Madagascar mine ignites protests, community division

first_imgAn Australian mining company, Base Resources, plans to break ground soon on a mineral sands mining project in southwestern Madagascar.Base Resources says the project represents a development opportunity for the region. It has the support of most government officials and local mayors.But local opposition groups have called for an end to the project, citing the negative environmental impact it could have and insisting that it’s been made possible only through corrupt land deals.The battle over the project has played out in the Malagasy media for several years and is reaching a fever pitch as the project nears fruition. In the latest development, a Madagascar court released nine community members held for six weeks on accusations of participating in the destruction of Base Resources’ exploration campsite. FIANARANTSOA, Madagascar — Last month, a Madagascar court ended a six-week saga for people in the southwestern village of Benetse, near the city of Toliara. Nine members of the community had been detained without trial for several weeks following an act of civil disobedience against an Australian mining company, Base Resources, that plans to break ground soon on a mineral sands project in the area.Their friends and family in Benetse went to great lengths, literally, to support the nine after they were detained. In late May, more than a dozen villagers traveled for the first time to Fianarantsoa, a city hundreds of miles away on the country’s high plateau. But they weren’t able to enjoy the red gullied landscape of the highlands, so unlike the spiny forests and baobob trees back home in the dry, flat southwest. They were in Fianarantsoa to see their loved ones — small-scale farmers who had lately become known as the “Toliara 9” — stand trial.Emma Vazonandrasana and others in a bush taxi on the way home to the village of Benetse. They’d gone to Fianarantsoa, a city in the country’s central highlands, to support nine friends and family members who’d been detained for their alleged role in the destruction of Base Resources’s property. Image by Edward Carver for Mongabay.The nine men were apparently part of a group of around 40 community members that burned and vandalized Base Resources’ exploration campsite in April. In early May, authorities arrested the nine, charged them with arson, destruction of property, and forming a mob, and transferred them to prison in Fianarantsoa. They were scheduled to go before a judge on May 24, but at the last moment the trial was postponed for two weeks.“We are disappointed,” Emma Vazonandrasana, who was among those who made the 12-hour taxi-bus trip to Fianarantsoa, and whose brother and father were among the nine, told Mongabay the next day. “We spent so much time and money to be there. We are tired, tired of worrying, tired of the travel. We thought they would be released today.”However, Vazonandrasana’s side received welcome news on June 13, when the nine men were released. They were convicted of unarmed gathering without permission and given six-month prison sentences, but the sentences were suspended. The court gave the nine the benefit of the doubt with regard to arson and destruction of property.Civil society groups in Madagascar rejoiced at the verdict, even if they deemed the conviction and suspended sentence unfair. “It’s nice to see that this system works from time to time!” Ketakandriana Rafitoson, executive director of Transparency International Initiative Madagascar, wrote in response to an emailed communiqué from civil society groups that Mongabay received.The battle over the mineral sands project has played out in the Malagasy media for several years and is reaching a fever pitch as the project nears fruition. Base Resources plans to start construction this year and says the project represents a development opportunity for the region. It has the support of most government officials and local mayors. The company calls its deposit near Toliara “world class” and has indicated, in a televised interview, that it will have the highest profit margins of any mineral sands project in the world. But opposition groups based in Toliara, Benetse and nearby villages have called for an end to the project, citing the negative environmental impact it could have and insisting that it’s been made possible only through corrupt land deals.The prison in Fianarantsoa where the “Toliara 9” were held from early May until June 13. The prosecutor denied Mongabay access to the nine men while they were detained, saying that such visits weren’t allowed before the trial. Image by Edward Carver for Mongabay.Demand for whitenessThe ultimate cause of the controversy is consumer demand for whiteness. Ilmenite, the main mineral in the deposit, yields titanium dioxide, which helps make paint, toothpaste and sunscreen white. The deposit also contains exploitable levels of rutile and zircon, which have similar uses as pigments. Another large mineral sands project, run by a subsidiary of London-based mining giant Rio Tinto, has been operating in Madagascar for about a decade, and has also faced opposition and scrutiny from local groups.Though mineral sands deposits exist in coastal areas the world over, they are most often exploited in the developing world, where environmental regulations are lax or difficult to enforce, Steven Emerman, a Utah-based geophysicist and consultant who has studied Rio Tinto’s Madagascar project, told Mongabay. (Australia, where mineral sands projects are better regulated, might be considered an exception.)One of the risks of mineral sands mining is exposure of both workers and the public to uranium and thorium, both radioactive metals. Uranium and thorium can get into local water supplies or be inhaled as dust. Thorium levels are especially high at the proposed mining site near Toliara, and “serious radioprotection measures” will be required to make the project safe, a 2014 study by chemists at the University of Antananarivo found. The zircon at the Toliara deposit is so high in uranium and thorium that Base Resources will not be able to sell it in the United States, Japan or the European Union, which will treat it as radioactive waste.“Who are they planning on selling this radioactive zircon to?” Emerman asked.Base Resources declined to share its environmental and social impact assessment with Mongabay. “The ESIA summary is currently very extensive and we do not currently have a shortened version for distribution,” Jean Bruno Ramahefarivo, the  company’s general manager for external affairs in Madagascar, said in a written statement to Mongabay. The statement was part of a long email exchange with company representatives, who did not respond to requests for clarification as to why the length of the impact assessment prevented it from being shared publicly.Base Resources is a small company compared to the likes of Rio Tinto. It made its name developing the Kwale mineral sands project in southern Kenya over the last decade. Looking for a second project, the company acquired Base Toliara, as its local subsidiary is now known, in January 2018. The company expects to create more than 850 permanent jobs, almost all for Malagasy nationals, and to pay the Madagascar government about $28 million in taxes and royalties each year from 2022 to 2054. There would also be knock-on employment and tax benefits as local suppliers did business with Base Toliara.The village of Tsianisiha, west of the proposed mining site. The population is divided about the project. Image by Edward Carver for Mongabay.Base Toliara plans to use a “dry mining” technique. After removing the vegetation and stripping the topsoil, the company will excavate the sand to 20 meters (66 feet) below the surface. Bulldozers will push sand into “dozer mining units” that mix it with water, forming a slurry that will then be pumped to a plant where heavy mineral concentrate — the useful bit, making up about 6 percent of the original sand — is pulled out. This concentrate will be piped to a second plant and separated into ilmenite, rutile and zircon. The minerals will then be trucked via a private road to a small shipping terminal in Toliara.Plans for the road and terminal are particularly controversial. The road, exclusively for use by company vehicles, would cut through pastoral land and divide some farmers from the land they work, although the communities are being consulted on where crossing points can be built. The terminal would be built on Andaboy Beach, which many local people consider sacred. The site of spiritual rites, it is sometimes littered with coins, and there are taboos about eating pork before going there. Large crowds gather around Andaboy on holidays such as Easter, and local fishers use it as a base of operations.A group called Zanadriake (meaning “Children of the sea”) has opposed the terminal construction plans for many years. A middle-aged member named Gano told Mongabay that he was proud to have earned his living as a Vezo — an ethnic identification associated with living off the sea. He has been a fisher and sea-cucumber diver for 37 years, earning enough to send his children to school. Like others in the group, he said he regards any agreement to lease the land at Andaboy to a foreign company as a betrayal of Vezo tradition, and one that will only benefit white-collar workers.“If Base Toliara occupies it for its mineral sands project, where will we earn our living from?” Gano asked. “Are we not human beings? They at Base Toliara have skills, so they are human beings. But we that do not have skills, we are not [treated like] human beings.”Base Toliara told Mongabay that its terminal will take up only 2 hectares (5 acres) of a large beach area, and that the jetty will be high enough for pirogues to sail under, between the pillars. The company plans to build an artificial reef to increase the catch for local fishers.Gano (in red cap), a member of Zanadriake, an organization of fishers and divers that opposes Base Resources’s plan to build a small port at the beach near Toliara, looks on as his friend Gentsy shows a video of the beach during a crowded holiday. Image by Edward Carver for Mongabay.Fears of displacementDemonstrations against the project have become commonplace in recent years. The leading faces of the opposition are Théo Rakotovao, a well-known Malagasy musician who comes from the region and has sung about the mining controversy, and Siteny Randrianasoloniaiko, a member of parliament from a neighboring area who has given rousing speeches about the mine. They have led protests at the beach and in the streets over the past two years. Representatives of community opposition groups have also traveled to the capital Antananarivo to register their discontent with the central government.In addition to concerns over environmental impact, the protests are about land rights, including cultural and economic displacement. The first thing many local people point out is that there are tombs on the land (91 of them, according to Base Toliara). The company says the families have agreed to have the tombs moved and will be given three zebu cattle as compensation, in line with Malagasy tradition.Twenty households live on the deposit itself, some of whose members work for the company and have agreed to move. However, the project will impact the livelihoods of many more people who farm and raise animals on that land. The company acknowledges this “resource utilization” and says it will compensate them for the loss, probably by the end of July, in accordance with Madagascar law and International Finance Corporation Performance Standard 5, which deals with involuntary resettlement.As a foreign-owned company, Base Toliara can’t own land; it must lease it from the national government. The government is currently in the process of buying or otherwise taking possession of the necessary land. This creates conflict because many local people don’t have formal deeds to the land they live on, let alone the land they farm or graze their animals on. Even without deeds, they have land rights under Madagascar law, but in practice these are not always honored.Even if a company such as Base Toliara does everything above board, the lack of transparent governance in Madagascar can open the door for unscrupulous mayors and regional officials to abuse their power. They decide who owns untitled land — land that has suddenly become very valuable — and this can create a great deal of resentment among community members.Manantsoa Ratsimaro, a Mazoto supporter and 61-year-old farmer in the village of Tsianisiha, stands outside his house next to campaign material for President Andry Rajoelina. Image by Edward Carver for Mongabay.A people divided The mayors of the five affected communes, each containing many villages, support Base Toliara. Jean Manantena Mahatokisa, the mayor of Tsianisiha, told Mongabay the mining project will bring jobs and progress as he fixed the ink cartridge on an old typewriter in his office. Although he was mildly critical of the company’s communication strategy, he said he’d seen no corruption, and he claimed that 95 percent of his constituents supported the project.The mayor’s math seemed well off the mark. Many residents of Tsianisiha and the other communes adamantly oppose the mining project. Most people stopped at random by Mongabay proudly declared their affiliation with the main opposition group, Mazoto (meaning “motivated” or “eager”).Manantsoa Ratsimaro, a Mazoto supporter and 61-year-old farmer in Tsianisiha, called the mayors of the five communes “traitors.” Standing near his thatch-roofed house, he pointed out the plums, cassavas and twining plants growing in his yard. “I’ll never agree to let Base Toliara exploit my land because my descendants need to live off of it,” he told Mongabay. “Without the land, they will suffer. They did not finish school. I will not accept the project even in exchange for a billion ariary [around $275,000]. I would spend that money quickly and it wouldn’t have any effect on my descendants. However, things that we eat here are abundant and will last even after I’m gone. [My descendants] can grow old with them.”Manantsoa Ratsimaro sits outside his house with his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. “I’ll never agree to let Base Toliara exploit my land because my descendants need to live off it,” he said. Image by Edward Carver for Mongabay.However, there is debate about what people such as Ratsimaro can legitimately call their land, and there is a current of local support for the mining project. Some people, especially those with more schooling, are excited by the job opportunities it presents. “Young people will work for them [Base Toliara]. Older people will work for them,” Alexis, a resident of Ranobe, a village near the proposed mining site and the father of several children, told Mongabay. “This will put an end to crime because criminals will find jobs. Robberies result from hunger and poverty. If Base Toliara comes to life, robbery and poverty will be no more, and the area will develop.”Some villagers told Mongabay that they think of Base Toliara in the same way they think of charities that have worked in the area. The company has already spent $400,000 on social projects, such as the construction of three deep wells. If exploitation commences, Base Toliara will be required by Madagascar law to spend $500,000 annually on social projects; the company says it plans to go beyond that and spend at least $1 million to $2 million.Alexis, a resident of Ranobe, one of the villages closest to the proposed mining site, supports the project, mainly for the jobs it will create and the security this will provide. “Robberies result from hunger and poverty. If Base Toliara comes to life, robbery and poverty will be no more, and the area will develop.” Image by Edward Carver for Mongabay.Madagascar’s mining minister visited the Base Toliara concession area in March and said he would report on the issue to President Andry Rajoelina, who has remained silent on the project but tends to support the extractive industries. The president’s communications team declined to comment for this article. Madagascar’s mining ministry did not respond to requests for comment.Base Toliara’s exploitation permit is of questionable validity. The Madagascar government that issued the 40-year permit in 2012 may not have had the authority to do so. It was a “transition” government led by Rajoelina, who had come to power following a 2009 coup d’état. Rajoelina is now the country’s legitimate president, having won the 2018 election, but his earlier administration had, under international pressure, agreed not to make such far-reaching deals. “The Transitional Government shall be responsible for administering the day-to-day affairs of the country…It will refrain from making new long-term commitments,” reads the Roadmap for Ending the Crisis in Madagascar signed by Rajoelina in September 2011, which became Malagasy law later that year. (It was Rajoelina’s signing of this agreement that allowed him to receive some official recognition by the United Nations, which had previously shunned him.) When Mongabay questioned Base Resources about this issue in an email, Ramahefarivo replied: “The exploitation permit was acquired by the previous owners and is considered valid.”Base Toliara has exploration rights — but not exploitation permits — at three other large concessions in southwest Madagascar. Few people in the region seem to know about these. Base Resources representatives told Mongabay that it has done no research in those three areas and does not know if Malagasy people live there. However, an anthropologist who works in the region told Mongabay that the sites are “absolutely” inhabited; that there are a number of villages and hamlets in and around the concessions, including many that are visible on maps; that the concession areas are important for rice production; and that it was puzzling that Base Resources would deny knowing that.Gano (in red cap) and other members of Zanadriake look at a map of Base Resources’s concessions in the region. One man points at the blue dot that represents Toliara, the city where many of the group’s members live, and where the company is planning to build a small port that they object to. The company plans to begin construction on the concession nearest to Toliara this year. Image by Edward Carver for Mongabay.Banditry or protest?Ramahefarivo referred to the people who burned the company’s campsite as “bandits” in an email to Mongabay, and he told a Malagasy journalist that the idea that the Toliara 9 were defending their rights was a “pure lie”. However, the event was orchestrated in the manner of civil disobedience. About 40 protesters took action together, both men and women, in the light of day. They did not injure anyone; they invited television crews, who recorded the event; and they vandalized property, including samples of ilmenite and zircon, directly in front of gendarmes, who were also filming.The people of Benetse did not feel anyone should be imprisoned for the action. “They are innocent people who protected the tanindraza [the land of the ancestors]” Emma Vazonandrasana, the young woman who tried to see the trial in Fianarantsoa, said of the nine who were arrested, using the Malagasy word for one’s family or community land.Children in a coastal village west of Base Resource’s main mining concession stand near a campaign poster for Théo Rakotovao, a musician who opposes the mining project. Rakotovao ran unsuccessfully for parliament in May. “I entered into politics in order to protect people,” he said. Image by Edward Carver for Mongabay.Even with the Toliara 9 now free, the controversy surrounding the project is likely to continue. The company hopes to ship the first ilmenite in 2021. Opposition groups such as Mazoto have no clear-cut plan to stop the project and seem to be running out of time, but are hoping that their determination will somehow pay off.“If the people don’t agree, the mining company should go home,” said Rakotovao, the musician and opposition leader. “They can exploit mineral sands in Australia.”last_img

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