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Kono District, Sierra Leone , December 2010
In economics, an externality is a cost or benefit resulting from an activity or transaction that affects others persons who were not decision makers. The economy is based on the exploitation of natural and human resources. Economic growth is sustainable only when it utilises regenerable resources and when the rate of resource utilisation is slower than the rate of regeneration of resources. When economic growth destroys non-regenerable resources and when it exploits resources faster than the capacity of resources to re-generate, it becomes unsustainable. When there is over-exploitation of land and people, then after a sudden brief period of growth, stagnation and decadence inevitably follow. Economists also tell us that only social, environmental and financial equilibria can lead to sustainable development. But often times, the big economic players continue to pursue quick growth in economic activities that generate wealth for only a select few while passing on the heavy social costs to many.
We went to Kono, in the interior hills of Sierra Leone, to understand how dear could be social and environmental costs of what otherwise seems to be the easiest and wealthiest resource: diamonds.
Kono is the largest producer of diamonds in Sierra Leone. Diamonds could, at their best, be described as a mixed-blessing. Not only because diamonds fueled the barbaric civil war in Sierra Leone but also because even in more peaceful times, diamond and gold mining feed corruption, land degradation and the contamination of water sources.
Even small-scale mining of diamonds and gold, raises similar issues on a milder but wider scale. After an area is mined, the land is left exposed and degraded; it becomes unsuitable for farming and it is perforated with innumerable stagnant ponds that are breeding grounds for malaria carrying mosquitoes.
The Kono chieftain told us that people learned the hard way that agriculture brings permanent benefits to all while diamonds bring big profits to only a few and heavier long lasting damages to many.
In Sierra Leone, the basic unit of local government has generally been a chiefdom, headed by a Paramount Chief, who is elected for life. Although chieftans continue to be important amongst their communities, from 2004 onwards, they have started working alongside local administrations whose members are elected every 5 years. As decentralisation becomes more effective, chiefdoms and council authorities have started working together to collect taxes. While district and town councils are responsible for service delivery, chiefdom authorities maintain their own infrastructure of police and courts that are also funded by local taxes.
When decisions are centralized, it is easier for foreign companies to corrupt a minister and obtain permissions to greedily exploit resources. As devolution of authority progresses, decision making becomes more participated and policies better represent the long term interests of local communities.
However, poor local populations are still vulnerable to the predatory policies of big and rich global international players. What is required is that local communities are globally better networked amongst themselves, creating global alliances and sharing knowledge through digital networking tools that are now available and have compacted the whole world into one global village. But technology itself will not create a sense of world solidarity, until new rural citizens are endowed with a culture of global responsibility.
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“We do not have diamonds as we used to before. Today, miners have to start looking for alternative work. The country also has to look for alternatives in agriculture since Sierra Leone has fertile land, like the cultivation of cash crops.” says a politician of the area.
“The last big diamond I found was 5 years back. It sustained my family for a whole year. I continue to mine without success and am doing some farming activities to survive”, says a miner.
“All productive land has been washed away by national diamond mining companies. Where you now see wasteland, earlier there were forests. The land is now degraded, destroying with it the habitat of rare and endangered species”, says an environmentalist