MAC: Mines and Communities

London Calling on a 90's disaster which threatens to revisit West Africa

Published by MAC on 2007-12-14

London Calling on a 90's disaster which threatens to revisit West Africa

14th December 2007

Soon after MAC's precursor, Minewatch, was launched in 1990, it became embroiled in a large scale international campaign to prevent the mining of one of the world's most precious biosphere reserves - Mount Nimba, straddling Guinea, Liberia and Ivory Coast.

This was certainly a defining moment in developing the first NGO that tried tackling the impacts of global mining (see article below.)

For the past one and a half decades, Mount Nimba has been spared commercial mining - though not small scale extraction by Liberian rebels, which marked an early and little recognized instance of "conflict extraction". But, in the midst of the campaign, a shameful dupe was perpetrated, which saw the excision of part of the World Heritage Site, so that mining could take place at a future date.

This was an early betrayal by the world's biggest conservation body, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (aka World Conservation Union), not only of its sacred trust but also of the will of its own membership. The betrayal was to be repeated ten years later when IUCN allied itself with the mining industry's public relations body, the ICMM.

Still, it was generally assumed by Minewatch at the time that the strong case made out against mining the mountain (not just by the UK NGO but also a Guinean environmental organisation, the Natural Resources Defense Council in the US, and the World Conservation Monitoring Centre in Cambridge) would prevail indefinitely.

That assumption is now shown to have been naive. It didn’t take account of the massive rise in iron and steel demand of the last five years, driven by China and India. Nor did it foresee the emergence of companies like Tata which, having soiled their reputation and milked resources at home, are aggressively sequestering mineral desposits and plant abroad.

In two brief years, Tata’s trajectory has gone from the bloody fields of Orissa’s Kalinganagar, Singur in West Bengal and Chhattisgarh’s conflict-ridden Bastar region, via plays for neighbouring Bangladesh, into Europe and Mozambique.

Now - potentially worst of all – it has arrived on the slopes of Mount Nimba itself.

[Please see accompanying news story in this MAC update.]

Sixteen years previously…

Mining company threatens West African refuge

ROGER MILNE, New Scientist

30th November 1991

Plans for a giant iron ore mine in the West African country of Guinea could destroy the heart of one of the world's most important biological reserves. The Mount Nimba project falls within a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A number of species of plants grow nowhere else but in the reserve, which is also home to the viviparous toad, the only tailless amphibian that gives birth to live young. UNESCO is due to discuss the mining scheme next month.

The force behind the Mount Nimba project is NIMCO (Nimba International Mining Company), a consortium made up of the French mining conglomerate BRGM; the US Cyprus Minerals (previously the minerals division of Amoco); AMCL, the firm which manages iron ore operations in Liberia, and Sumitomo of Japan.

The consortium wants to begin opencast mining as soon as possible and before an independent environmental impact assessment commissioned by the World Bank is finished. This will not be completed before the end of 1993.

Last weekend, a researcher for the environmental pressure group Minewatch told a conference on mining in Africa that NIMCO's own environmental assessment was 'one of the most superficial and perfunctory we have ever seen'.

Christine Lancaster, from Minewatch, says that NIMCO has to extract up to 9 million tonnes of iron ore a year by 1993 to secure a major contract from European steel companies. Alan Davies of AMCL said: 'We've got to be able to guarantee deliveries by 1994 to maintain their interest.' The consortium also wants to use existing railway lines from the nearly worked out mines in neighbouring Liberia before they deteriorate, he said.

The Mount Nimba range straddles three countries: Liberia, Guinea and the Ivory Coast. The range rises abruptly from the surrounding plateau with the highest peaks reaching 1700 metres. The lower parts of the mountains are covered by tropical forest.

Part of the range in Guinea was earmarked as a nature reserve in 1944, and classified as a Man and Biosphere Reserve in 1980. This classification allows some sustainable development. But the central zone is classed as a World Heritage Site, where no development is allowed.

Jim Thorsell, the World Conservation Union's senior adviser on natural heritage sites, says: 'The mine proposals are inside the World Heritage Site and are a serious threat to it. On the face of it they are totally incompatible with heritage classification.'

The Guinean government wants to redraw the boundary of the heritage site so that the mine falls outside it and two scientists from the World Conservation Union [IUCN] are now in Guinea to assess the implications of these proposals. They will report to the next session of UNESCO's World Heritage Committee next month.

The consortium accepts that its operations will leave some 'residual pollution'. Lancaster says that this will threaten the rice growing area immediately outside the reserve. 'The acid and metal-rich liquor will seep down to the rainforest areas below and into streams supplying the lowland rice-growing agricultural areas.'

The consortium's environmental statement says that mining will drive away all the large animals, including chimpanzees, leopards, pygmy hippopotamuses and the very rare lesser otter shrew. The reserve already suffers from poaching by refugees from war-torn Liberia.

Guinea, one of the poorest countries in equatorial Africa, is keen to see the Mount Nimba project go ahead. The government will receive royalties and a share of any profit once all the overseas investors are paid off. 'It is obvious that the major investors are in for a quick profit, leaving the Guinean government to clean up the mess,' says Lancaster


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