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Illegal Miners Mine Sand in Historic Beach Graveyard

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Top: Jatoken Mining Inc. is one of several mining companies that have been awarded licenses to mine zircon sand in Liberia. Drone photograph by Derick Snyder

By Emmanuel Sherman and Tenneh Kieta 

BUCHANAN, Grand Bassa County – Large holes and sand piles lie on the beachfront, not too far from the graves of some of the forefathers of Liberia, including Stephen Allan Benson, Liberia’s second president.  Water seeps into the pits as the sunray hardens the sand piles like termite mounds.

Be not deceived for they are not a sign of renovation works on the final resting place of the pioneers. They are evidence of an illegal mining operation that once threatened the existence of this historic graveyard and its quiet, seaside neighborhood.

Last August, Jatoken Mining Incorporated, a majority-Chinese-owned company, arrived in Upper Buchanan with its machines. They began mining zircon sand, a mineral used in the ceramics and electronics industries. Locals call it black sand.

Locals were shocked. The representative of the Ministry of Mines and Energy, and local authority had not informed them about Jatoken’s activities. Moreover, it is a violation to mine in a graveyard.

“When they [first] came they said they wanted to do prospecting on the beach because we have black sand,” recalled Joe Russell, the town chief of the Upper Buchanan community. “When they came again, they did not consult me and began digging.”

News of the operation claimed the attention of Dr. Laurence Bropleh, then a presidential advisor, who hails from that area. Bropleh helped stop Jatoken’s mineworkers. “They can seek other places to go,” Bropleh told The DayLight. “We are protecting the serenity and historicity of our place.”

The police and Emmanuel O. Sherman (no relation to the reporter), then the Deputy Minister for Operations at the Ministry of Mines, investigated the matter. A Chinese woman only identified as Caroline presented a mining license, according to Bropleh and other residents.

Sherman reviewed the document and told her it was fake, according to Bropleh, Eddie Williams, a representative of the Office of the Superintendent of Grand Bassa County, and other people. The police then drove the miners away.

The DayLight was not able to obtain a copy of the license in question. However, the newspaper photographed large mining pits, sand piles and earthmovers impressions Jatoken left behind, scarring Upper Buchanan’s pristine, grassy seafront.

Jatoken has never obtained a license to operate in Grand Bassa County, records of the Ministry of Mines show. All of its licenses are for Montserrado and Sinoe, according to the records.

The ministry’s records suggest that none of Jatoken’s zircon licenses has been surrendered, canceled, suspended, or placed under review as of February 3, 2024. An online repository run by the ministry tracks the statuses of licenses. The fact there is no entry in the system for Jatoken in Bassa proves the one Jatoken presented was fake.

When contacted, Sherman declined The DayLight an interview, forwarding the newspaper to Emmanuel Swen, then Assistant Minister for Mines. Swen said he did not have any idea about the issue and could not speak on it.

By law, the Ministry of Mines should have pressed charges against Jatoken. Forging a mining license is an offense under the Minerals and Mining Law of Liberia. Violators face between a US$1,000 and US$2,000 fine or a prison term of two to three months. However, the ministry rarely prosecutes anyone for a mining violation. The DayLight reported last year that Jatoken was ineligible to do business in Liberia due to its illegal papers but authorities took no action. Other illegal activities in River Cess, Montserrado and Nimba last year—one involving Minister of Justice-designate Cooper Kruah—suffered the same fate.

Official records show that Jatoken is one of the companies awarded zircon licenses across the country. That violates a 2012 moratorium on beach sand mining imposed to ease coastal erosion countrywide, with Buchanan the epicenter. The city has lost entire communities to violent waves scientists say are an impact of climate change. So far, Upper Buchanan has been spared and residents hope it stays that way.

“We are protecting Upper Buchanan. We are protecting Liberia,” Bropleh said.

 “My house may go. I may be able to afford to build another house but what about the rest [of the people] and all the rich history?” He added.

Illegal company

The DayLight’s initial investigation on Jatoken found it amended its article of incorporation twice but failed to register the changes with the Liberia Business Registry. To prevent money laundering, terrorism financing and other crimes, the Business Association Law requires companies to register all changes in their legal documents.

Impact of sea erosion, Gbalaweh town, Kokowein, Buchanan, Grand Bassa The Daylight/Emmanuel Sherman

The investigation also found that Jatoken may have amended its article of incorporation without the consent of one of its owners, Tibelrosa Tarponweh, the former Margibi lawmaker.

Tarponweh and Jianjun Haung, a Chinese national, established the company in 2014, named after Tarponweh’s hometown in River Gee. The former Margibi lawmaker has 15 percent of the company’s shares and 85 percent of shares for the Jianjun, according to Jatoken’s article of incorporation with the business registry.

On July 3, 2019, Jatoken illegally amended its legal documents and transferred Tarponweh shares to another person. It did another unlawful amendment on September 29, 2021, its tax history shows.

But the former lawmaker said that he was unaware of those amendments. Tarponweh claimed that his signature on the company’s resolution to remove him as a shareholder was forged.

Swen did not dismiss Tarponweh’s accusation at the time. He promised to launch an investigation once Tarponweh filed a complaint with the ministry, though The DayLight provided evidence of the Jatoken’s disqualification.  

In March last year, Tarponweh said he would lodge a complaint with the ministry and sue Jatoken for alleged forgery. He repeated that again in a phone interview with The DayLight last week.  “Now that the elections are over I am ready to pursue my case,” Tarponweh said. 

Effort to contact the Chinese woman only identified as Caroline, who is Jatoken’s manager, proved futile. She evaded several attempts by The DayLight for an interview, and did not respond to WhatsApp messages and a number of phone calls. It was The DayLight’s second failed attempt in a year to speak to a representative of Jatoken over a report on the company’s illegal activities.

Funding for this story was provided by the United States Embassy in Monrovia. The DayLight maintained editorial independence the story’s content.