Justice in Mining
Rio Tinto AGM 2022
Fish deaths in Southern Madagascar due to local mine dam failure
On a daily basis each of us uses phones, cosmetics, paint or other manufactured items that are the result of mineral extraction. Living with the convenience of a mobile phone, the ability to renovate our homes and businesses or look our best on a night out we simply do not realise that our lifestyle often rests on the labours of people thousands of miles away who may be living in poor conditions and dealing with the environmental impact of the mining industry.
This industry is global and is found in both developed and developing countries. Yet in the developing world the infrastructure is often not in place if something goes wrong. There is a ongoing concern about the ethical implications and the consequences for those in the poorest and most marginalised regions.
In Madagascar Jesuit Missions supports Centre Arrupe in the capital, Antananarivo. The project provides environmental awareness and training through conferences, leadership workshops, environmental restoration and research. It exists to put into practice the commitment of the Society of Jesus to the service of faith and the promotion of justice, particularly in light of Pope Francis’ Encyclical, Laudato Si and the urgent need to care for our common home, in a land at great risk of environmental degradation as a result of climate change.
Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world with 82% of the population living in poverty. It is also one the most important places in the world for biodiversity. More than 80% of its flora and fauna is unique to the island. The Southern part of Madagascar is the poorest region and this is where the most controversial mineral extraction is taking place.
The Rio Tinto mining corporation is based in London. It’s website highlights that the materials that it mines are essential for a low carbon transition. The Rio Tinto website also focuses on its environmental credentials. It has been extracting ilmenite in Madagascar since 2005. However, the benefits of the mine to the local community and its environmental impact continue to be seen as contentious.
Ilmenite is a source of titanium dioxide which is used to create the white pigment found in the production of cosmetics, paint and paper. The local population have not always benefited from the work that the mine has created because many of the jobs have attracted applicants from other parts of the country, rather than from the local area.
Back-to-back droughts in 2019-2021created unparalleled conditions prompting famine in some parts of the region. According to the World Food Programme as of December 2021 1.47 million people in the region need urgent assistance. [i] Cyclones which hit this year have brought torrential rains and flooding which have impacted the reliability of the dam at the Rio Tinto site. In recent years the dam has failed twice, meaning that a million cubic metres of mine processed water has been channelled into the local drinking water, lakes and rivers.
The excess water, containing uranium and lead, has killed fish in surrounding lakes, and has placed additional pressures on food security. Many local people depend on subsistence fishing for their daily food and livelihoods. Both chemicals are harmful if ingested. Uranium can cause kidney damage and lead can impede mental and physical development in children. The local governor has banned people from fishing due to the health risks involved. However, many depend on fishing both for food and as a source of income. A national political crisis has resulted, with the Malagasy President, Andry Rajoelina, questioning Rio Tinto’s practices.
The Rio Tinto AGM took place on Friday 8th April at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in Westminster. Brother Stephen Power SJ, Chair of the Jesuit Missions Management Board and a trustee of the Jesuits in Britain, and Colm Fahy, Advocacy and Campaigns Officer, at Jesuit Missions attended. Both had an opportunity to ask questions.
Brother Stephen Power SJ asked if Rio Tinto was losing its political licence in Madagascar considering that the Malagasy government is a shareholder in Rio Tinto. Secondly, Mr Colm Fahy, Advocacy and Campaigns Officer asked why the dam at Rio Tinto was not subject to international dam regulations. This is particularly important because the dam at the mine, which caused this misfortune, is not described as such by Rio Tinto. Thus, it is not accountable to the scrupulous requirements a dam would normally be issue to. This situation might have been avoided if Rio Tinto abided by these but instead escape scrutiny by only claiming ‘excavated storage facility’
Share holder action is one way of holding a major corporation to account. Similarly, the more information that we have as consumers the greater our ability to make informed choices which consider the welfare of all, including our brothers and sisters in countries such as Madagascar and the natural environment.
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