This is Mark Doyle’s second post from northern Liberia
I’ve just had huge fun riding on a pickup truck which miraculously turned into a tiny railway train. The pickup drove towards the railway. Then, by some miracle of engineering, the road tyres were lifted and a set of railway wheels hidden under the chassis were lowered onto the tracks. Then we drove along the rails!
It was a weird feeling, but fun.
I’m in iron ore country – in a mountain range that stretches from Liberia, through the north-western tip of Ivory Coast, and then into Guinea. Hundreds of billions of tonnes of iron ore – that could be used for making steel – are buried here.
In fact, here in Liberia, some of the ore is just on the surface.
The railway I rode on in the strange pickup was built by the multinational steel company Arcelor Mittal – my hosts for a day or two.
While I had a bit of fun, the workers and managers here are in sombre mood.
They have just completed rebuilding some 250 km of railway line from the Liberian Atlantic Ocean port of Buchanan to this town of Yekepa in the far north of the country. The ambitious $1.5bn investment was started with a view to exporting the iron ore from Liberia’s side of the Nimba Mountain Range.
But the global economic downturn has led to a steep downturn in the demand for steel. The sums for the project no longer add up, according to Arcelor Mittal managers, and they have had to lay off more than a thousand construction workers whilst waiting for the worldwide economy to pick up.
The railway is almost complete – an amazing achievement – and prospecting for the ore is continuing. But the final phase of the investment is not yet going ahead.
The sense of dashed expectations is palpable in a post-war Liberia which is crying out for employment-creating projects. As I sped along the railway on the open-topped back of the Pickup, young men stood by the tracks shouting out to me, in Liberian English; “We want work, we want a job”.
The Liberian and expatriat managers here are dissapointed too;
“At the height of the investment”, one senior manager said, “we couldn’t spend money fast enough. We were throwing up buildings and ordering trains – we ordered ten trains for the transportation of the ore. Now, sadly, we have to rescind those contracts.”
The project has not been moth-balled, but has entered what is called a “maintenance phase” – in other words, keeping things ticking over.
By chance I came across a meeting in one community – in an area dubbed ‘Rockcrusher’ – where villagers were in the process of electing a Chair to represent them in bidding for a contract to clear the rampant vegetation from the edges of the rail tracks.
It’s hard work in the harsh Liberian sun, but it is work. Formal employment in post-war Liberia is estimated at only some 15% – the majority are effectively out of work and scrabbling to make a living from subsistence agriculture or petty trading.
What Liberians really want is for the ore-exporting to go full-steam ahead. That could re-create the more than a thousand construction jobs now on hold and may have spinoffs that could put thousands more into paid work. Not to mention royalty revenues for the government here.
But the tough realities of exporting raw materials – which are subject to sometimes wild price fluctuations – have come to haunt Africa once again.