MAC: Mines and Communities

Mining giant threatens to scar island paradise

Published by MAC on 2001-05-01

Mining giant threatens to scar island paradise

Environmentalists and Rio Tinto at odds over a plan to exploit Madagascar's minerals

Rory Carroll in Fort Dauphin, The Guardian

Monday June 23, 2003

On the southern side of Madagascar lies a wilderness paradise. The Indian Ocean washes over white sands. There is a primeval rainforest which is home to thousands of plant and animal species found nowhere else.

Nature has won some battles against man - shipwrecks stud the surf and wind-whipped dunes have swallowed buildings - but lost the war: 90% of the forest is destroyed, chopped down for timber and charcoal, leaving a landscape of rock and scrub.

But there is one last battle. The world's largest mining company, Rio Tinto, intends to dredge hundreds of millions of tonnes of soil over 6,000 hectares to extract ilmenite, a mineral used to make paint and toothpaste.

It will mean carving an artificial lake in what is left of the woodland and moving it, at about a metre a day, while a machine sucks up the earth and another sifts the ilmenite. The mining could last 60 years.

Life will change utterly in the town most affected, the coastal community of Fort Dauphin. There will be a new port and breakwater, ships, roads, trucks and strangers.

For the flora and fauna of what is classified as a bio-diversity hotspot, an ecosystem which could hold cures for human diseases, the impact will be dramatic.

In an age where ethical investment has become common the proposal seems to be a throwback to Africa's plunder by grasping Europeans and greedy multinationals. Environmental groups are preparing for fresh challenges.

Rio Tinto claims the mine will be a model of green capitalism and a tonic for the world's fourth poorest country. Madagascar's government has given the go-ahead and the company has spent $41m (£24m) in anticipation of work starting in 2005.

"We will keep going, no matter what," said Serge Lachapelle, executive director of QIT, the Canadian subsidiary of Rio Tinto, which is leading the project.

Mr Lachapelle expected a hard public relations fight with the environmental lobby but was confident Rio Tinto would win. The British still associated mining with the industrial horrors of the 19th century, he said, but the rest of the world had moved on, recognising that mineral extraction could be progressive.

Free market economy

On an island two and a half times the size of Britain, prone to cyclones and political upheavals, things are seldom straightforward.

The south-east, verging on famine and expecting an emergency shipment from the World Food Programme today, is largely beyond the central government's control. A few entrepreneurs effectively run their own mini countries.

Centralised planning during the years of the cold war ruined the post-independence economy. Neither superpower cared enough to bankroll the state.

The election last year of Marc Ravalomanana swept away the old guard and brought to the presidential palace a young, self-made tycoon promising progress. A darling of the west, he is keen on Rio Tinto's proposed ilmenite mine, in the hope that it will generate jobs and funds for the exchequer.

Whether those funds will be used wisely or frittered and stolen as in Nigeria's oil bonanza will be a test of his presidency.

"Politics and administration there is a surreal business," said Frank Hawkins, head of Conservation International's office in Antananarivo.

Yesterday, a street vendor outside Fort Dauphin was openly and illegally trying to sell a football-sized egg of the aepyornis, the extinct elephant bird, reconstructed from fragments found on the beach.

Dr Hawkins said one of his main concerns was that thousands of people would migrate to Fort Dauphin in a vain search for work and resort to cutting trees to make charcoal. "That's what people when do in economic distress, trash the forest."

Playing God

In this climate, Rio Tinto, poised to spend $350m on the first phase alone, could emulate the pirates who used to ply the coast. Manon Vincelette, a company environmentalist and a forestry engineer, claimed they would not. Each of the three proposed sites would leave untouched a conservation area totalling 10% of the mined area. In addition, the company would restore another 10% of forest and in the remaining area plant fast-growing trees, such as eucalyptus, which locals could use for charcoal and timber.

Dr Vincelette said that at current rates, the locals would destroy what was left of the forest within 20 years, so it was better to let the Anglo-Australian conglomerate intervene.

On a tour of Mandena, one of the proposed sites, the Guardian was shown seed banks and three nurseries which were refining techniques to grow hundreds of species, many never before classified.

At one research station a rat was having its testicles measured. Bulging eyes and kicking paws indicated the desire to be elsewhere but that depth of study, Rio Tinto hopes, will help create ecosystems from scratch. Rodent droppings, for instance, could be key to fertilising a particular plant, which is crucial to a lemur's diet.

What took nature millennia could be restored, said Dr Vincelette. The recipe: save top soil from the dredger, plant 50% so-called pioneer trees which like the sun, followed later by 40% which like sun and shade, followed by 10% which like just shade. "If we succeed in creating a forest ambience, within a hundred years nature will have done the rest," he said.

If that sounded like playing God, Rio Tinto accepts the comparison. Local women, it said, thought only a divinity could make mahampy, a swamp reed used in weaving, but the company created a wetland to show it could restore those it would destroy.

Other programmes included teaching locals about beekeeping, HIV prevention and forest management, adding up to an investment which would create 600 direct jobs, boost infrastructure and save some otherwise doomed rainforest.

But a report by Friends of the Earth said it added up to skilful camouflage for devastating wildlife and bamboozling locals. "In our view the project would not be compatible with true, sustainable development," the report said.

Turning a partly salty lake fresh and damaging coral colonies were some of the unacceptable and irreversible changes, it said, arguing in vain against the government granting a permit to Rio Tinto.

In a review of the company's social and environmental impact assessment, Conservation International praised its biodiversity research but said the poorest and most vulnerable local people, many of whom are illiterate and have never seen a large vehicle, have not been properly consulted.

Mark Fenn, who lives and works in Fort Dauphin for WWF, which will issue a report on the mine later this year, said the project could be beneficial if done correctly, but that the research stations shown to the Guardian amounted to a "dog and pony show". The conservation areas were too fragmented to be viable and would pressure certain species. Nor had the company thought about the potentially explosive conflict of placing at least 800 foreign labourers in a small town of 3,000 unemployed young men.

"I'm extremely worried. No matter how high you build the fence around their compound, you're going to have prostitution, wives leaving husbands," he said. Fort Dauphin could once again come to realise its Malagasy name, Taolagnaro, meaning city of bones, such was the threat of violence and HIV/Aids, said Dr Fenn.

He also accused Rio Tinto of allowing charcoal makers to ravage the sites during the 1990s while it negotiated mining rights and of becoming a "de facto colonial power" by funding local officials and non-governmental organisations. "Is that corruption? No. Unethical? Yes."

Both sides claimed to have local opinion on their side. A tour of the surrounding villages yielded conflicting views: most people, barefoot and in rags, knew a mine was planned, but exactly where and when, and its likely impact were a mystery.

"It will destroy traditional agriculture, no way," said Karae, head of Houtotmotre village. After conferring with other elders he added: "Though, with the drought we don't have any crops, so then again maybe we have nothing to lose."

Albert Mahazoly, 45, was recently laid off from a sisal plantation which was just about the only way of making money in Ankitry village. Now his family were among those queuing up for sacks of maize from the World Food Programme.

This was a humiliation Mr Mahazoly was not planning to tolerate for long. "I'm ready to go to the mine. I'll do whatever they ask me," he said.

The possibility that his unskilled labour might not be wanted came as a shock. "But I'll do anything," he said.

Tourism and unique species at risk

When it comes to hosting a huge mining project, it is difficult to think of a country more in need - and less suited - than Madagascar.

A tropical island 250 miles off Africa's east coast, it is impoverished and abundant in unique species of plant and animals.

Fewer than 16 million people share a landmass two and a half times the size of Britain, with a coast 1,000 miles long, but the economy is so underdeveloped that that population strains what passes for the infrastructure.

What your map says is a national road your eyes say is a dirt track pitted with craters and liable to be blocked by a cart.

Industry was badly hit by last year's largely peaceful but protracted political upheavals. Crops of sisal and vanilla have not been well managed.

Most people are subsistence farmers but crops have been devastated by cyclones in the north and drought in the south, prompting the World Food Programme to appeal for emergency aid.

There have been outbreaks of bubonic plague in recent years but the former French colony has so far been spared sub-Saharan Africa's scourge of HIV/Aids.

The island is rich in tourist potential. Inland mountains sweep to the Indian ocean, making for spectacular scenery, and millennia of isolation have spawned a selection of unique flora and fauna.

Since Malay-Polynesian sailors arrived 2,000 years ago, 90% of the original rainforest has been destroyed, mostly by slash and burn agriculture and for charcoal. Only six million hectares of forest are left.

Everyone accepts that protecting what remains is urgent, otherwise the lemur and thousands of lesser known species will go the way of the pygmy hippopotamus and the elephant bird.

Lose a species and you lose a possible cure for disease but in Madagascar's case degraded forests also means the loss of tourist potential and soil fertility.

Managing its environment requires strong and delicate leadership, exactly what is lacking in remote regions such as Fort Dauphin, where accountability and transparency are as elusive as the lemur.

So responsibility for governance tends to fall to non-governmental organisations and the larger businesses.

See also The case against QMM/Rio Tinto in Madagascar

Home | About Us | Companies | Countries | Minerals | Contact Us
© Mines and Communities 2013. Web site by Zippy Info