Bauxite Boom

Guinea’s bauxite industry kicked into high gear after 2016, when major producers Malaysia and Indonesia banned exports after the associated pollution made rivers run red and caked villages in dust. The Guinean government welcomed international firms looking for new sources, and authorized the expansion of CBG, an existing joint venture between the state, Pittsburgh-based Alcoa, and Anglo-Australian firm Rio Tinto.

CBG’s supply chain provides aluminum for car parts and the aviation industry, including Boeing. Newcomer GAC, the other firm funding the Moyen-Bafing National Park, feeds the aluminum industry in the United Arab Emirates as a wholly owned subsidiary of Emirates Global Aluminium. Both companies declined to comment for this article.

In Boké prefecture, the heart of Guinea’s bauxite boom, local officials say ecosystems once home to several rare species have been devastated, while communities have seen little benefit. “Today there are seven to eight companies here exploiting bauxite,” says Mamadou Diallo, vice mayor of Boké town. “They are destroying the environment, whether that’s the forest, the earth, the waterways or wild animals.”

Vice-mayor of Boké Mamadou Diallo describes the bauxite boom as an environmental disaster for his community. Image by Jennifer O’Mahony for Mongabay.

Guinea’s mining code requires that companies set aside 0.5 percent of revenue for local development. Diallo says these funds, which are supposed to be distributed by the central government, have not reached Boké, though a representative from the Mines Ministry disputed this.

Additionally, the law requires communities to grant consent before forests and land can be cleared for bauxite mining. But Diallo says the process was poorly explained to villagers, who feared the state’s reaction if they refused. “They profit from the poverty and precarious living situation of the people,” he says. “Someone who comes along with a contract for 200 million or 400 million Guinean francs [$21,900 to $43,800] for damages, to someone who has never had more than 50,000 francs [$5.50] in their life, they think that’s real money,” he says.

The price of defying the state can be high. In 2015, a community in northeastern Guinea that refused to leave its land to make way for a gold mine was forcibly relocated by the berets rouges, an elite state security force. The agents threw tear gas into homes and shot villagers, before setting several huts on fire.

While state-backed CBG has mined bauxite in Guinea since the 1970s, in the three and a half years since Malaysia and Indonesia halted exports, demand from China has catapulted rival Société Minière de Boké (SMB) into become Boké town’s biggest employer.

Operating as the SMB-Winning Consortium, the company is a joint venture of the Guinean government, Singapore’s Winning Shipping Ltd., Franco-Guinean logistics firm UMS, and Chinese aluminum producer Shandong Weiqiao. “There is a new appetite [from China], and a new logistics model to allow Guinea to [go from] seventh place to third place in the world’s largest producers,” says Frédéric Bouzigues, SMB’s general manager. Boke’s population has doubled to up to 120,000 people in the last three years, according to SMB figures. “This environment has changed. The impact of all of us, including the population, also needs to be measured in terms of environment,” Bouzigues says.

Human Rights Watch has accused SMB’s trucks of spreading red dust that kills off agriculture and coats trees and villages in dust, though the company has since implemented a watering system on roads to curb this. Bouzigues says mining has expanded so quickly in Boké that the environmental impacts are constantly shifting, requiring updated studies every couple of years. He says SMB promoted a chimpanzee center and conducted regular training for employees on how to limit damage to their habitat on mining sites, though the company has yet to back the Moyen-Bafing project.

Deforestation and noise from dynamiting are inevitable processes in bauxite mining, however, and have driven chimpanzees from the small pockets of land where they were still living in Boké prefecture.

No one really knows the exact numbers of endangered species present on mining sites, frustrating local environmentalists. “What we don’t have today is follow-up from the environment ministry to calculate how many chimpanzees there were when mining activities began and how many there are now,” says Amadou Bah, executive director of Guinean campaign group Action Mines. Bah says government inaction has failed Guinea’s chimpanzees, but also calls on mining companies to account for their own role in the problem. “The mining companies must compile an inventory of the species in the concessions, including chimpanzees,” he says. “These animals help plant life to regenerate and contribute significantly to the protection of the environment.

“The clients of mining companies in Guinea should be concerned about this,” Bah adds. “I don’t have a lot of faith in the Chinese clients who are the biggest buyers of Guinean bauxite, but CBG sells to the United States, Spain and Germany, Ukraine and France.”

Western Chimpanzees at Tacugama Chimp Sanctuary in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Photo by BigMikeSndTech, licensed under CC by 2.0
Western Chimpanzees, pictured here at the Tacugama Chimp Sanctuary in  Sierra Leone, have suffered a massive decline in population since the 1990s. Photo by BigMikeSndTech via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Park and dam

When mining firms CBG and GAC agreed to fund Moyen-Bafing National Park, the WCF’s president, Christophe Boesch, celebrated the “important move by the Government of Guinea” that would “signal the start of specific measures to sustainably protect the environment in the region for the good of the chimpanzees.”

Buried at the end of a WCF assessment of the park, however, was the mention of the Koukoutamba hydroelectric dam, a project that will provide three-quarters of its energy to neighboring countries through the Senegal River Basin Development Organization (OMVS in its French acronym), a regional body that aims to maximize use of the Senegal River for all the countries along its length: Guinea, Mali, Mauritania and Senegal.

The planned 294-megawatt dam is located right in the center of Moyen-Bafing, and flooding and other impacts could kill as many as 1,500 chimpanzees, according to the WCF, which put the park’s total chimpanzee population at between 3,533 and 5,393 individuals.

A previous OMVS project on the Senegal River, the Manantali dam in Mali, had “myriad negative environmental and social impacts” following its completion in 1988, according to a separate WCF report. These included permanent damage to agriculture, fishing and public health, which were “underestimated by the OMVS at the time.”

Another 1,300 of Moyen-Bafing’s chimps are threatened by a mine owned by the Iranian state-backed Société de Bauxite Dabola-Tougué (SBDT) in the southern section of the sanctuary. In 2015, SBDT renewed a 25-year contract with the Guinean government to reactivate the long moribund project, which has still yet to begin in earnest.

Villagers walk miles to access their strip of remaining farmland in an area bought up by Emirati company Guinea Alumina Corporation (GAC). Image by Jennifer O’Mahony for Mongabay.

The dam will be built by Sinohydro, a Chinese state-owned company that has left behind a string of problematic barrage projects in Asia and Africa. The firm was once blacklisted by the African Development Bank for fraudulent practices relating to a tender process in Uganda, and is currently facing criticism for its involvement in a hydropower project in Indonesia that threatens the only known habitat of another great ape, the critically endangered Tapanuli orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis).

Guinean President Condé congratulated Sinohydro at the signing of a memorandum of understanding for the Koukoutamba dam project in February, urging it to begin work immediately.

After funding studies into hydropower in Guinea, the World Bank decided not to back the dam due to risks to endangered species and the potential resettlement of 8,700 people. “The World Bank is not financing and never planned to finance the proposed Koukoutamba dam nor does it provide finance for hydropower dam construction in Guinea generally,” a spokesperson told Mongabay.

Tejan-Cole of Mighty Earth visited the Koukoutamba area earlier this year and says he’s determined to stop the dam project moving ahead in its current form. “We’re saying: ‘look at other alternatives, look at solar, look at other ways that are environmentally friendly,’” he says. “If you have to build a dam, build a much smaller dam that will not cause so much damage to the environment.” His organization is pressuring the Chinese government, which will host the U.N. Biodiversity Conference in 2020 and has committed to improving its environmental record.

“I cannot see any way a dam of this magnitude is not going to have any impact on the park and on the environment and on the chimps. I think it’s going to have a really devastating impact,” he says.

Guinea’s creditors are well aware of the risks. When awarding a $25 million loan to the government to boost the power sector in 2018, the World Bank rated Guinea’s politics and governance as “high risk” and said the environmental impacts of its plans carried “substantial risk.” Funding for the Koukoutamba dam will come primarily from state-owned China Exim Bank, which has struggled to raise the $812 million the project requires.

“That’s our only hope, that they won’t raise the funds because we know this dam will not be profitable. It doesn’t make financial sense,” one source living in Guinea who has worked closely on the dam project told Mongabay under condition of anonymity.

Whether from external pressure on China or the other West African countries involved in the dam project, or a collapse in financing, primatologists are holding out for an intervention from outside Guinea, as President Condé is believed to be beyond persuasion.

Most Guineans still live in rural poverty and rely on their animals and crops to survive. Image by Jennifer O’Mahony for Mongabay.

Jennifer O’Mahony is a freelance journalist working across West Africa. Her Twitter handle is @jaomahony.

Banner image: A train built by Compagnie des bauxites de Guinée (CBG) transports mined bauxite to a port for export. Image by Jennifer O’Mahony for Mongabay.

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Article published by Isabel Esterman
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