Rio Tinto: the long road to transparency

| 22nd November 2018
Indigenous communities fear water essential to life is becoming contaminated by the nearby ilmenite mine.

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Inhabitants of the Anosy region of Madagascar say they no longer know their rights in relation to Rio Tinto’s Qit Minerals Madagascar (QMM) ilmenite mine along the island’s southeast coastline.

Villagers living in Ampasy Nahampoana fear the mine will soon approach their food production zone. Neighbours in Andrakaraka believe the mine has extended beyond its permitted limits and now comes within 20 to 30 metres of the nearby lake.

But indigenous communities face enormous challenges to protect their rights and hold the company to account. “QMM does what it wants,” they claim.

Under scrutiny

The Andrew Lees Trust (ALT UK) has asked Rio Tinto to be transparent about the encroachment of the QMM mine beyond its legal limits and is working in solidarity with local people to address their concerns.

The primary issue for locals is the risk of radionuclide-enriched water from the mine tailings leaching into adjacent lakes and waterways where people fish and use the water. These are  meant to be protected by the environmental buffer zone, which has been breached by QMM.

ALT UK first brought these issues to public attention in The Ecologist. The charity challenged the company about the breach at the Rio Tinto annual general meeting last year (2017).

The charity was immediately invited into a dialogue with Rio Tinto’s executive. The charity advised shareholders and the Rio Tinto board that any exchange with the company would require transparency and open disclosure.

ALT UK was assured publicly by Rio Tinto’s chair that the company was committed to transparency, and the CEO appeared ready to open a route where concerns would be addressed, evidence provided, and questions answered.

In reality, the dialogue has taken almost a year and a half to date, and the majority of questions have still not been answered. The process has been eye wateringly protracted and challenging; data release has been slow, requiring persistent requests, or has not materialised at all.

A dialogue process of this kind would be impossibly onerous for the majority of the affected communities in Anosy, who are living on less than $2 a day and struggling to put one meal on the table.

Transparency

The Ecologist published a story about the QMM buffer zone violation in September 2018. The company said at the time: "Contrary to allegations that we have not shared information, QMM have been very transparent, working with the Andrew Lees Trust in an unprecedented way over the past 15 months.”

In fact, ALT UK never alleged that information has not been shared. Indeed, ALT UK has received numerous documents and emails, from or via the London HQ, as well as multiple verbal exchanges.

However, these have not addressed in a substantive way any of the detailed technical questions posed to Rio Tinto about the buffer zone violation or how QMM evidences its claimed compliance with national laws and permissions.

ALT UK commissioned an independent report by Dr Steven Emerman of Malach Consulting on the buffer violation and shared it with Rio Tinto. After five months, and despite repeated prompting, the charity is still waiting for a meaningful response.

The charity’s submissions to Rio Tinto on this subject since June 2018 include two reports and four letters that contain multiple technical questions, but these have not been answered.

QMM continued to deny the buffer zone violation in its latest correspondence, received in September this year (2018).

QMM has told ALT UK to address half its technical questions “to the regulator”, and therefore refused to directly answer detailed enquiries. This is simply pushing responsibility for the mine’s actions and impacts onto the Malagasy regulator.

Transparency re-distributed

The regulator in this case is the National Office for the Environment (ONE) in Madagascar, which is tasked with monitoring extractive activity and the QMM mine’s compliance with environmental regulations.

Rio Tinto/QMM claims ONE has recently validated QMM’s compliance with permissions granted against its approved Social and Environmental Management Plan (SEMP) 2014-2018.

ALT UK questions how ONE has reached its conclusions when, in over five months, Rio Tinto has been unable to explain, in writing, how its violation of the buffer zone complies with the SEMP; and when both Rio Tinto’s study by Ozius and ALT UK’s by Dr Emerman clearly demonstrate encroachment of the buffer zone onto the lake bed of Lake Besaroy, in breach of national laws.

ONE’s report is not yet publicly available. Local people in Anosy claim there was no consultation for this latest report, as would normally be expected.

ONE’s failure to consult has raised serious concerns locally, some of which have been voiced all the way to ministerial level. The word on the ground is that the relationship between QMM and ONE is “compromised”.

Far from allaying fears, the role of the regulator in verifying QMM’s “compliance” has deepened concerns to a whole new level; most specifically to the nature of the relationship between QMM and ONE, and the mechanisms for transparency and accountability available for local citizens.

ALT UK understands that ONE recently received financial support from QMM.

Extractives like QMM are allowed – if not actively expected – to contribute financially to ONE under the state’s decree 99-954/99 “Relative to the Compatibility of Investments with the Environment” (MECIE).

Such payments to government bodies are meant to be transparent - a statement from the company about what was paid by QMM to ONE, and when, would be welcome.

Expert consensus

ALT UK’s push for transparency has been framed by repeatedly requiring the company to respond to Dr Emerman’s findings on the buffer zone violation and all related questions in writing.

The company has insisted that questions would best be resolved if ALT UK would place its expert in a room with Rio Tinto’s, so they can “reach consensus”.

Firstly, ALT UK believes there is already consensus between Rio Tinto’s external expert provider, Ozius, and ALT UK’s expert, Dr Emerman, since both clearly define encroachment by the QMM mine beyond the approved buffer zone limitation in their separate technical studies.

Secondly, ALT UK has questioned where Rio Tinto’s internal expert/s have been hiding all these months since they have failed to produce any substantive answers to the questions sent to date.

Rio Tinto has instead forwarded on to ALT UK memos from their external consultants and internal memoranda, some of which have not been dated or lacked provenance. These have generated new concerns and yet more questions, all of which remain on the table, unanswered.

Seeking Answers

It is ALT UK who has urgently and repeatedly sought to engage Rio Tinto about its incongruent “interpretations” of the scientific data.

An urgent request to meet was sent to Rio Tinto immediately following the submission of Dr Emerman’s findings at the end of May 2018.

This was followed up with further, repeated, verbal and emailed requests. ALT UK was finally told it would have to wait until late September in order to re-engage the executive with whom it began the buffer zone discussion seventeen months earlier.

Nobody from Rio Tinto attempted to move the meeting forward following The Ecologist article in September. ALT UK also reached out to the newly formed Rio Tinto/QMM biodiversity panel in the hope they might review the ALT UK/Emerman report during their planned visit to the mine, in early October.

Independent oversight

Rio Tinto has two new panels in place for ‘oversight’ on the QMM mine in the Anosy region. The three member Biodiversity and Natural Resources Committee, with a secretariat provided by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), has just been created and has met twice.

QMM’s previous biodiversity committee collapsed two years ago when the entire membership resigned, stating that Rio Tinto’s stance towards biodiversity presented a “reputational risk” for the committee members.

If the new committee is simply advisory, as has been the case in the past, then it remains to be seen whether it has teeth to rigorously question and effect meaningful changes to QMM’s performance and practices on the ground.

The second panel, also newly appointed, reported from its first trip in 2017 that QMM is “one of the cleanest mines in the world”. It is unclear on what basis such a conclusion was reached since environmental considerations were beyond the purview of their first mission.

The panel also reported it was “unable to consult directly with people living in the areas affected by QMM operations”. Instead, its members spent three days on the ground mostly examining issues around the port traffic, as “commended to our attention by QMM”.

Co-option and power asymmetry

It is almost impossible for local citizens to engage international evaluators, or enter into a protracted process of discovery when they are living hand to mouth.

So who can they rely upon to independently evaluate and transparently monitor how QMM goes about its operations? Who will hold QMM to account if it transgresses local peoples’ rights and environment?

This question assumes that local people’s complaints and concerns are taken seriously. This is a risky assumption. One QMM staff was overheard complaining that local people “just don’t want the gifts of development we can offer”.

In reality no one asked the locals what they wanted and whether the narrative pushed on them through externally driven development by private, corporate interests meets their needs, or resembles any of their aspirations.

Rural existence - and the survival of the poorest in Madagascar - is wholly dependent on access to land and forest. Such lives inevitably fall into conflict with externally driven, western-styled development when it prohibits their access to these vital natural resources - as the QMM mine has done.

This is even more true because QMM has co-opted most of the state and non-state actors, including NGOs. There are almost no agencies in the Anosy region that are not implicated - funded or involved in some way - in the development paradigm created by Rio Tinto’s QMM mine under the World Bank’s Integrated Growth Pole (PIC) programme.

QMM has become the only game in town and enjoys quasi-state power in the region, and can act with apparent impunity.

The resultant power asymmetry has shrunk the space for alternative views and respect for traditional visions of life and well-being.

The space to discuss whose vision is important has been controlled by QMM since the Anosy regional development plan was created, led by QMM’s paid Canadian consultant almost twenty years ago, and has diminished ever since.

Road to transparency

Rio Tinto HQ needs to honestly address QMM’s failings and rebalance the disproportionate levels of power it exercises in advancing and protecting its agenda in the Anosy region.

In this, Rio Tinto has a way to travel before it can convince local people and many international observers that it is transparent in its dealings, robustly monitored by independent bodies, and ready to act with integrity when caught failing to meet its obligations to local people, their rights and well-being.

ALT UK is still waiting for a written explanation for how the buffer zone violation can be characterised as “compliant”.

Eighteen months after ALT UK first raised the issue, Rio Tinto says that a team will be dispatched to Anosy and that a substantive written response will be forthcoming.

It is hoped this exercise will enable the company to finally acknowledge what it already knows: QMM has violated the environmental buffer zone in southern Madagascar.

All of which means three big questions come to the fore, namely: What will the Malagasy government do to hold the company to account for breaking national laws? How will the company remediate its unacceptable environmental violation? And how can local communities be made aware of and protected from the ensuing risks?

No one said the road to transparency would be easy but, as Andrew Lees loved to quote, “the truth will set you free.”

Right to Reply

Rio Tinto and QMM take their responsibilities to the communities and environment around the Fort Dauphin operations very seriously and have done so since the project’s inception in 2006.

We continue to engage openly and transparently with the author of this article, Ms Orengo, and the Andrew Lees Trust UK, most recently in October 2018. We have invited them on repeated occasions to come to Madagascar to see first-hand the conditions on the ground in and around the mine.

We are disappointed that they have declined every invitation. We also estimate that over the last two years, we have provided ALT UK with more than 120 pages of detailed information on a wide range of topics they have raised. They have also met with our senior executives on a number of occasions.

Many of the questions posed by ALT are very specific and technical so they require time to research before we can respond to them.  We have however never failed to acknowledge any requests and ultimately respond.

Further to this engagement, we are currently undertaking a technical study into a number of their allegations and we have committed to making this report public when it is completed. It will be translated into Malagasy for the benefit of all our local stakeholders.

Monitoring activities

QMM fully respects the oversight rights, capacity and prerogatives of the Malagasy regulator and laws, and has always followed due process in applying for its permits. Our code of business conduct, The way we work, sets out how we follow both local laws and our own international standards wherever we operate.

We have always taken a proactive, rights-based and collaborative approach to discussions with communities surrounding the Mandena mine and in establishing agreements with those impacted by the mine’s operations. This includes ensuring continued access to resources, pasture land and walking pathways within the mining concession.

QMM worked with government to ensure that the rights of all traditional land owners within the mining concession were recognised. This was done through an open process and resulted in a signed tri-partite agreement in Malagasy between all parties - communities, local authorities and QMM.

Building strong and enduring partnerships based on trust, proactive dialogue and mutual benefits is a key element in QMM’s ongoing approach with communities and stakeholders. Since the project’s inception in 2006, QMM has worked with local communities to improve the economic conditions of the area and wellbeing of the population. It continues to provide jobs, local procurement, economic growth opportunities, youth development and power locally.

As per Malagasy law, QMM is required to fund certain monitoring activities conducted by the regulator as per our Social & Environmental Management Plan. There are examples of similar practices in a number of jurisdictions around the world. This is set out in a formal signed protocol between ONE and QMM.

This Author

Yvonne Orengo is an independent communications practitioner and director of the Andrew Lees Trust, a British charity set up following the death of its namesake in Madagascar in 1994. Yvonne was based in Madagascar for more than six years, and developed the ALT UK’s strategic programme; she has followed the evolution of Rio Tinto's QMM project for more than two decades.

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