- The Ambatovy mine complex near Madagascar’s eastern city of Toamasina is a massive operation to extract nickel and cobalt from the country’s rich soil.
- The $8 billion complex represents the largest-ever foreign investment in the country.
- Over the years, local residents have suspected the mine of causing environmental and health problems, including air and water pollution.
- Locals now fear that Tropical Cyclone Ava, which hit Toamasina hard in January, may have exacerbated these problems — fears that Ambatovy and local officials assert are unfounded.
TOAMASINA, Madagascar — Last January, when Tropical Cyclone Ava made landfall on Madagascar, wreaking havoc for 24 hours, people here knew they had more than usual to worry about. Ava hit the eastern part of the island hard, and the city of Toamasina was in the path of the storm.
Madagascar’s largest seaport, with a population of 275,000, Toamasina is home to the processing plant and waste lake facility for the Ambatovy mine, which is located in rainforest 200 kilometers (124 miles) outside the city. The massive $8 billion mining operation represents the largest foreign investment in Madagascar ever, designed to extract nickel and cobalt from the country’s rich soil. Over the years, local residents and outside experts have suspected the mine of causing environmental health problems, such as air and water pollution, and increasing the risk of landslides — conditions that a cyclone could only exacerbate.
Except that when Ava finally blew away, leaving a trail of destruction and at least 51 people dead, the public was left with little news about what had happened behind the walls of the mining complex. Two of Ambatovy’s three current owners, Japan-based Sumitomo Corporation and Toronto-based Sherritt International Corporation, issued short statements saying the mine would stop operating for a month for repairs. A couple of international news reports suggested the storm had had a greater impact, and in May, an Ambatovy spokesperson confirmed to Mongabay that Ava had caused “extensive damage to facilities and equipment” and forecast that production would return to normal that month. In a separate communication mine representatives said the storm had not impacted the waste lake facility.
Nevertheless, a lack of locally available information has left the population in distress over the possibility of toxic leaks from the mine’s waste lakes and an open-air stockpile of sulfur Ambatovy uses to produce fertilizer, its main product by volume.
“I can’t find words to denounce the negative effects on public health of the pollution caused by Ambatovy. This factory lets out some unbearable smells and since the last cyclone, we are all scared,” Dada Niry, a local taxi driver, told Mongabay a few weeks after the storm. “We are hearing that the storage of chemicals, such as sulfur, has been affected by the cyclone. The danger becomes more and more alarming.”
In the city still recovering from Ava, a somber mood now prevails. Several residents attributed poor water quality and a litany of health complaints exacerbated since the cyclone to Ambatovy, including a flu outbreak, gastrointestinal problems, eye illnesses, and diarrhea in children.
“Personally, I am experiencing constant headaches,” said Eliane Augustine Fanjara, who lives close to the Ambatovy compound in Toamasina. “The water is more and more unhealthy and it must be boiled, even if we draw it from underground,” she said.
The government has not officially investigated the post-cyclone health allegations, but Lucien Razafindrakoto, a doctor and vice director of the pneumonology department in the University Hospital Center of Analankininina, in Toamasina, denied any link to the mine. “All those illnesses have nothing to do with Ambatovy. We have no scientific and tangible proof justifying that Ambatovy has negatively affected respiratory health since it started its operations,” he told Mongabay.
Local officials were adamant that the storage of sulfur represented no danger, even after Ava, and that Ambatovy and the National Environment Office (ONE) were handling the matter capably. “Ambatovy sulfur doesn’t represent a danger because it is stored as pellets under a plastic cover. Even if those pellets are spread, there is nothing to fear,” said Michel Talata, chief of the Atsinanana region, of which Toamasina is the capital.
The Ambatovy communication team didn’t allow Mongabay to visit its facility for this story, saying “the stockpile remains at an appropriate level, as per our operating requirements.”
Still, for the people of Toamasina, the aftermath of Ava is but the latest uncertainty surrounding the mine since construction began in 2007. At the time, the project, started by a small Canadian mining company called Dynatec (now named DMC Mining Services) with loans from several international development institutions, was expected to offer up to 2,000 jobs annually, according to its environmental and social impact assessment. But the document also warned of the potential for the project to affect water quantity and quality, biodiversity, and the people in the area — warnings that local people interviewed for this story contend have turned out to be prescient.
“I helped the authorities establish the project and I can tell you that Ambatovy has proved to be very disappointing,” said Abel Ramanantsialonina, a prominent resident of the village of Ampitambe, close to the mine site. “The company doesn’t hire local employees and those who did get themselves recruited were fired. Ambatovy has destroyed many things. Erosion has ruined the paddy fields and the forest, the water streams have dried up and the project has a negative impact on our health,” he said.
Environmental and social repercussions
Ambatovy is an enormous and multifarious operation. The open-pit mine lies on about 1,600 hectares (3,950 acres) of former rainforest. The area is home to 127 plant species of concern, 68 of which are endemic to the mining area, according to the project’s 2006 environmental and social impact assessment. Several animal species of concern live there too, including an endangered bird called the slender-billed flufftail (Sarothrura watersi), as well as the critically endangered indri (Indri indri), diademed sifaka (Propithecus diadema) and seven other lemur species. The mine is connected through a partially buried ore-and-water slurry pipeline to the processing plant in Toamasina, 200 kilometers away, and also to a 750-hectare (1,850-acre) facility for storing tailings, a type of mine waste, outside the city. This tailings facility consists of reddish waste lakes and interconnecting dams. A pipeline releases effluent from the lakes into the sea 1.5 kilometers (0.9 miles) off the shore south of Toamasina.
Soon after construction began in 2007, the first alarm bells started to ring. By September 2007, farmers as far as 30 kilometers (19 miles) from Toamasina were noticing that bees were disappearing and their crops were dying, and they suspected that insecticides sprayed around Ambatovy facilities to keep malaria-carrying mosquitos at bay were the cause. Jean-Louis Bérard, a retired French architect who owns 300 hectares (740 acres) in the area, told this team in 2016 that all 350 of his beehives succumbed within three months after the spraying started. For its part, Ambatovy maintains that the bee decline had nothing to do with the mine and was instead caused by a disease.
A second environmental warning came on Feb. 26, 2012, when during trials of the Toamasina plant, a malfunctioning valve leaked sulfur dioxide into the air, sickening50 people, according to local media. MiningWatch, a Canadian NGO, reported that villagers attributed the deaths of two adults and two babies to the leak. Ambatovy acknowledged that some local people had reported “mild eye irritation and some respiratory difficulties” but added that company doctors had found them to be in good health.
Three similar leaks occurred the following month. In August that same year, the tailing waste lake started leaking and repairs were commissioned.
Today, residents complain about a strong smell of acid and corrosion coming from an ammonia-transporting pipeline linking the port and the plant that cuts through residential areas of Toamasina. In January 2017 and April 2018, our team confirmed a strong odor of ammonia and sulfuric acid.
“Ammonia irritates the eyes and makes our throats dry,” Rameliarisoa Bako, who lives in the neighborhood closest to the Ambatovy complex, told this team in 2017. “Children complain of mouth infections; old people complain of eye infections. We think this is because of the substances Ambatovy uses.”
About half of the bees have returned to the area, according to Bérard, but residents are now contending with another change in the local biota. Since 2010, toxic Asian common toads (Duttaphrynus melanostictus) have invaded areas south and west of Toamasina. Scientists have attributed the invasion to Ambatovy, possibly via materials and equipment imported to the processing plant. The invasion is fueling discontent among residents as the toads, which now number over 7 million, are poisonous enough to kill children as well as wildlife. Ambatovy has denied responsibility for the invasion, although it has offered to help eradicate the toads.
However, one of residents’ chief immediate concerns is the fate of the waste facility in the wake of Cyclone Ava, which, like that of the open-air sulfur storage, remains shielded from public scrutiny. In February, a Mongabay reporter could not access the area, which is under armed guard. It was clear that Ambatovy had beefed up security since a visit the previous year.
Ambatovy explained that the security was needed to deter theft, which on several previous occasions had damaged environmental control systems. But it said there was no problem in the waste lake area.“[D]uring Cyclone Ava, approximately 200mm [7.9 inches] of rain fell, which resulted in a rise in the water level, but still well below the capacity of the dam, and certainly nowhere near the level that would result in any cause for concern.”
Unable to access the area, residents remain uneasy that Ava may have sent contamination spilling from the waste lakes. “This is why we can’t say for sure,” said Noizime, a lychee farmer. “We haven’t noticed an overflow but there is a general increase in the water levels. All we can say is that there are leaks in the pipeline which leads to pollution of our water supplies and our fields.”
Several local people told this team they had tried to raise their concerns with authorities, with little to show. “We complained several times in vain. Nobody is listening because we are just peasants,” said Telolahy Marize, a Toamasina resident.
Starting in 2012, Bérard, the French landowner, drafted several complaints about the impact of the mine to one of the projects’ financiers, the Luxembourg-based European Investment Bank (EIB). One of the complaints specifically targeted the tailings facility. Bérard clearly remembers the day in November 2012 that he toured the waste lakes with visiting EIB staff. “Ambatovy had started to stock solid waste two months before,” he recalled. “We couldn’t get through because there had been a leak. There was such a strong smell of sulfuric acid that we almost suffocated.”
In its initial report, the EIB attributed the reddish color of the plant’s waste to the presence of laterite, a clay-like material. But it also said that extreme weather conditions could cause the waste lakes to flood the environment, and that potential leaks in the tailings pipeline could cause further pollution. Ambatovy replied that its installations could resist a “storm of the century” and that existing minor leaks had been repaired.
The EIB’s initial report adopted the main points of an analysis made by a small Colorado-based consultancy called Chlumsky, Armbrust & Meyer (CAM), which was responsible for advising the lenders but paid by Ambatovy — a common practice in financed development projects that is often derided as a conflict of interest. Months later, the EIB hired its own consultancy to help draft a final report. But the publication was delayed for years, and it was only in April that the EIB finally announced that the case was “closed.” The final report was not made public. Sources say the Ambatovy project has resulted in an internal investigation at the EIB.
In Toamasina, Ambatovy continues to spread a feeling of unease. Inhabitants worry about the waste dumped into the sea and suspect that the plant has polluted rivers. And while some residents interviewed for this story were pleased that the mine was bringing economic development to the area, most said they fear consequences for fauna, crops and their own health.
“Before Sherritt arrived, we had drinkable water,” said Mada, an area resident. “But since this dam [to create the waste lake] has been built, we suffer from illnesses and bad drinking water. Every day, we feel sick.”
According to the EIB, water analyses show that indicators of the rivers’ water quality are within norms except for higher than expected manganese levels, but that these do not have a negative impact on human health. Ambatovy spokespeople stress that the company routinely monitors surface water, ground water, seawater and air quality, and that a local grievance mechanism is in place.The monitoring system is “based on international standards and includes measurement of pollutants, sampling methods, as well as meteorological data analysis,” they told Mongabay in March.
CAM, the lenders’ consulting company, visits the mine and files reports on a quarterly basis. The EIB keeps on visiting, too, at least once a year. Members of its staff confirm that sometimes, they, too, hear complaints. But as one of several lenders to the projects, the EIB can’t do much more than remind Ambatovy of its social and environmental commitments. “[W]e had issues raised — environmental and social issues — and we take it up with the management of the company,” Eva Maria Mayerhofer, EIB’s senior environmental specialist, told this team last year.
But there is no independent oversight of the mine’s impact on the environment.
ONE, Madagascar’s environment office, is charged with monitoring the project’s environmental impact. But ONE has run out of money to fulfill these obligations, even though Ambatovy itself is supposed to pay for the monitoring, according to Andry Ravoninjatovo, a director in charge of monitoring pollution at ONE,
“Ambatovy paid for all the fees of our monitoring missions before the mine contract was signed and before the environmental license was granted. But now, these funds are exhausted and we have to ask Ambatovy for more funds to be able to work,” Ravoninjatovo, said, adding that the government and the mining company plan to negotiate a new arrangement soon.
Ambatovy’s website mentions that the company itself submits a yearly report to ONE.
“No net loss but preferably a net gain in biodiversity”
Ambatovy has committed to restoring the rainforest cleared for the mine. It also funds conservation and development projects to offset its impact on biodiversity, with a commitment “to supporting forest conservation equal to nine times the mine area that it is operating,” according to its website, and an overarching obligation to create “no net loss but preferably a net gain in biodiversity.”
Pete Lowry, a botanist with the Missouri Botanical Garden, who has worked in Madagascar for decades, said Ambatovy is “devoting a lot of effort toward achieving” the ambitious no net loss goal. “I think that if they’re not on the path they’re certainly trending toward that path,” he said.
In 2009, Lowry helped establish, and now chairs, the mine’s consultative committee on biodiversity. The committee is composed of 14 scientists and conservationists who advise the mine pro bono on how best to achieve its conservation goals. It’s largely focused on the mine site itself, which, located where a pristine rainforest once stood, has the heaviest biodiversity footprint of the operation’s components, according to Lowry. The pipeline, the processing plant, and the waste lakes were set up almost entirely in landscapes already disturbed by people.
Lowry described a number of measures taken by Ambatovy to accommodate concerns about its impact on the local flora and fauna, such as excluding some “significant areas” from the original mine footprint to safeguard certain species and plant communities. To offset some of the inevitable damage, it also helped create a protected area in the Ankerana forest massif, 70 kilometers (43 miles) northeast of the mine site, providing the NGO Conservation International with $1.5 million to manage the site over five years ending in 2020.
The mine’s attention and commitment to minding its ecological footprint has varied over time with changes in leadership, according to Lowry. But he said that recently, with input from the committee and a “highly qualified” outside consultant, Ambatovy set up a rigorous experimental approach to ecological restoration of the rainforest once mining is complete. “It’s a huge challenge for a project like this. It’s not going to be simple. It’s going to be expensive. It’s going to be logistically difficult,” he said. “It remains something that we’re going to need to be vigilant on, but that, which was a serious concern a few years ago, is now a serious concern that is receiving the level of attention and resources that it needs.”
Voahirana Randriamamonjy agrees that Ambatovy has generally done a good job making up for its impact on the rainforest. Randriamamonjy works for the local conservation association Madagasikara Voakajy as project leader within the Mangabe Protected Area near the mine site.
“The quality of the mine’s conservation and mitigation activities is high,” she told Mongabay. “These include activities such as directional and paced forest clearance to optimize the natural dispersal of terrestrial fauna, biological surveys, salvaging activities focused on fauna, and [a] restoration program.”
But the mine, she said, has also caused some problems, including sedimentation of rice fields during rainy seasons and dissatisfaction among local people about development activities intended as compensation for conservation-related restrictions. (Madagasikara Voakajy has no current ties with Ambatovy but has conducted research and contract work to conserve two threatened frog species on the mine’s behalf.)
Both Lowry and Randriamamonjy said they were unfamiliar with community concerns over possible pollution from the waste lakes and processing plant in Toamasina, especially post-Ava. “We don’t have a hydrologist, we don’t have a chemist, or a chemical geologist as part of our group, and so the kinds of issues that are associated with an operational plant really sit outside the scope of any of the expertise we have on the [consultative] committee,” Lowry said. “And it wasn’t part of the original remit of the committee either.”
An ambiguous relationship
Ambatovy’s support for the Ankerana protected area as well as an array of social and economic activities in the region is a fitting symbol of its ambiguous relationship with Madagascar. In 2016, the mining complex contributed $246.5 million to Madagascar’s economy via taxes, employment, and local purchases, according to a company newsletter [pdf]. In a country with a gross domestic product of just $10.5 billion, where nearly 80 percent of the population lives on less than $2 per day and only 13 percent have access to electricity, economic activity like that carries serious weight.
Local government officials paint a rosy picture of the mine’s contribution to the country.
“Deforestation and soil erosion are unavoidable but this is part of the risks we took. Still Ambatovy is a company that is responsible and environmentally conscious. It is a faithful partner and invests a lot in rebuilding the sites of its mining activities,” Talata, the Atsinanana region chief, told this team.
Christian Pierre Ratsimbazafy, director of the environment ministry’s Atsinanana branch, referred to “rumors” about the mine’s supposed health and environmental effects among the local population. “Complaining and accusing someone is very easy but we also have duties. Talking about Ava: the whole world saw the state of our city, with piles of rubbish littering the street. Ambatovy is not responsible for all the dirt polluting our waters. Development starts at an individual level and respecting the environment is everybody’s responsibility,” he said.
What comes next is difficult to predict. In 2015, a drop in nickel prices caused Ambatovy to suffer massive financial losses. Around that time, the mining complex faced a blockage in the tailings pipeline and some “plant equipment reliability issues,” as Sherritt put it. Ambatovy posted sluggish financial results for 2016. That may have been an incentive for Sherritt to try to reduce its exposure to the project, especially after the summer of 2016 when Ambatovy found itself short of cash and started negotiating a debt reschedule.
Last November, after three years of talks, partners and lenders came to an agreement. Sherritt will continue to operate Ambatovy until 2024, but reduced its stake in the project from 40 percent to 12 percent, in exchange for the elimination of over $1 billion of debt owed to its partners, Sumitomo and Korea Resources Corporation. The decision is hardly a demonstration of confidence in the project’s future. Meanwhile, Sumitomo’s exposure to Ambatovy is now close to $2 billion.
Should Ambatovy fail, the future of the site and its environmental mitigation would be very much in doubt.
Banner image: A critically endangered diademed sifaka (Propithecus diadema), one of nine lemur species that live in the rainforest where the Ambatovy mine was established. Image by Rhett A. Butler.
Editor’s note: Reporting for this story was initially conducted as part of a broader investigation of the European Investment Bank’s activities in Africa that was published in June. You can read the full investigation, parts of which appeared in other news outlets, at https://www.eibinafrica.eu. The team recently expanded and updated their reporting for Mongabay.