The mine, the dead fish, the villagers and their protests

Dr Mahatante Paubert, the Minister for Fisheries and the Blue Economy,  addresses protestors in Anosy.

Rio Tinto QMM mine failures 'root of conflict in South Madagascar.'

The gathering mentioned was not organised by QMM...some employees and suppliers chose to join the meeting as is their right.

Protests, road blocks, hostage taking and the firing of guns and tear gas canisters have reverberated through the Anosy region of southern Madagascar since March this year. The conflict follows a fishing ban that left villagers without food security and livelihoods.

The restrictions were put in place after hundreds of dead fish were found floating the local lake - shortly after a mine tailings dam failure and controlled release of a million cubic metres of mine basin water from the Rio Tinto QMM ilmenite mine following heavy storms. The company denies its mine waters caused the fish deaths.

These events came to a head last week, on 19 May 2022, when the military was sent in with guns and tear gas to disperse the protestors who had blocked the road to the QMM mine site at Mandena.

Mine

People were hurt on both sides. The protestors took more than thirty hostages, but immediately released those who were injured. The next day four government ministers travelled from the capital, Antananarivo, to negotiate the release of the remaining hostages and advance a settlement with QMM.

The delegation concluded months of conflict, which began with sit ins at the town hall in March, when it became clear the fishing ban would not be lifted.

The government failed to return reliable laboratory results from testing, and the promised food ‘aid’ was not sufficient for the local community to survive the ongoing lack of resolution.

The President of Madagascar visited the region and weighed into the dispute in April, sending a public message via his Minister of Water that “QMM are responsible for all this”.

QMM continues to deny the fish deaths are related to the mine. But the company did need to secure ‘exceptional permission’ to release its excess mine basin water, which is not compliant with Malagasy regulations due to unauthorised levels of cadmium and aluminium.

Metals

Elevated levels of uranium and lead are also present in QMM’s mine basin water and have been detected downstream of the mine.

Acidic water in combination with metals is a well-documented cause of fish kills. The pH of QMM process water released into wetlands is recorded by national researchers to be similar to vinegar, in the range of pH where adult fish die (Swanson, 2022).

Independent analysis suggests the most plausible cause of the fisk kills is a combination of high aluminium and low pH, which is present in QMM’s process water. Indeed, QMM is currently constructing a plant to ‘treat’ this water management issue.

The gathering mentioned was not organised by QMM...some employees and suppliers chose to join the meeting as is their right.

The Minister for Water has not published the government’s own laboratory reports on the dead fish and water quality. An independent expert studied these reports and highlighted an absence of data and inadequate analysis, such as make a decision on the ban difficult to advise.

QMM insists the reports should be released, despite their scientific shortcomings. Campaigners believe the reports would be used to exonerate QMM, whilst being a travesty of Rio Tinto’s international standards on water and tailings management.

Dismantled

It is unclear whether further official testing has been carried out, leaving the cause of fish kills open to continued rumour and speculation. Meanwhile, an agreement made this week with villagers to begin fishing again, without robust scientific data to support the decision, places the risk of any negative consequences in the hands of local fisherfolk.

Rural villagers frequently carry the unseen costs of the mine. According to a new study by Publish What You Pay Madagascar (PWYP MG 2022), the mine affected communities have lost almost half the value of their previous livelihoods, and endured years of diminished fish stocks, degraded natural resources and health problems as a result of QMM’s impact.

Their complaints have met with unsatisfactory response from QMM, who villagers hold accountable for a decade of failures to address the social crisis caused by the mine.

Some 3,500 villagers mandated the protest leaders to represent their needs and claims.  When questioned by police about who had told them to set up road blocks, villagers replied “my stomach!”

Despite the hardship endured by these villagers, QMM are reported to have urged their sub-contractors and staff to come out on the streets in counter-demonstrations. Locals have been seen waving expensive banners that proclaimed “let us work” - even when the protestors had already dismantled their road block. 

Complexities

QMM has denied involvement in these events. A spokesperson told The Ecologist: "The gathering mentioned was not organised by QMM. It was a peaceful rally by members of the community...some employees and suppliers chose to join the meeting as is their right."

At the same time, campaigners claim that QMM has presented itself as a victim of extortion, characterising village protestors as a small, violent group with no legitimate claims.

Vilifying the rural poor is also not new.  When questions were raised at Rio Tinto's Australian AGM to suggest QMM be held accountable for the crisis in Anosy, the company response was to blame rural populations for the problems in the region.

The Australian Centre for Corporate Responsibility (ACCR), which sent researchers to attended the AGM, immediately issued a press release saying: “QMM is in danger of losing its social licence to operate. The situation in Madagascar appears to represent another failure resulting from Rio Tinto’s degraded social performance function."

Solutions have been slow and elusive to emerge, likely suffering from unseen complexities of a political and economic nature. QMM is in the middle of negotiating its new lease agreement with the Malagasy Government, and the Malagasy elections are also on the horizon for 2023.

Shareholders

Poor communications, depleted trust in the mining company, and QMM’s quasi-state power in the region are also part of the social and political dynamic, affecting relationships and perceptions.

For example, Malagasy media reported that QMM had threatened to leave Madagascar, and townsfolk in Ft Dauphin report that on two occasions they have prepared for the electricity to be cut offs as QMM control the local energy supply.

However, the agreement hammered out last week-end has drawn a line under the immediate tensions, preventing the use of military force on the one side and road blocks on the other. It remains to be seen if the final agreement between QMM and the villagers will hold and whether demands for remedy and compensation will be met in full.

Rio Tinto has promised to “reset” the company after the Juukan Gorge debacle and the damning report of its internal culture of racism, sexism and bullying.

Relations with traditional owners are a priority, according to the board’s address to shareholders at this year’s London AGM, where multiple questions about Madagascar were raised.

In Madagascar, the QMM operation stands out as an example of how not to do community relations.  

Right of Reply

A spokesperson for Rio Tinto QMM told The Ecologist: "For several weeks, there has been an increase in community unrest which has risked the safety and security of our people and members of the host community.

"The decision to curtail operations and maintain only essential services, including electricity to the local communities, was taken until the safety and security position had improved. Our topmost priority is always the safety and wellbeing of our people and host communities.

"Our focus has been on finding lasting solutions so that QMM can return to normal operations in a sustainable manner.

"We are grateful for the support provided to us by local authorities, the Governor of the Anosy region, the communities and our people, over recent weeks and we will continue to work with them and the local communities as we implement the agreement reached."

The statement adds: "QMM dismisses the direct cause-and-effect link between the discovery of these dead fish and its activities. Contrary to the claims in the article, we have never threatened to close the operation down or to stop production of electricity for our local communities."

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. 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. Yvonne lived and worked in southern Madagascar to develop social and environmental programmes and has followed the evolution of the Rio Tinto/QMM mine for over twenty-six years.

 

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