For instance, after QMM breached an environmental buffer zone, extending as much as 167m beyond its permitted limits and placing mine tailings onto the bed of Lake Besaroy, the corporate insisted that QMM was compliant.
Two years of inquiry later, when finally forced to admit QMM’s breach, Rio Tinto assured shareholders that based on the Malagasy government the breach was of “no significant concern” and impact “negligible”.
Nevertheless, neither the corporate nor the federal government could provide a single technical study to support this evaluation. Finally, the corporate admitted it was not aware of any such report.
The poor reporting is very problematic because QMM has a fiscal relationship with the environmental regulator, to whom it pays a minimum of $40,000 dollars per 12 months to observe the mine’s performance.
As a joint owner within the mine, the Malagasy government is conflicted. This 12 months Rio Tinto has pledged thousands and thousands of dollars to the federal government upfront dividend as a part of QMM’s recently signed, latest lease agreement.
It’s an election 12 months and the governing party is badly in need of excellent news stories and campaign funds.
In addition to exonerating operational actions that break Malagasy laws – akin to QMM’s unauthorised buffer breach, the federal government provides a useful firewall for the corporate.
QMM steadily claims it cannot share technical reports unless the federal government regulator agrees, and insists that requests for QMM reports be made on to the regulator.
The National Office for the Environment (ONE), and the national water agency, ANDEA, rarely publish or create ready access to their reports on QMM.
One example is reports for the fish deaths following the 2022 tailings dam failures. ANDEA didn’t release the studies. Nevertheless, they were accessed by civil society and analysed by radioactivity expert Dr Swanson.
Swanson concluded the study and the report were inadequate, as “there have been insufficient data to support definitive statements regarding risk to fish or to humans.”
Throughout 2022, and on the 2023 AGM, Rio Tinto cited these studies to claim that the QMM mine was not answerable for fish deaths.
The irony will not be missed that, while distancing itself from the fish deaths on the one hand, QMM was rapidly installing a $13m treatment plant to handle essentially the most likely reason for the fish deaths: acid mine drainage from high aluminium and low pH, as present in QMM’s mine basin water.
Questions on how QMM will take care of the toxic waste from this latest treatment plant, and the way they are going to address other heavy metals within the mine basin waters, e.g., uranium and lead, remain unanswered.
In point of fact the corporate has didn’t answer dozens of technical questions since 2017, and native people have endured twenty years of poor communications from QMM.
At a gathering with Malagasy civil society representatives in 2022, Rio Tinto’s CEO conceded that QMM’s community social performance (CSP) had failed.
Last 12 months’s fish deaths alone caused months of hardship and conflict, which remains to be unresolved.
The compensation process to over 5,000 villagers that followed a conflict resolution process last May was reportedly marred by human rights violations and inadequate payments.
In April Rio Tinto declined requests to permit an independent audit of QMM’s compensation process to handle the violations. An audit could have resolved issues and helped prevent the present unrest.
Conflict broke out again this June when greater than 15,000 villagers signed a petition asking the mine to be stopped while water and compensation issues, amongst other problems, might be resolved.
QMM’s lack of uptake to requests for direct dialogue from the local association involved led to street protests. Dispersed by armed militia, 120 villagers were arrested and 87 imprisoned, including women.
The state prosecuted the protestors and issued arrest warrants for his or her leaders. Charged with ‘undermining state security’, they risk five years imprisonment. It’s the fourth conflict in lower than two years.
Rio Tinto blames the villagers for the clashes with security forces and has distanced itself from the arrests. Nevertheless, within the QMM three way partnership between Rio Tinto and the Malagasy Government, partners are jointly and severally chargeable for one another’s acts.
While the corporate faces no penalties for its actions, villagers face imprisonment and legal motion for theirs – especially after they contest the consequence of QMM’s grievance process. A process the parent company already admits doesn’t meet international standards.
The corporate’s resistance to allowing independent auditors to the location is palpable. The ACCR has said that QMM’s refusal to just accept an independent audit is reason enough to conduct one, and the corporate risks compromising its social licence.
Trying to the longer term, it’s in everyone’s interests to make sure independent audits of QMM now.
The Ecologist has asked Rio Tinto for comment but as yet has not received a reply.
Yvonne Orengo is an independent communications consultant and director of the Andrew Lees Trust (ALT UK) a British charity arrange 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 concerning 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 nearly thirty years.