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Jeffrey Wright’s Gold Mine

Source: Daniel Bergner / The New York Times

“This is a relationship that could bring us all the things we desire,” Jeffrey Wright said. He was sitting with Samuel Jibila under an awning rigged from rusty metal sheets in front of Jibila’s decrepit house in Sierra Leone. Jibila is the traditional ruler — the paramount chief — of Penguia, a little domain of jungly hills and dusty villages 250 miles from the capital. Wright is an actor who lives in Brooklyn. He has won a Tony, an Emmy and a Golden Globe and most recently appeared as Beetee in “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.” And for the last decade, he has been traveling to this isolated area near the Guinea border to run his small gold-exploration company, Taia Lion Resources. He wanted to maintain Jibila’s faith in his company, in his plans, but Jibila, who was surrounded by lesser chiefs in glossy robes, wasn’t feeling faithful.

Since 2003, Wright has brought in geologists to sample Penguia’s soil and streams. He leases the exploration rights here from the national government. The gold deposits at the site he and Jibila were discussing may be worth billions of dollars. He says that mining will be a boon to everyone; that the operation will put many hundreds of people to work, not counting the small shops and other businesses that will bloom; that company employees will have a real chance to rise; that paved roads will replace cratered tracks. Transformation will come to a territory so undeveloped that when the rare vehicle needs to cross a river not far from Jibila’s home, the driver pulls onto a raft and ferrymen tug the vessel across with a rope.

Wright has called himself a “son of the soil,” a child of the continent. He also calls himself a “radical capitalist” and casts himself as a kind of savior. Between 2 percent and 3 percent of Taia’s operating expenses go to the community. In addition, Wright has done something rare and perhaps unique among Western mining outfits in the third world: Penguia will have a minor ownership stake in the company.

But despite this vision and these promises, no metamorphosis has come to Penguia. Taia has accomplished no serious excavation, no construction of a pitside facility to process raw gold into bullion bars for export. The company has spent about $12 million on securing claims, sampling sites and just keeping itself afloat in Sierra Leone. Two years ago, Taia paid to grade a stretch of Penguia’s dirt roads, but it is already rutted and overgrown. Company operations are at a standstill. Overall revenue has been zero. Wright is backed by a range of investors — from friends to a mining sector analyst to Tiffany & Company, which has put in several million dollars — and he has poured in more than a million of his own. But he hasn’t been able to raise enough to actually get the gold out of the ground.

Wright has called himself a “son of the soil,” a child of the continent. He also calls himself a “radical capitalist” and casts himself as a kind of savior. Between 2 percent and 3 percent of Taia’s operating expenses go to the community. In addition, Wright has done something rare and perhaps unique among Western mining outfits in the third world: Penguia will have a minor ownership stake in the company.

But despite this vision and these promises, no metamorphosis has come to Penguia. Taia has accomplished no serious excavation, no construction of a pitside facility to process raw gold into bullion bars for export. The company has spent about $12 million on securing claims, sampling sites and just keeping itself afloat in Sierra Leone. Two years ago, Taia paid to grade a stretch of Penguia’s dirt roads, but it is already rutted and overgrown. Company operations are at a standstill. Overall revenue has been zero. Wright is backed by a range of investors — from friends to a mining sector analyst to Tiffany & Company, which has put in several million dollars — and he has poured in more than a million of his own. But he hasn’t been able to raise enough to actually get the gold out of the ground.

To read this article in its entirety visit The New York Times.

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