Madagascar: 'We will never give you our land!'

Issue 

Picture By Anna Weekes

TOLAGNARO, Madagascar — A mining project on the southern coast of Madagascar, the huge island east of the African mainland, has run up against unexpected resistance from local villagers, and could spark angry protests from groups in South Africa if plans go ahead.

 

The world's largest mining company, Rio Tinto Zinc, has moved with renewed vigour to establish a titanium dioxide mine in Madagascar after its subsidiary, Richards Bay Minerals, was blocked from extending mining in the environmentally sensitive St Lucia wetland park in KwaZulu-Natal four years ago. Activists from a broad spectrum of groups collected more than 1 million signatures in support of the demand to have St Lucia declared a World Heritage site.

Rio Tinto subsidiary Qit-Fer Madagascar Minerals (QMM) has set in motion serious steps to mine 40 kilometres of coastal dune land and forest in Tolagnaro. In December, a coalition called Lu Sud was formed to stop the mine. Lu Sud has joined forces with villagers from Petricky, Mandena and St Luce, the three areas most likely to be affected if the project goes ahead.

Allegations of Rio Tinto-caused human rights abuses in Bougainville mean that activists from the coalition are afraid of revealing themselves to the world before a solid campaign has been built locally.

An initial environmental impact assessment for the US$500 million mine produced by a US company — “environmental pornographers” as one Tolagnaro non-government organisation representative dubbed it — made much of the fact that the people were destroying their own land through “slash and burn” practices and therefore mining would not be a problem.

A second assessment has since been commissioned by Madagascar's Office for the Environment, and includes a stringent socioeconomic test to see if the residents of the region would be better off with a mine. The public consultations, which began in October, revealed that the inhabitants of the 19 villages to be affected are deeply hostile towards QMM.

“We will never give you our land”, the Ambovo villagers in the Petricky forest said in a submission. Petricky is home to an ancient burial ground, hidden deep within the 6000-hectare forest which will be razed, that no foreigner has ever been allowed to see. “Petricky existed before the existence of the people, it is sacred land”, the villagers declared.

The villagers rely on the forest for medical supplies: “The forest of Petricky is our mother. If you cut it down we will have nothing.”

Little local employment

Photographs of the Richards Bay mine in South Africa showing gaping red holes in the earth have caused worry in the villages. “We have seen pictures of the dredging machine and you won't be able to recreate Petricky for a long time after that. What wood will we use for the next 47 years?”, asked a villager from Lovarhano.

This resistance is echoed by the inhabitants of Evatra, a small fishing village north of Petricky in the Mandena zone. Evatra has probably the most to lose. Inaccessible by road, set on a river mouth and dotted with scenic islands just a swim away from the shores, the village has inexplicably been designated the site of a large industrial port.

Village leader, “President” Ludovic, is angered by QMM claims that life in the village will continue undisturbed around the workings of the port. “Every morning we stretch our nets across the river mouth to catch the fish we eat”, said Ludovic. “If the port is built, the sea won't be able to get through to the river and we won't be able to fish.”

With a large part of the village living in stilted grass huts all along the river banks and little more than one metre from the river's edge, it is clearly not possible for life to continue without disruption. The village would have to be relocated.

People in this poverty-stricken region, who have little access to the country's main port in Toliara and the capital, Antananarivo, because of extremely poor roads, had hoped that the mine would bring jobs. But it was recently disclosed that all but 350 jobs would be filled by skilled foreign engineers and technicians for the 40-year duration of the project. While 3000 people are required at the start of the project as labourers, these jobs will not necessarily go to local people.

Project director Jean Giroux said it “has been beneficial to bring in foreign workers and isolate them from the local people in some projects. Hiring only Malagasy for the construction work means that the number of jobs for Malagasy will be very high during the construction phase and then much fewer once the operation begins.” He conceded, “It would seem illogical to bring in foreign workers in a country like Madagascar, which so desperately needs employment. We simply do not have an answer yet.”

Activists believe that South African labourers could be shipped over and kept in a specially built compounds away from the town of Tolagnaro for two years of labour-intensive construction work. This rumour has spread like wildfire and xenophobia is growing.

Devan Pillay of South Africa's National Union of Mineworkers said that the NUM would be very concerned if QMM were to ignore joblessness in the area and recruit South Africans.

Health hazard

The concerns of the villagers do not end here. Titanium mining poses a potential health hazard: monazite poisoning. Monazite is a radioactive mineral released during the separation of the “black sand” that titanium is found in.

A QMM official told me that the company planned to spread the monazite in a very thin layer across the mined area. It is not harmful in small quantities, the official claimed.

Local businesspeople, concerned that prospects for the emerging eco-tourism industry will be ruined by the sight of a huge dredging machine on dunes stripped of all vegetation, have joined the campaign against the mine. Tolagnaro is Madagascar's biggest tourist destination, with about 20,000 visitors a year, and the airport has just been upgraded for future direct flights from Reunion Island and South Africa.

Poor communications facilities and meagre resources notwithstanding, everyone is doing their bit. The Evatra community has threatened to stage a sit-in across the river mouth in their small fishing boats if mining goes ahead. Students from the University of Toliara, in conjunction with the World Wildlife Fund, will conduct experiments to examine the impact the dredging will have on the water table, and whether saltwater will seep into Lake Mananivo, which supplies water to Tolagnaro.

[Anna Weekes is media officer for the South African Municipal Workers Union. She visited Madagascar in January. For more information about the campaign e-mail .]