Representatives from Rio Tinto-affected communities or from supporting organisations from Bougainville, Madagascar and US were going to travel to the UK for a week of action around Rio Tinto’s annual general meeting (AGM). Obviously the global pandemic made this impossible but it is now more important than ever to hold up these communities. As well as ongoing health, social and environmental impacts of mining operations, they are now having to contend with the impact of Covid-19, compounded by water contamination and lack of access to water. Read their demands of the London-listed mining giant and the impact of its mining operations on their communities.
Join our online week of action, Resisting Rio Tinto: Clean up your mess.
Rio Tinto’s local subsidiary QIT Minerals Madagascar (QMM) owns 80 percent of the QMM mine in Anosy, Madagascar, with the Madagascar government owning the other 20 percent. The mine produces ilmenite, a major source of titanium dioxide that is used for whitening products, such as whitening toothpaste, paint and cleaning products. QMM has violated their authorised permissions by breaching an environmental buffer zone meant to protect local lakes and waterways. The mine operations encroached onto a lake bed in an estuary where local people fish and gather their drinking water and raised concerns about the release of radionuclides from mine waste waters into the lake. Independent studies undertaken as part of an investigation into the breach have shown that waters downstream of the mine are contaminated with elevated levels of uranium and lead, well above WHO safe drinking water guidelines. These contaminants have been linked to the QMM extraction process and pose a health risk to villagers.
The company is refusing to acknowledge its extraction process is generating elevated uranium and lead in waters adjacent to the mine where some 15,000 people live and draw their drinking water. The water contamination is yet another challenge for local people in more than a decade of documented social and environmental abuses, many of which have created conflict around the mine. These include failure to provide adequate compensation for people forcibly evicted from their lands and displaced from their livelihoods; lack of open and inclusive consultations and communications – including about information on the status of water quality and radiation around the mine; lack of free prior and informed consent during the imposition of biodiversity offsetting measures that have left communities in famine; and ineffective measures to redress loss of livelihoods such as fishing (where communities have been affected by the QMM weir and its impact on fish stocks in the local lakes).
Civil society representative, Eryck Randrianandrasana, from Publish What You Pay Madagascar (PWYP MG) said: “Communities and civil society in Madagascar are worried about water quality, food security, and radiation from the QMM mine. Despite positive promises and the amounts injected into the municipality through payments from QMM, rural populations in Anosy do not feel or see a beneficial impact of this investment. QMM consultation processes are not transparent. Local people and Malagasy civil society have no means to hold the company to account when they do not adhere to approved commitments.
Community impact and resistance
A number of Malagasy civil society organisations have called for action, including Publish What You Pay Madagascar, The National Platform of Civil Society Organisations of Madagascar, Collectif Tany, CRAADO-OI, and also international NGOs the Andrew Lees Trust and Friends of the Earth jointly with Publish What You Pay UK and Madagascar. Local communities and civil society have lobbied QMM locally to address their issues. QMM’s failures to respond to community complaints and frustrations have led to conflict and tensions around resources.
Local and country info
The QMM ilmenite mine, which also produces Zircon and Monazite, is situated in the southeast of the island in the Anosy region, which is also one of the poorest regions of the country with 91 percent of people living in multidimensional poverty (being deprived of at least a minimum level of education, health or standard of living), and 80 percent of the rural population are wholly dependent on natural resources for their survival.
The mine is located within the last remaining fragments of coastal forest in Madagascar. Conservationists have reported 64 species of endemic flora found nowhere else. Despite many natural resources, Madagascar has one of the highest poverty rates in the world. The country suffers from political instability and weak governance. The media is self censoring and civil society is constrained. Amnesty International has called out the brutal suppression of human rights in the country.
Demands of Rio Tinto
- That the company urgently provide safe drinking water to mine affected communities in Anosy.
- Allow an independent technical review of its mine tailings and mine waste water management processes.
- Respond urgently to demands from local communities for materials and other supports they have requested to replace lost livelihoods.
- Provide cash transfers to communities who have lost livelihoods and are facing famine and food insecurity due to the QMM policies and practices.
- Provide all reports and transparent information as requested by communities, civil society, international NGOs etc.
- Ensure external independent measurement and review of the radioactivity issues around QMM operations on a regular basis.
- Communicate transparently with affected communities about radiation around the mine site.
Publish What You Pay Madagascar is a civil society coalition in the extractive industry sector. This organisation works to ensure that natural resource extraction benefits the Malagasy people and drives development.
LMN member group Andrew Lees Trust commissioned technical experts in 2018 to analyse water quality around the QMM mine and found evidence of serious contamination, including radioactive contamination. These issues were raised at the company’s AGM last April. Subsequently, the Andrew Lees Trust has worked with Publish What You Pay (UK & MG) and Friends of the Earth to maintain a technical dialogue with Rio Tinto in order to pressure the company to address the problems and urgently provide safe drinking water to communities.
Resolution Copper is a company jointly owned by Rio Tinto and its minority partner BHP – two of the UK’s top mining giants. They planned to begin construction of a proposed copper mine in the sacred site of Oak Flat, Arizona, in 2015 but due to opposition, construction hasn’t yet begun. Resolution Copper has proposed a tailings (mine waste) facility – the same design as the recent tailings dam failure in Canada and last January’s Brumadinho dam collapse in Brazil, except that the Resolution Copper proposal would be much larger. The company’s own studies show the preferred tailings dump site is unsuitable and the US Forest Service is scrambling to locate a ‘better’ location. A 2018 report by tailings dam expert Steve Emerman showed that Rio Tinto’s mine proposal is unworkable.
- There isn’t enough water. The Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) written by the National Forest Service says that the amount of water that the project would use ‘could be greater than the estimated amount of physically available groundwater.’
- The tailings dump facility would be unsafe and illegal in Brazil, Ecuador, and China.
Roger Featherstone (left) is Director of the Arizona Mining Reform Coalition, he said: “Resolution Copper’s own studies show the preferred toxic tailings dump site is unsuitable, and our report shows that Rio Tinto has put an unworkable mine proposal on the table.
The loss of Oak Flat would be the first time the US Government has turned over a Native American sacred site to a foreign mining company. If Oak Flat is turned over to Rio Tinto, it would be the biggest loss of public recreational opportunities in the history of the United States. We won’t let this precious natural and sacred place be sacrificed on the altar of corporate greed.”
The Oak Flat land exchange law must be overturned and the US Forest Service must write a new Environmental Impact Statement.
Local and country information
Oak Flat is a recreational and ecological haven in Arizona that is sacred to First Nations. The proposed mine would completely destroy 10 square kilometers of public land and bury another 20 square kilometers of public land under hundreds of metres of toxic tailings. With Trump as president, environmental protections have never been more fragile. There is little regard for indigeneous rights in the US and police are heavy handed, with institutional racism common.
Arizona Mining Reform Coalition works in Arizona to improve state and federal laws, rules, and regulations governing hard rock mining to protect communities and the environment. AMRC works to hold mining operations to the highest environmental and social standards to provide for the long term environmental, cultural, and economic health of Arizona. Members of the Coalition include Local, indigenous, grassroots and national organisations.
Panguna was one of the world’s largest copper and gold mines. Rio Tinto owned the mine for 45 years through its local subsidiary Bougainville Copper Mines Limited, before disinvesting in 2016. Between 1972 and 1988 the mine generated almost $US 2 billion in revenue for Rio Tinto and the Papua New Guinea government, and in that time the company dumped toxic mining waste from the mine into the local river system, leaving behind more than a billion tonnes of mine waste. The environmental destruction and inequalities of profits sparked an uprising by local people and resulted in a bloody 10-year civil war war.
Community representative: Theonila Roka Matbob is a community advocate, teacher and traditional landowner from Makosi village in Central Bougainville, just downstream of the Panguna mine. With her husband Nathan, she runs a local primary school for children impacted by the conflict on Bougainville, which was triggered by the devastating environmental and social impacts caused by mine. Theonila has undertaken research for several international reports on the destructive legacy of the mine and has travelled throughout the mine’s impact zone to document the stories of the communities affected. She is standing to represent her community in the upcoming Bougainville elections.
Theonila Roka Matbob, a local teacher and traditional landowner from Makosi village downstream of the mine said: “The Panguna mine devastated our communities physically and culturally and we are still living with the consequences. Our land is destroyed and our rivers are poisoned. Kids are drinking and bathing in the polluted water and getting sick. New areas of land are still being flooded with the waste from the mine. We urgently need Rio Tinto to come back and deal with these problems so our communities can find healing.”
Community impact and resistance
Rio Tinto walked away from the project, passing on its shares to the Autonomous Bougainville Government and Papua New Guinea Government and side-stepping entirely the cost of clean-up. The two governments do not have the means to clean up the waste. Communities affected by the mine and war continue to call on Rio Tinto for legal and financial restitution. There are huge ongoing health and social impacts of the mine: children have skin ulcers that never heal, people have drowned trying to cross rivers flooded with mine waste, women walk two hours every day to lug water back to their communities because their nearby creeks are now poisoned by copper. The impacts of the mine continue to infringe nearly all the economic, social and cultural rights of local communities, including their fundamental rights to food, water, health and housing.
Demands of Rio Tinto
Human Rights Law Centre recommends that Rio Tinto and its former subsidiary, Bougainville Copper Limited, immediately commit to funding an independent assessment of the mine to identify the most urgent health and safety risks to communities and establish a substantial fund to address these problems and assist with long-term rehabilitation.
Local and Country info: Between 15-20,000 people were killed in the decade-long civil war and independence from Papua New Guinea was not won then, but in a referendum in December 2019, Bougainvillians voted overwhelmingly for independence from Papua New Guinea.
Human Rights Law Centre Australia (HRLC) were going to accompany Thenila Roka Matbob to the UK for the week of action. HRLC has carried out extensive research in Bougainville on the human rights violations people are suffering as a result of a lack of action from Rio Tinto to clear up their toxic mining mess, read their new report After the Mine: Living with Rio Tinto’s deadly legacy.
Other communities affected by Rio Tinto
Rio Tinto operates a copper gold mine Oyu Tolgoi in the Gobi Desert, in Mongolia. Nomadic herdsmen have suffered cultural disruption and loss of livelihood because of mine construction, which destroyed a seasonal river. We have asked questions regarding this at previous AGMs on behalf of LMN’s partner group Oyu Tolgoi. The mine is currently dependent on coal-generated electricity from China and the expansion is to be powered by a newly constructed coal generating plant in Mongolia fed by coal from a huge new opencast coal mine, Tavan Tolgoi.
Grasberg in Indonesia-occupied West Papua is the world’s largest gold mine and the world’s second largest copper mine. It is notorious in its unpopularity, with those resisting it being intimidated by Indonesian soldiers patrolling the area.
The mine, developed by US company Freeport McMoRan, began operating in 1973. In 1996 Rio Tinto signed a production sharing agreement with Freeport McMoRan, ensuring the mine’s continued operation by helping finance its expansion. Rio Tinto sold its production sharing contract to Indonesian state mining company Inalum in September 2018 in a deal worth US$3.5 billion (£2.77 billion).
At the company’s 2019 shareholder meeting, LMN asked the chairman how much of this amount was going to be put aside for liabilities and legacy issues. Rio Tinto stated that it was ‘selling on’ all of its liabilities, explicitly stating that it had no legal or moral responsibility for clean-up. It claimed that all such responsibilities were included in the sale of its share of the project.
Grasberg turned a mountain sacred to the Amungme indigenous people into a vast hole in the ground, with toxic mine waste discharged straight into the local river system, contaminating it all the way to the coast. Mama Yosepha, an 80-year-old indigenous human rights defender, has organized resistance to this mining project. Despite inhumane confinement and torture, she has continued to promote traditional cultures, collective action and the well-being of indigenous peoples.
Read our report Cut and Run: How Britain’s top two mining companies wrecked ecosystems and fled