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The New Scramble for Africa

In Sierra Leone, the Chinese have stepped into the void left by the British, plundering natural resources and threatening livelihoods

The Hill Station Club in Freetown was once the beating heart of Britain's colonial community. It was here that officials would unwind over gin and tonic and marvel at a panoramic view of the lush forest below. These days, the club stands in disrepair. The building has become just another relic of the British Empire. Today there is a new player in town: the People's Republic of China.

In Freetown, road signs from 2021 celebrate 50 years of friendship between China and Sierra Leone. Indeed, the smooth, wide road that runs past Hill Station Club is Chinese built. The country's influence is evident everywhere. Several of Freetown's housing estates have been constructed by Chinese companies, as have many of the city's restaurants, shops, and casinos. Mandarin is being taught in the classrooms of primary and secondary schools. In total, the Chinese have invested £2.3 billion into the nation since the early 1970s.

The country's experience with China is common to much of Africa. While the US and its allies have been busy enjoying the end of the Cold War, China has spent much of the past 30 years putting down roots across the continent.

Through its Belt and Road initiative, China has built infrastructure throughout Africa and established lucrative supply chains. Over the past two decades, China has invested £123.85 billion in sub-Saharan Africa, research suggests.

But this expansion into Africa has not always been positive. In Sierra Leone, deception, corruption and intimidation have all been deployed to advance and consolidate the Chinese agenda.

A joint investigation by the Telegraph and SourceMaterial explored how Chinese investors are plundering the natural resources of Sierra Leone and harming people's health while causing serious environmental damage in the process.

The investigation found plans to unlawfully mine granite inside Freetown's protected national forest and export the rock to the UK and other markets. There has been violence between park rangers and Sierra Leonean soldiers tasked with protecting Chinese quarries and alleged poisoning of water supplies as a result of Chinese-run quarries. A pristine beach is being bulldozed to construct a Chinese-funded fishing harbour and ‘marine park'.

China's investments in Sierra Leone have brought undeniable benefits, from new jobs and better infrastructure and educational programmes and for many, life has improved.

Over a cold beer in a hotel in Freetown, Xiao Peng brags that he has two mining sites inside the sprawling forest on the western peninsula. The park, which is being considered for UNESCO world heritage status, is home to excellent granite. He intends to expand his operations and build a large factory to polish the stone and ship it to the UK and beyond.
Reporters visited one of Peng's sites, which has laid waste to the surrounding land. The once thick, green hillside has been stripped and sliced open.

This operation shouldn't exist. The park was granted protected status in 2012, forbidding all forms of construction within its boundaries with a 1km buffer zone that runs around its edges. Yet thanks to poor regulation, there are three Chinese-run quarries unlawfully operating in the park which are pillaging the area's natural resources

Peng said that permits were easy to come by and that the Ministry of Lands was happy for him to work in the forest believing that the company's presence would be good for the economy

Aware of the profits at stake, the Sierra Leone government has deployed troops from military barracks on the peninsula to guard over the Chinese quarries.

Park rangers have had several run-ins with these troops. When rangers have queried the presence of the soldier they were told to ‘let the Chinese men do their work.'

The mining operations have set into motion a spiral of related events. Further illegal land grabbing has fuelled widespread deforestation. Since April 2021, nearly a quarter of forest cover has been lost according to the World Food Programme (WFP).

The consequences are proving deadly. Mudslides are killing people who settle on Freetown's hillsides every year. Officials have also warned that the rapid deforestation around the dam that provides water to Freetown, could drive run-offs into the reservoir, making it unusable.

Sierra Leone's beaches are also under threat. At Black Johnson beach a drilling machine edges across the golden sands with armed soldiers watching. They've been charged with protecting the Chinese workers to ensure that the beach is dug up in an orderly fashion.

It's a moment that Tommy Gbandewa and his wife, Jane Aspden, have feared since for the past years since the government accepted a £44 million grant from the Chinese to build a fishing harbour here.

The couple have lived alone in this paradise since 2009 but under the government's plans, 252 acres of beach and forest are to be covered in concrete and dedicated to industrial fishing and recycling of ‘marine waste'. The project doesn't have a valid licence from the Environmental Protection Agency but that hasn't stopped the diggers.

An environmental impact assessment looks suspicious. It was compiled by a consultancy firm called Black Eagle that has no digital footprint. Its address in Freetown doesn't exist. One of the authors of the report meanwhile works for the Ministry of Fisheries, which approved the project.

The report references Yuans, not Leones, the national currency, when detailing the resettlement money and funds to redress the damage to local ecosystems. It recommends building a ‘marine park' where orcas, bottlenoses dolphins and manatees ‘can be trained in captivity to provide social functions.'

Yet not everyone is opposed to the harbour. Stella, the leader of Black Johnson village, says the Chinese fishing port will help to bring development to the community, which has no running water, electricity, healthcare or schools.

There is fear that the port could further harm Sierra Leone's once buoyant fishing industry, which is already being undermined by aggressive Chinese trawlers dominating the nation's waters and decimating its fish stocks.

High tech Chinese trawlers can catch as much in a day as a local village fleet in a year, which means that the local industry is fighting for survival. Local fishermen say that there was a time when a group of them would regularly make around £80 from a day's worth of fishing. Now they struggle to make £8 between them.

China's influence is everywhere.

Aisha (8) is good at Mandarin and can sing Chinese opera songs. Her classroom walls show posters written in Mandarin and photos of children learning martial arts. Aisha is studying at Fourah Bay College Primary School and has been selected for one-on-one lessons. She'll soon take part in a national Mandarin competition, which will see the winner sent to Beijing for a year to continue their studies.

As part of its association with the Chinese state-linked Confucius Institute, the school runs Mandarin lessons every Tuesday morning. Headmistress Lucy Agbdena says the pupils are enjoying the experience.

But while the Sierra Leonean government has opened its arms wide to Chinese investments with a £1bn mega-bridge project between the town and the airport in the offing, there is significant weariness among the wider population.

In a survey from 2020, only 41 %of respondents said China's influence on their nation was positive, down from 55 % in 2015, and a lower share than in all but one of the 18 African countries covered by the study.

With the nation's natural resources and the livelihoods that depend on them increasingly under threat, anger is now being directed to the government of Sierra Leone.

Adapted from an article by © Samuel Lovett / Telegraph. For the full version, please get in touch.
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