MAC: Mines and Communities

Rio Tinto's Indian diamond mine may not be - ever

Published by MAC on 2011-12-05
Source: ABC News

ABC TV investigates

The assassination of environmental and human rights' activist, Shehla Masood, brought into sharp focus plans by Rio Tinto to open India's first new commercial diamond mine in the state of Madhya Pradesh. See: India: Saranda's savagery exposed by national HR team

Recently,  Australian Broadcasting Company sent a reporter to the prospective site, to investigate the "mood" of local people about the project and to hear the company defend its current and future operations.

But, at the last moment, Rio Tinto refused to be officially interviewed on camera.

ABC also obtained a copy of a writ petition to India's High Court, accusing the UK mega-miner of having already violated environmental regulations in its lease area.

While some villagers in the area approved the company's proposals, others were firmly opposed, and pledged to halt the project.

Local fears a challenge for Indian diamond project

By Richard Lindell

ABC News

2 December 2011

Rio Tinto's proposed diamond mine in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh is a public and community relations disaster.

On its website, Rio Tinto trumpets the potential of the area saying that the mine, should it be approved, "would place Madhya Pradesh in the top 10 diamond producing regions of the world."

The miner is also proud of the industry sponsored award it received for "its significant work in building social capacity in communities surrounding its developing Bunder diamond project in India."

But a joint Lateline/Newsline investigation has found a very different reality, or at least perception of reality, on the ground. You can see the story here.

Video: Rio Tinto accused of threatening endangered tigers (Lateline)

When the ABC visited communities around the proposed mine, many of the locals were filled with fear and concern over the development.

Rumours and wild allegations abound, some of which cannot be repeated here.

Many raised concerns that Rio Tinto is engaged in illegal mining and that it is working in the area without proper approvals and after exploration licenses have expired.

The matter of illegal mining is now the subject of a High Court challenge and the ABC obtained a copy of the writ petition.

The High Court of Madhya Pradesh is yet to hear or rule on the case, but given the seriousness of the allegations has ordered both Rio Tinto and the state government to respond.

Regardless of the veracity of the allegations, many in the neighbouring villages and towns believe it to be true.

The member of parliament for the district has raised issues surrounding the mine in the national parliament.

Jitendra Singh Bundela told the ABC that suspicion has been fuelled by the manner in which Rio Tinto conducts its business.

"This secretive way of doing mining, this secretive working style should stop," he said.

"There is an atmosphere of fear among the people. This system of theirs is very wrong, and if this is the way they keep going, then in the future, there could be a possibility that a movement may start against then and I am telling you clearly that I will lead that movement against them."

Respected environmentalists are already agitating against the proposed mine.

The forest area where diamonds have been found is an important corridor to the few remaining tigers of the region.

Environmentalists argue that mining here threatens their habitat and their ability to move between reserves to find new and genetically-viable partners.

For its part, Rio Tinto says it has been working hard to protect tiger populations. In a written response, MD Nik Senapati said:

"A critical element of this work will be the creation of buffer zones that allow the tigers to roam in their natural habitat beyond the reserves."

Community leaders are also concerned about the impact of the project on some of the cleanest river and underground water systems in India.

MP Jitendra Singh Bundela says drilling is already lowering the water table and drying the forests, while environmentalists say a river flowing into Panna Tiger Reserve could be polluted by a future mine.

Both these claims are denied by Rio Tinto which says their current and future activities will have no impact on rivers or the water table.

For what it's worth, the ABC found no evidence of illegal mining in our tour of the mine and in fact, witnessed a professional operation, as well as some of the work Rio Tinto is doing in the community.

However, the site visit was tightly managed and we were not permitted to ask the Project Director any questions on the record about community concerns, although Rio Tinto did later agree to answer a series of written questions.

It's a PR decision that fits well with local concerns about complete openness and transparency.

None of the credible political and environmental leaders we spoke to and quoted in our story are against development or Rio Tinto. Quite the opposite.

This region of Madhya Pradesh is one of the poorest in the country.

Many live below the poverty line and we met many malnourished villagers.

It's an area crying out for jobs and development. This is something that Rio Tinto could help deliver, particularly if the miner is right and there are more large-scale diamond deposits in the region.

But Rio Tinto faces a tough battle as it looks to complete the approval process and start mining by 2016/17. It's a process that's been made tougher by the miner's inability to sell the project to locals and allay community and environmental concerns - both real and perceived.

Richard Lindell is the India Correspondent for the Australia Network.

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