Fishfolk protest Rio Tinto mine

| 24th November 2021 |
The villagers of Andrakaraka, southern Madagascar, are protesting against the Rio Tinto QMM ilmenite mine.

I lived better than a civil servant. Now my eighteen-year-old twin sons are in town begging in the streets,

Fisherfolk in Andrakaraka, a village in the Anosy Region of southern Madagascar, are protesting against the Rio Tinto QMM ilmenite mine, which is situated next to their community.

They claim the QMM mine is affecting the quality of water in the local lake Ambavarano and waterways where they fish and collect drinking water, with detrimental impacts on health and a huge  cost to their livelihoods due to reduced fish stocks.

A member of the village told The Ecologist: “When there was no (QMM) weir, the minimum we gain was 60,000 Ariary. We were really great. Currently, we barely earn 5,000 Ariary when we go fishing, when life becomes more expensive and our income is not enough. We are suffering, we are really suffering, because QMM does not care about us.” 

Reduced Fish Stocks

In the past, tidal influxes from the Indian Ocean into the local estuary system ensured an occasional brackish quality to the lake Ambavarano, which allowed certain species of fish to flourish.  

Rio Tinto/ QMM constructed a weir - small dam to control water flow - on the lake in order to manage water levels around its mining operation.

Villagers claim that since the weir was built, 90 percent of the local fish species they traditionally caught and they need to sustain their lives have disappeared, or stocks have been dramatically depleted.

The impact has been disastrous. “I lived better than a civil servant. Now my eighteen-year-old twin sons are in town begging in the streets,” a villager said

Foregone conclusion

The local environmental regulator and the mining company knew the impact of the weir could be significant but efforts to mitigate against ensuing losses to villagers have been pitiful, or failed due to poor design. The fisherfolk’s plight was reported internationally at least ten years ago.

I lived better than a civil servant. Now my eighteen-year-old twin sons are in town begging in the streets,

Sixteen years ago, the World Bank warned that the QMM mine could have this impact. In its 2005 appraisal of the QMM project it characterised the conversion of the lagoon system near the mine site to a permanent freshwater system as “essentially irreversible, the conversion may affect subsistence fishery”.

The villager added: “What hurts us the most is that if QMM knew that the weir was going to ruin us, the company should continue to compensate us. Because currently, we are really in poverty”.

Water quality

Villager testimonies suggest that the environmental impacts of the QMM mine on local peoples’ lives in Mandena have become exacerbated over the past ten years, especially regards local water quality. As does a community study by PWYP MG in 2020.

Local civil society called on the government to research the quality of the lake water following an overflow incident at the QMM mine in 2018, after which dead fish were found floating in the lake.

As a result, in 2019, the Malagasy Centre for Environmental Research (CNRE) sampled lake water and recommended “rigorous monitoring of heavy metal concentration levels in mining basins that may impact the natural environment.”

Requests made to the Malagasy environment regulator and to Rio Tinto/QMM for the CNRE’s report to be made public have met with silence and inaction.

Local governance around the mine is lacking transparency and is severely “compromised”, according to a local Deputy and civil society representatives.

International Call to Action

Since 2019 a series of Independent studies  have demonstrated high levels of uranium and lead in waters downstream of the QMM mine with a detrimental impact on regional water quality.

National and International civil society actors have been raising awareness about the water issues, publicly calling upon Rio Tinto to ensure QMM manage its mine wastewater effectively, and demanding the company provide safe drinking water access to mine affected communities in the Mandena area.

Rio Tinto denies QMM is contaminating local waterways. Rather than fulfil its international sustainability and water commitments, it has been wasting time, drawing under-resourced NGOs and civil society into protracted and hollow discussions in an effort to avoid answering hard questions or provide meaningful action to meet community needs and demands.

Andrew Lees Trust
(c) Andrew Lees Trust

Advice Ignored

The company is not listening to its own advisers. Following demands from international NGOs and researchers to be more directly engaged with mine-affected communities, members of QMM’s external advisory panel, the International Independent Advisory Panel (IIAP), met with fisherfolk from Andrakaraka in November 2019.

The IIAP reported serious impacts of the QMM mine on this community and concluded: “It is doubtful that any other community in the area has suffered greater direct damage to its livelihood from the mine’s operations."

They made pressing recommendations two years ago for QMM to make reparation for the fisherfolk’s lost livelihoods. However, testimony from community members suggest little has been done by Rio Tinto /QMM to address the deleterious impacts of the mine on their health and livelihoods.

Endless Disjoint

Following Rio Tinto’s destruction of the Juukan Gorge, the company is falling over itself to emphasise new efforts to improve relations with traditional owners. However there remains huge disjoint between the rhetoric and the reality of QMM’s social engagement and dialogue processes with local communities.

The Fisherfolk have expressed their frustration with the lack of any meaningful progress with Rio Tinto/QMM by publicly protesting and blocking the road to the mine.

Two representatives from the fishing association who led the protests were arrested. One was injured by police, and refused legal and medical assistance.

The mining company has a long-standing agreement regional law and order forces in order to ensure local security. Unfortunately, it is not villagers’ rights to food, economic, or environmental security that are being protected.

Following the protests, local negotiations have taken place and are ongoing. The two arrested were granted “provisional release”.  The Honorary President of the Fishing Association faces a tribunal at the end of the month, accused of incitement.   

This Author

Yvonne Orengo is an independent communications consultant and director of the Andrew Lees Trust (ALT UK) a British charity set up following the death of its namesake in 1994. She lived and worked in southern Madagascar to develop the Trust’s social and environmental programmes and has followed the evolution of the Rio Tinto/QMM mine for over twenty-six years. ALT UK is working with Publish What You Pay (PWYP) Madagascar and international campaigners to research and advocate about the impacts of the QMM mine on rural communities in Anosy region, Southern Madagascar.

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