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Madagascar suspends activities at controversial Base Toliara mine

The village of Tsianisiha, west of the proposed mining site. The population is divided about the project. Image by Edward Carver for Mongabay.

  • The Malagasy government suspended activities at the Base Toliara ilmenite mine in southwest Madagascar citing opposition from local communities and unfavourable terms for the people and government.
  • The mine is intended to produce ilmenite, which is considered the most important ore of titanium and used commercially in the production of paint, adhesives and even toothpaste.
  • The company described the government’s decision as “disappointing” and said it will engage in discussions to convince the government of the mine’s benefits.
  • Civil society organizations hailed the decision, noting that it represents the government putting the concerns of the people above the interests of a private company, and expressed hope that it will set a precedent.

This week the Malagasy government indefinitely suspended activities of the Base Toliara mine project, the third-largest mining project in Madagascar. It cited friction between the project and local communities and a “lack of clarity” about its potential benefits for the government and the country as the reason for its decision.

The mine will produce ilmenite, considered the most important ore of titanium and used commercially in the production of paint, adhesives and even toothpaste. Base Toliara is a subsidiary of the Australian mining company Base Resources.

The decision was taken during a council of ministers meeting on Wednesday and a press release from the government described incidences of violence and conflict with host communities as a key reason for the suspension.

The government issued the company a mining license in 2012 and an environmental permit in 2015. Base Resources had planned to commence construction activities this year and production by the second half of 2021.

Discontent among local communities has been brewing over the years but it came to a head this April when a band of forty people allegedly burned and vandalized the mine’s exploration campsite. Nine of them were arrested in May and charged with arson, destruction of property and forming a mob. They were convicted only on the count of unarmed gathering without permission but released in June after their six-month sentences were suspended.

In an emailed response to Mongabay, James Fuller, a Base Resources spokesperson, downplayed the importance of these events and suggested that the company considered the issues driving the opposition to be resolved. “While there were some early community protests, these have dissipated with an extensive communication program better explaining the project and the opportunity it represents,” Fuller said. “The few more recent localised events have represented illegal actions by a small minority that were dealt with by the Malagasy legal system.”

The company termed the government’s decision “disappointing,” in a release.

Civil society groups, however, hailed the decision. “The voices of the communities concerned and of civil society seem to have finally been heard by the authorities,” a statement by a coalition of civil society organizations said. The coalition includes the Centre de Recherches et d’Appui pour les Alternatives de Développement – Océan Indien (CRAAD-OI) and Collectif pour la Défense des Terres Malgaches (TANY).

Children in a coastal village west of Base Resource’s main mining concession. Image by Edward Carver for Mongabay.

The statement from the organizations expressed hope that suspension of the mining project would set a precedent of the government giving primacy to the concerns of the Malagasy people over the interests of private mining companies.

The mine is forecast to produce 600,000 tonnes of ilmenite every year along with 65,000 tonnes of zircon-rich concentrate for an initial period of 20 years. It is “one of the best mineral sands development projects in the world,” according to Base Resource’s website.

Base Toliara also notes on its website that its mining license, issued on March 21, 2012, is valid for 40 years with a 40-year extension. However, the validity of this license is considered suspect since it was granted by a transitional government led by Andry Rajoelina, who rode to power in a coup in 2009. Rajoelina is now the democratically elected president and his government appears to be reconsidering what it said is an agreement “concluded with the previous government.”

Base Resources said in its release that it is seeking consultations with the government that “deepen its [the government’s] understanding of the significant benefits of the project to Madagascar and secure agreement on mutually beneficial fiscal terms.” Fuller explained that fiscal terms include things like the royalty rate and tax rate.

Although its shares took a tumble after the government’s announcement, the company maintained that it would release a Definitive Feasibility Study (DFS), which investors use to decide if a mineral can be extracted economically from a mine, on schedule next month.

Banner Image: The village of Tsianisiha, west of the proposed mining site. The population is divided about the project. Image by Edward Carver for Mongabay.

Malavika Vyawahare is the Madagascar staff writer for Mongabay. Find her on Twitter: @MalavikaVy

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