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Nickel mine in Madagascar may threaten lemurs, undermine conservation efforts

Sherritt’s response [added Jan 26, 20009]

One of the world’s largest nickel mines will have adverse impacts on a threatened and biologically-rich forest in Madagascar, say conservationists.

The $3.8 billion mining project, operated by Canada’s Sherritt, will tear up 1,300 to 1,700 hectares of primary rainforest that houses nearly 1,400 species of flowering plants, 14 species of lemurs, and more than 100 types of frogs. Many of the species are endemic to the forest.

While Sherritt says on its web site that is working to minimize its environmental impact, including moving endangered wildlife, replanting trees, and establishing buffer zones near protected areas, conservationists say that efforts are falling short.

“Ambatovy forest is among the most biodiverse forests in Madagascar,” Rainer Dolch, head of the local environmental NGO Mitsinjo, told “Sherritt claimed to avoid areas of rainforest or already projected for rainforest restoration during pipeline construction. They also claimed not to build the pipeline during the rainy season to avoid erosion. Regrettably, these claims are not reflected by what is currently happening”.

Access road near Mantadia, Madagascar. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Dolch, who is working to get Sherritt collaborating in order to better minimize environmental impact, states that “there are some recent encouraging moves that existing environmental management plans developed by the mining company are being integrated into the larger vision of a conservation strategy for the region.”

Still, the pristine forest on the mine site has already largely been cleared. The pipeline is currently being built and the trajectory for it bulldozed. The mining company has subcontracted several other companies who in turn have subcontractors. This structuring obscures responsibilities and bears the risk of environmental commitments agreed upon not being respected by subcontractors.

Sherritt’s activities – which include the clearing of a 25-meter-wide path for 220 kilometers to support a pipeline that will carry mining sluice to the port of Tamatave – lie close to Mantadia National park, a 15,000-hectare reserve that is adjacent to Analamazaotra Special Reserve (better known as Perinet), Madagascar’s most popular ecotourist destination. The protected area is famous for supporting the endangered indri, a species that sings like a whale and is the largest lemur on the island.

“This is the heart of the primary forest, very close to the future protected area decreed by the government,” Leon Rajaobelina, vice-chairman of Conservation International – Madagascar, told Lucie Peytermann for an AFP story published in October.

The forest – and neighboring wetlands – is home to a wide array of flora and fauna, including the world’s rarest lemur, the Greater Bamboo Lemur (Prolemur simus), which is down to around 110 individuals in the wild and has a highly specialized diet of giant bamboo, limiting its range.

To reduce losses of charismatic species, Sherritt hired wildlife experts from Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha to translocate about 40 lemurs from the mining forest to Perinet. But sources claim the measures are at best a public relations stunt, given that many other lemurs will be adversely affected by the project.

“Translocation of lemurs happened, but only Diademed Sifaka P. diadema were moved to Analamazaotra Special Reserve which was void of this species before,” said Dolch. “Apart from that there does not seem to be any suitable habitat for translocations,” he continued, “since the areas where the lemurs could be translocated to, are already occupied by high densities of the particular species, so translocation will only lead to intraspecific competition rather than contribute to the conservation of the species.”

Sherritt installed ‘lemur bridges’ to facilitate movements of certain species across the pipeline, but sources say that no scientific data exist on whether lemurs will actually use them. Critics claim that measures taken should “focus on attenuation of environmental impact rather than just pretending to attenuate.”

Beyond the loss of wildlife, there are fears that sedimentation from mine tailings and erosion from the clearing of vegetation will affect fishing. Already there are indications that some locals may be turning toward other sources of protein – there are reports of villagers trying to sell lemurs to mine workers.

Clearing by Sherritt may also undermine efforts to protect other forest areas by calling into question among locals the government’s commitment to conservation. Poor farmers in the Ambatovy area have been prohibited from practicing tavy, their traditional form of slash-and-burn agriculture, by official bans on forest clearing. Since Sherritt’s forest felling commenced, tavy has increased again, suggesting that locals are weary of what they perceive as a double standard. Dolch says that the overall opinion of locals on the mine are at best mixed.

“Local sentiments are ambivalent. People surely are happy about the prospects of being employed. However, most of the employment is short-term (only during construction but not operation of the mine). Local people are rarely skilled so that very few will have the chance to work for the mine in the end. People are not happy about being displaced by pipeline construction, but they appreciate the homes that Sherritt has built for them as compensation. People would love to use the pipeline trajectory as a regular road to transport goods on, but Sherritt has not said whether it will allow that. People are definitely not happy about environmental impacts of the mine, most importantly silting of streams and rice fields, as well as social ones, including rising food prices due to inflation and pregnancies among teenage girls by miner workers. At least local people benefit from the mine in terms of being able to sell their produce to the mine workers.”

Conservationists worry that the long-term impact of the mine with be difficult to gauge because “there is no independent oversight of the project. There is no independent institution that will follow up on Sherritt’s activities with respect to what was stated in the environmental impact assessment and the cahier de charges.”

The Malagasy government has pushed an aggressive national conservation program in recent years but as a poor country is compelled to balance environmental regulation with development. As such when a project like Ambatovy – which could start to generate revenue for the government after a five year tax holiday on profits – emerges, ministers are conflicted by opposing objectives.

In the Madagascar Action Plan, intensive development of the mining sector is cited as an important goal within Commitment No. 6 (Economic Growth). Commitment No. 7 is Care for the Environment. The two major goals of that commitment are (1) to increase protected areas and (2) reduce natural resource degradation. Conservationists feel that these contradictions should be more openly addressed, also and especially by the big conservation organizations operating in Madagascar.

One example is the recent discovery of a population of the critically endangered Greater Bamboo Lemur in the Torotorofotsy wetlands adjacent to the Ambatovy mine by Dolch’s organization.

“We were lucky enough to make the exciting discovery of the Greater Bamboo Lemur in the Larger Torotorofotsy Ecosystem in 2004 and 2007. These animals account for more than 25% of the world population of this rarest of all lemurs,” Dolch said. “Unfortunately, Madagascar Government officials appear not to share the excitement of this discovery with the international conservation community. The excitement is clearly about the Ambatovy Project, becoming one of the biggest nickel and cobalt mines worldwide.”

It could also be one of the most profitable. According to Sherritt’s web site, “favorable geological characteristics place Ambatovy amongst the lowest cost producers worldwide”. Thus the low mineral prices that have lately forced firms to scale back or shelve projects around the world are unlikely to deter mining at Ambatovy. The project is fully financed by a group of international shareholders (Sherritt International Corp., Sumitomo Corp., Korea Resources Corp and SNC-Lavalin) and banks (Japanese Bank for International Cooperation, Korea-Exim, Export Development Canada and a number of European commercial banks).

Sources say that these banks and institutions should take a closer look at the realities of Sherritt’s operations on the ground, “since they obviously want their principles concerning environmental and social standards met by the mining companies they support.”

Whether Sherritt or its shareholders will re-evaluate the impact of its operations remains to be seen. The Malagasy government – eyeing future foreign investment in the mining sector – seems unlikely to force the issue with the company, but pressure from environmentalists could force Sherritt to take greater care in its operations. Campaigns by green groups in other parts of the world against mining companies have in some cases done just that – turning some firms into relative stewards of wildlife and the environment.

Sherritt’s response

Following publication of this article, Sherritt sent the following response.

The Ambatovy Project has recently published two articles with additional information about its environmental practices and social-development initiatives. These articles were written by Ambatovy representatives to explain their efforts and provide their perspective on these two matters. Here are the appropriate links:

The Ambatovy Project also invites interested readers to learn more at

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