National Geographic
Menu

Iron Mountain: “Net Positive Impact” After Mine Closure (Part 2 of 2)

Image courtesy of Rio Tinto Simandou

“Net Positive Impact” on biodiversity at closure in the Simandou Project would be a ground-breaking achievement and working example for the global mining industry. Mining and resource companies need to realise that continued increases in global production can only be accommodated through the development of innovative, new technologies that minimise social, environmental and biodiversity impacts after mine closure. The Rio Tinto Biodiversity Strategy was unveiled at the 2004 International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) World Congress in Bangkok, and was very favourably received by the wider conservation community. The idea of “Net Positive Impact” on biodiversity after mine closure was deemed a step in the right direction.

The Simandou Project will make Rio Tinto the largest iron ore producer in the world. Since 2002, they have remained focussed on better understanding local ecosystems, forest habitat and the wildlife that depend on them. This accumulated knowledge and stated intention needs to deliver an example of “Net Positive Impact” in a massive “greenfield” mining development in a poor, undeveloped country. Investing, for example, in R&D for large-scale suspended conveyor systems that would save valuable Upper Guinea forests, streams, water catchment area, and emergent hardwood trees, should be a priority. In the case of the Simandou Project, suspended conveyors were reviewed by experts as being the most environmentally-friendly option, but the idea was unfortunately abandoned in favour of the conventional conveyor system due to being “unproven technology”. This demonstrates on a small scale the decision-making system large, risky mining developments have to adopt in places like West Africa. To make “Net Positive Impact” a reality it needs to be central to the decision-making system moving forward. Streamlining mining operations, minimising risk, and maximising profit need to be secondary considerations if the global mining industry is going to continue establishing new mines for the rest of this century.

Image courtesy of Rio Tinto Simandou

There is very little Rio Tinto can do about the socio-economic upheaval caused by a mining development of this magnitude. The railway is going to establish new “boom” towns supplying contractors, the growing labour force, and thousands of service providers. What were once small trading stores will become the nuclei of new towns near sensitive forest patches and wildlife populations. Illegal logging and poaching could increase until all the wildlife is gone and we are left with Peter Matthiessen’s “African Silence”. This is a fate we should not wish upon any landscape or people that used to have it all. Can Rio Tinto achieve “Net Positive Benefit” with these additional pressures? Extreme measures need to be taken to mitigate these impacts and either the Guinean government or Rio Tinto need to guarantee long-term social, environmental and biodiversity offsets. This is the best and sometimes only way local communities derive direct benefit from mining developments like the Simandou Project. Cultural museums and art galleries need to be built to protect cultural identity. Local communities need new schools, clinics, and transport networks to accommodate rapid growth. Who’s responsibility is this? African governments need to figure this out.

Image courtesy of Rio Tinto Simandou

Guinea has adequate environmental legislation developed under the guidance of development experts. They are, however, the first to point out that they have limited capacity to monitor or review SEIAs (Social and Environmental Impact Assessments) for large mining developments. Guinean officials and regulators, mining companies and the World Bank also have a vested interest in the Simandou Project moving forward. The lack of an independently-funded “clearing house” for SEIAs linked to large greenfield mining developments around the world has become a necessity, especially in Africa.

To their credit Rio Tinto have continued with the SEIA process since 2002 and have already published the official SEIA report online. Suitable upfront environmental, social or biodiversity offsets have, however, not yet been identified. Significant and costly changes to mining operations and cycle are planned, but still need commercial approval before guarantees are made. Developing Africa’s largest-ever open pit mines in a well-studied biodiversity hotspot necessitates a record-breaking upfront social, environmental and biodiversity offsets, as well as massive investment in R&D for new technologies that minimise all impacts of greenfield mining exploration, construction and operations. Does this comprehensive SEIA report represents “process” or “progress”? Post your comment below.

Image courtesy of Rio Tinto Simandou

In 2009, Tata Steel agreed not to carry out mining in Mount Nimba World Heritage Site in south-eastern Guinea. The IUCN acknowledged this accommodation, but made it clear that existing mining operations on the mountain range are still a significant threat to these world-class forests. An SEIA decades ago would have said the same thing.

An apparent example of the failure of the SEIA process is Guinea’s largest mine, the Sangaredi Bauxite Mine, in western Guinea. This area was previously almost all Upper Guinea forest. Biodiversity surveys as part of the SEIA process for the area surrounding the bauxite mine and proposed aluminium processing plant demonstrated that this mining development fell within and threatened one of the world’s most biologically rich, yet seriously threatened, ecosystems and should be prioritised for protection. The preliminary biodiversity studies for Sangaredi identified five reptile species, 17 amphibian species, 140 bird species, 16 mammal species, and eight primates (including Endangered West African chimpanzee and western red colobus). Local wildlife populations have since collapsed, the Upper Guinea forests have dwindled. Local communities are reported to have benefitted little from the bauxite mine and remain without power, job opportunities or the land to which they have heritage rights. The proposed aluminium processing plant had the potential to boost the local economy far more than the export of raw bauxite to lucrative aluminium refineries overseas, but will most likely never be built. Lots of promises, an expensive SEIA report, and the forests are still destroyed and wildlife all but lost. See the satellite images below from 1986 and 2007.

Satellite image from 11 February 1986 of the area surrounding of Sangaredi Mine in an area previously dominated by Upper Guinea forest. West African chimpanzee and western red colobus are threatened due to the mine. (AFRICA Atlas of Our Changing Environment / UNEP 2008)
Satellite image from 11 February 1986 of the area surrounding of Sangaredi Mine in an area previously dominated by Upper Guinea forest. West African chimpanzee and western red colobus are threatened due to the mine. (AFRICA
Atlas of Our Changing Environment / UNEP 2008)
Satellite image from 26 March 2007 showing the deforestation and degradation of surrounding Upper Guinea forests due to population increase and booming demand for fuelwood and building materials. (AFRICA Atlas of Our Changing Environment / UNEP 2008)
Satellite image from 26 March 2007 showing the deforestation and degradation of surrounding Upper Guinea forests due to population increase and booming demand for fuelwood and building materials. (AFRICA
Atlas of Our Changing Environment / UNEP 2008)

SEIAs for large “greenfield” mining developments cost tens of millions of dollars and are most often only undertaken once the ore body has been explored, mining rights secured, and investment acquired. The development of SEIAs for “greenfield” mining developments on the Africa, like the Simandou Project, has never actually halted development or investment – not that this is the purpose – and seldom results in significant changes to mining operations. Even the derivation of suitable biodiversity, ecological and social offsets is often not part of the process.

The IUCN and United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) are currently discussing the establishment of an independent “clearing house” for all SEIAs linked to large greenfield mining developments in developing countries, starting in the exploration, prospecting and investment stages and tracking theses developments until mine closure.

Most SEIAs for large mining developments are funded by the World Bank and mining companies concerned. This system has become more about due process, due diligence, and minimising risk to investors and developers. Most press releases and information available online for new mining developments in Africa and around the world are focussed on influencing investment and investor confidence.

Image courtesy of Rio Tinto Simandou

Mining companies are open about being very controlling of the research data they gather on investment properties like the Simandou Project, citing that they are wary of what activists will do with this data out of context. The risk of derailing billions of dollars of investment due to mis-informed public outcry is good reason to restrict access to sensitive information before official reports are made available, but this cannot be at the cost of transparency and open access to information.

Social, environmental and biodiversity consultants that did higher degrees to better conserve and learn about the natural world are paid generous consulting fees for reports, surveys and additional studies for SEIA reports linked to large greenfield mining developments. These consultants do not own their research data or photographs and are bound by confidentiality and restraint agreements, often resulting in important findings about new, rare or endangered species being kept from the scientific community for years.

Hundreds of biodiversity and wildlife research projects in remote, inaccessible parts of the world have, however, been funded by mining companies as part of the SEIA process. Novel research data that poses no potential threat to progress in the mining development has been actively promoted and supported by large mining companies. Conferences have been sponsored and conservation NGOs have been funded by mining and resource companies. Mining companies need to accept that in the future, if consultants are not allowed to work independently within their area of expertise, then the SEIA process is null and void. Vested interests and billions of dollars at stake will skew research results and encourage consultants to gloss over certain findings and observations.

Image courtesy of Rio Tinto Simandou (Photographer: Piotr Naskrecki)

All of the biodiversity and environmental consultants that I interviewed as part of this investigation into the Simandou Project were all reluctant to provide information and photographs, citing the risk of breaking confidentiality and restraint agreements. They also cited the threat of losing lucrative contracts on upcoming mining developments as the reason for requests of anonymity. All consultants said that they had great photographs from Pic de Fon Classified Forest and the Simandou Mountains, but could not share them. All were concerned about the future of Simandou’s forests and the wildlife that depends on them. All were unable to assist with detailed information or publications from their research data.

Image courtesy of Rio Tinto Simandou

We need to re-assess how we regulate greenfield mining developments on the African continent and around the world. The IUCN and UNEP have undertaken to create a new position geared at developing the new “clearing house” for SEIAs linked to large greenfield mining developments in developing countries. This position will focus on acquiring GEF funding to establish a new program that focusses on mining developments in countries with limited local capacity to advise and oversee the SEIA process and the mining development itself. Complete transparency and no restrictions on experts and researchers will protect mining and resource companies from activists, as nothing is being hidden and everything is being done to accommodate the prescriptions of the official SEIA. Mining companies need to accept that they must pay for and drive the SEIA process, but cannot control or restrict open access to research data and findings of social, environmental and biodiversity consultants. We need to nurture a culture of open disclosure and transparency. Over the last 100 years there have been simply too many examples around the world of the devastating results of mining developments on local communities and living landscapes they depend upon.

Image courtesy of Rio Tinto Simandou

The time is fast approaching when we have to choose between the last wild places and population growth, economic development, and consumerism. We have come to realise that it is one or the other, natural habitat and biodiversity or economic development and progress. The reality today is that mining, agriculture and human settlement are unable to sustainably coexist with sensitive natural ecosystems whether they be wetlands, beaches, reefs, deserts, mountains or forests. Biodiversity offsets are an effort to compensate for development and habitat destruction by protecting or restoring ecosystems equivalent to the landscapes being destroyed. Here in South Africa we have just introduced the “Mining And Biodiversity Guideline: Mainstreaming Biodiversity Into The Mining Sector”, a comprehensive mining-specific guideline with tools designed to integrate biodiversity considerations into planning and operations from exploration through to mine closure. A step in the right direction by a developed mining sector in South Africa with an over-abundance of local capacity.

Image courtesy of Rio Tinto Simandou

Guinea is not there yet and needs to take similar steps by establishing a “West African Mining and Biodiversity Forum” that drives the integration of biodiversity conservation into all stages of mining activity from prospecting to ongoing habitat restoration and rehabilitation work after mine closure. As a rule, funding needs to be secured upfront for these activities. In basic terms, Guinea is simply not ready to consider new, unexplored greenfield mining prospect until their mining sector has developed sustainably under local ownership, regulation and governance. Local capacity building in environmental management and biodiversity conservation is essential if the Republic of Guinea is going to guarantee the sustainable management and preservation of their diverse natural and cultural heritage for future generations.

“heli-king-fisher” Pied kingfishers have the unique ability to hover over feeding sites before plunging into the water to catch fish, tadpoles and insects, and have spread across Africa and Asia with this advantageous ability. (Stephen Mostert)

Guinea’s government needs clear financial commitments and biodiversity offsets to accommodate the upheaval caused by the Rio Tinto’s Simandou Project and other iron ore mining developments along the Mountain Range. More than that, the Guinean people need solid guarantees that all profits are invested in developing infrastructure and stimulating economic growth that benefits all. Decades in the making the Simandou Project could be a shot in the arm for Guinea’s mining industry that could develop gold, diamond, and uranium mines in the near future. Oil reserves have been discovered offshore and could also fund decades of development in Guinea. The Simandou Project could be exactly what Guinea needs if approached with a long-term view beyond the 20-25 year mining cycle supported by debt-free 50% local ownership. Exporting raw materials to China and elsewhere is not going to solve Guinea’s socio-economic problems and long-term developmental aspirations. The active development and protection (via trade agreements) of locally-owned mining, processing and manufacturing industries in Guinea will add value, create jobs, and empower local Guineans.

(Steve Boyes)

Rio Tinto recently confirmed the signature of agreements with Guinea’s government that guarantee their two blocks (3 and 4) in the southern part of the Simandou Mountains are managed according to the prescriptions of a comprehensive SEIA undertaken over the last 12 years. Therefore, part of the ore body in Pic de Fon will most likely not be mined and the mining sequence will delay mining operations in the most important chimpanzee habitat by up to 20 years. In addition, the massive crushers, ground-based conveyors and rail loop will be moved to the eastern side of the mountain to avoid unnecessarily degradation to important Upper Guinea forests. Rio Tinto is still, however, aiming to mine over 30% of the total area of the Pic de Fon, a unique partially-protected forest. Local wildlife (specifically chimpanzees) will eventually be displaced into newly restored and protected Upper Guinea forest patches in the foothills within 20 years. Specific biodiversity offsets remain unclear and should be the next priority. This is all subject to “commercial approval for implementation” when Rio Tinto and their partners make the final decision on whether to go ahead with the Simandou Project in the coming months.

Image courtesy of Rio Tinto Simandou

Community-based forest restoration projects could be a suitable biodiversity offset, but will take decades longer than the mining to complete and will cost millions of dollars. Forests take hundreds of years to re-establish themselves after significant disturbance and subsequent rehabilitation and restoration. The Simandou communities should receive the necessary funds upfront in an endowment that guarantees delivery of world-class forest reserves within a biosphere reserve or multinational UNESCO World Heritage Site that celebrates these unique mountains and some of the last-remaining intact Upper Guinea forests. The people of Konyan highlands and Simandou Mountains need a voice that brings their protests and concerns to the world. They need a board of well-meaning conservationists, leaders and policymakers managing an endowment that makes local people the chief benefactors of Rio Tinto’s Simandou Project in the southern concessions (Blocks 3 & 4), as well as Vale’s mining developments in the two northern blocks (1 & 2).

Image courtesy of Rio Tinto Simandou (Photographer: Piotr Naskrecki)

World powers (e.g. United States, France, Great Britain, China, Germany and most other developed countries (except Canada and Australia) do not have the necessary raw materials and natural resources to sustain future economic growth and development. Rare earth minerals, platinum, gold, iron ore, oil, uranium, bauxite and much else are most abundant on the African continent. With this growing dependence on African resources for sustainable development there should be a corresponding power shift to the African continent. The next few decades are going to be extremely important for Africa’s future and privately-funded greenfield mining developments like the Simandou Project should only be undertaken with shared local ownership and guarantees that local processing and manufacturing plants will be established. This is “no-brainer” for developed countries that discover new, exploitable natural resources in their own countries. The current shale gas boom in the United States is uplifting local communities and reducing dependence on foreign fossil fuels. Local Americans are benefitting from these energy developments and the country is emerging from recession. Local ownership guarantees Guinea the same privilege.

(Tim Geysbeek)

We must to do everything we can to protect the last-remaining Upper Guinea forests along the Simandou Mountains. Mining and resource companies, as well as their investors, need to accept even more risk and guarantee delivery on broad-based social, environmental and biodiversity offsets. Hospitals, clinics, ambulances, schools, youth centres, museums, art galleries, adult education centres and orphanages need to be funded. New protected areas, long-term reforestation and forest restoration projects, ecotourism development must be motivated and financed. A endowment fund must be established for small enterprise development and skills development. Cellular networks and access to internet must also receive significant upfront investment from developers. The Simandou Mountains are not a barren landscape, but rather green, living ecosystems with mighty mountains of iron, chimpanzees, monkeys, rivers, diverse birdlife, people and forests. The development of open pit mines along this remote, undeveloped mountain range must be considered the global mining industry’s last chance to prove that “Net Positive Impact” is possible in remote greenfield mining developments…

Previous blogs in series:

Rio Tinto Simandou: Exporting iron mountains (Part 1 of 2)

Rio Tinto Simandou: World’s Richest Poor Country!? (Part 2 of 2)

> Iron Mountain: The New “Scramble For Africa”? (Part 1 of 2)

Comments

  1. Liz
    South Africa
    February 24, 10:49 am

    Excellent article. Although it is always difficult finding a ‘balance’ between the social, economic and natural systems that are affected in such projects, one should consider long term implications of the land use and down the line impacts. The SEIA’s are meant to speak up for the biodiveristy and value of the natural areas, but this voice is very small compared to the loud voices of the politicians, mining developers and people on the ground who want their lives to change. Sadly until such time as humans do not require large volumes of minerals, power and technology, the development almost always sways in the favour of the mine. Education, awareness and reduction in consumerism can certainly help but perhaps it will already be too late. Thanks for creating awareness in this case Steve – hopefully it gets the attention it deserves.

  2. Debojit Mahato
    India.
    February 21, 11:49 am

    Awasome…..