beach framed by lush forested hills, empty but for a handful of expats and intrepid tourists who have gotten wind of Sierra Leone's raw beauty. AFP PHOTO/ ISSOUF SANOGO (Photo credit should read ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/GettyImages)

Sierra Leone has been my home away from home for the last two years. In 2010 we launched our ambitious second Tribewanted project there, on the pristine beaches of John Obey, in the Freetown Peninsula; a village of 500 souls, mainly fishermen and petty traders. We arrived with the goal of promoting the local culture, protecting the environment, and creating an enterprise managed by the local community that could provide long term benefits to John Obey and its residents through eco-tourism. We have had many successes and some setbacks, we have built a sustainable community together with our visiting tribe-members and the local villagers, we have shared incredible experiences and driven each other crazy, just like any family. After two years, our ethos has endured, and we have begun measuring our impact to try to constantly improve our model of sustainability.

The beaches of Sierra Leone, with their bright green tropical forest cliffs overhanging nearby, are some of the most beautiful in West Africa, and provide a great opportunity to the country to invest in eco-tourism, bringing not only sustainable development but promoting a positive image of Sierra Leone to the world.

John Obey beach is a golden stretch of sand extending for miles untouched, with a pristine lagoon on one side and the Atlantic ocean on the other. In two years, we have seen how fragile our special sliver of paradise is. We have seen illegal fishing trawler boats deplete the fish stock and destroy the local fishermen's canoes and nets. We have seen the effects of deforestation caused by charcoal production and the ever-spreading concrete tentacles of Freetown. We have witnessed the damage it caused to the water cycle, with extreme droughts in the dry season and flooding in the rainy season.

Fortunately some great organizations are working on the front line to protect these patrimonies, orgs like WHH working to preserve the Peninsula's rainforests and EJF, exposing illegal fishing practices, which have had real successes in changing the trends of destruction.

But now, a new threat has emerged that risks destroying Sierra Leone's eco-tourism untapped opportunities for sustainable development: Sand Mining.

It began slowly on the beaches closer to Freetown, Hamilton and Lakka. Chinese and Senegalese companies in need of sand to make asphalt to build roads, or quarries mixing it with cement for concrete-block buildings surrounded by barbed wire, the new image of "success" and "development" in Freetown, very similar to a prison to the untrained eye.

Then suddenly, around February of 2012, the free-sand-for-all bonanza exploded. Without permits, hundreds of trucks attacked the beaches on a daily basis, hiring local boys as daily laborers to destroy their own communities. Hamilton beach and Lakka beach quickly disappeared. The landscape changed. The trees collapsed. The mangroves are gone; there is nothing to protect the coast now from rainstorms and flooding. And so the trucks, always more numerous in numbers, moved west, and quickly arrived to John Obey beach. Some communities were forward-thinking enough to turn down promises of quick riches and temporarily employment to their residents, others unfortunately less so.

Everyone gets a piece of the pie, the local community is bribed to allow their beaches to be ransacked, the district councilman in nearby Waterloo fill their pockets, and the authorities in Freetown turn a blind eye. Read more about it here.

For 140.000 LE per truckload of sand ($30) they are destroying paradise to make concrete blocks, asphalt and concrete. And we are left as the eyewitnesses of this destruction, sometimes losing our workers to the nearby quarry who will pay them double until the sand is all gone and they don't need them anymore.

We started a campaign online to stop sand mining in Sierra Leone. Together with WHH and Shine On Sierra Leone, we invested in a public awareness campaign domestically through radio stations and newspapers, to shed light on the issue. An online petition was born out of it. We are pulling together all the stakeholders, the local landowners and the community leaders, working together on more goodwill projects that can provide alternatively livelihood to the local youth and prevent them from mining the beach.

What else can be done? What alternatives are there?

From our small experience we have seen how it is possible to build homes using local materials instead of concrete. We use local earth and clay for our earth-domes, bamboo and local wood for our bungalows.

Most importantly, the government could step in and regulate the sand mining industry, so that sand is mined sustainably while the roads still get built.

Mr. President, invest in eco-tourism instead of concrete, follow the example of Costa Rica.

We are at a tipping point. Half of John Obey beach is already gone, the palm trees have already started to collapse. Soon the beach will be gone altogether and the opportunity to create a sustainable community through eco-tourism, to promote the local culture, to protect the environment and tell a positive story about Sierra Leone will be gone.

Sierra Leone is a small country. Sand mining in Sierra Leone is a local problem. But it's a microcosm of a global illness. Instead of protecting our most beautiful and pristine environments and cultures, we trick them to want to be like us, we pillage them, and then when the dream turns to nightmare, we send them aid. We haven't yet learned what living in harmony means.
twitter: @filippobozotti
twitter: @tribewanted